Shared Roads for Fellow-Travelers

Near the beginning of Lauren Winner’s newest book, there’s this passage:

What do I know about friendship from close to four decades of being, or trying to be, a friend?

I know that friendship both requires and breeds honesty—perhaps foremost honesty with myself. When I am lying to myself (as I have been known to do, usually about something important—otherwise why bother?), I am not available for friendship.

I know that friendship is rich and delightful. I know that I could live anywhere if I had two or three real friends.

I know that friendship is often supported by institutions and the structures they provide. A few years ago, the rector of the church where I served as a priest associate left for another job. The moment she announced she was leaving, I began to dread the ways our friendship would suffer—and it has. It hasn’t disappeared, but now it is entirely dependent on our free time and our admittedly plentiful affection for each other. We manage to meet for a cocktail about every four months, which is better than nothing but a lot more fragile than when we not only adored each other but also shared common work and common concern for a parish. Likewise, I do not look forward to the day I stop teaching at the women’s prison with my friend Sarah. I have buckets of affection for her, too, but it is a relief that we have something to talk about other than current events and our petty domestic squabbles; we also plan syllabi together, and think together about what our students need from us, and argue about which books to assign. Friendship benefits from the support of institutions: classes taught together, church bazaars planned together.

That third point especially stands out to me. You might think of it as an illustrative riff on C. S. Lewis’ opinion: “Friendship must be about something, even if it were only an enthusiasm for dominoes or white mice…. [T]hose who are going nowhere can have no fellow-travellers” (italics added). Friendships are propped up, energized, and sustained by shared inquiries, tasks, projects, and investments. Friendships thrive on “institutions.”

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Thomas Aquinas: Is the Fellowship of Friends Necessary for Happiness?

From Summa Theologiae, Ia-IIae, question 4, article 8:

School of Athens

Objection 1. It would seem that friends are necessary for Happiness. For future Happiness is frequently designated by Scripture under the name of “glory.” But glory consists in man’s good being brought to the notice of many. Therefore the fellowship of friends is necessary for Happiness.

Objection 2. Further, Boethius [Seneca, Ep. 6] says that “there is no delight in possessing any good whatever, without someone to share it with us.” But delight is necessary for Happiness. Therefore fellowship of friends is also necessary.

Objection 3. Further, charity is perfected in Happiness. But charity includes the love of God and of our neighbor. Therefore it seems that fellowship of friends is necessary for Happiness.

On the contrary, It is written (Wisdom 7:11): “All good things came to me together with her,” i.e. with divine wisdom, which consists in contemplating God. Consequently nothing else is necessary for Happiness.

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The Luxury of Division

First: Julie Rodgers (who apparently isn’t dead, despite the funerary tone of many articles) is a dear friend who has endured far more gross scrutiny with far more grace than most people would be capable of. Her urgent passion to serve those who have been marginalized by society has made the world a better place, and I am sure that wherever she decides to minister next she will witness to God’s love through deep friendships, hospitable spaces, and simple human kindness.[1]

Second: A few years ago I was visiting a small Palestinian town that had lost much of its surrounding land to illegal settlements and was facing restricted access to its ancestral olive groves. After a Catholic mass in the morning we all (local Catholics included) attended a lunch hosted by the evangelical church before being shown around the village by the Greek Orthodox priest. I couldn’t help but marvel at the familial closeness displayed between those from various church traditions as they worked together to welcome this obtrusive group of college students into their threatened home. It was more than mere cooperation; it was genuine friendship.

While chatting with one of the hosts I mentioned how struck I was by the ecumenical character of the village and the solid relationships between the different Christians. He tilted his head. “Our land is being stolen, people are leaving, the olive groves are being terrorized, and we are at risk of forgetting who we are. Unlike some places in the world, we do not have the luxury or the time to be divided.”

In 21st century American churches, however, division seems to be almost all we have time for.

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The Pastoral Promise of “Vowed” Friendships

Sam Allberry, a Christian minister and someone who has been open about his own same-sex attraction, has written a review of my Spiritual Friendship book, and this week I’ve been posting some responses to it (see the first one here and the second one here). I’m grateful to Sam for his engagement of what I’ve written. And because his reaction to my book is one that I’ve encountered before, I thought it would be worth talking about. So here, again, is Sam’s basic worry about my book:

… it seems to me that resurrecting “vowed” friendships will only add to the current confusion about friendship. It’s hard to imagine such friendships not being confused with sexual partnerships. We also need to be mindful of the potential danger, particularly for two friends with same-sex attraction, of fostering unhealthy intimacy and of emotional over-dependency…

This line of criticism is something we at SF tend to hear a lot, and I hope a lot of us here decide to write more about it in the near future. Francesca Aran Murphy voiced a similar worry about Eve Tushnet’s book Gay and Catholic: “It just seems to me that there’s something inherently erotic about ‘vows,’ so that ‘vowed friendship’ [as Tushnet calls it] is friendship perpetually on the verge of turning into erotic friendship.”

In a previous post I already gave some indication of how I’d respond to this: Basically, the fact that close, promise-bound friendships can be problematically “eroticized” doesn’t mean must be. The fact that something can become distorted doesn’t automatically mean the thing itself is bad. (For the positive case—that vowed friendships are, or can be, good, I’d say go read Eve’s book!)

Now for today here’s one other thought. Sam’s criticism seems to assume we’re talking about two gay Christian people who are contemplating entering a vowed friendship. But what about those who are already in such relationships?

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Waiting for a New—Doubtless Very Different—St. Aelred

An icon of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, an example of a pair of same-sex friends venerated in the church. My friend Becca Chapman wrote this for me, and it hangs on my wall as encouragement.

An icon of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, an example of a pair of same-sex friends venerated in the church. My friend Becca Chapman wrote this for me, and it hangs on my wall as encouragement.

In my last post I tried to respond to some of Sam Allberry’s criticisms of my Spiritual Friendship book. Today I’d like to keep going with that response. Here’s Sam again:

… it seems to me that resurrecting “vowed” friendships will only add to the current confusion about friendship. It’s hard to imagine such friendships not being confused with sexual partnerships. We also need to be mindful of the potential danger, particularly for two friends with same-sex attraction, of fostering unhealthy intimacy and of emotional over-dependency…

I think there is also a significant category confusion. Making a close friendship covenantal takes it from a familial setting to something more approximate to a marital one. But whereas marriage is necessarily (at least in Christian thinking) limited exclusively only to one, close friendship is not. We have the capacity for—and it may be healthier to cultivate—close friendship with a small number. This is not the case with marriage. A covenant may not be the best vehicle for the commitment we need, and yet are so often lacking, in friendships today.

I’ll have one more post about all this tomorrow, in which I’ll try to say something about why I think “vowed” friendships between two people of the same sex may become more pastorally important in the coming years. But for now let me just make one point.

Where Sam (I think!) reads me as an advocate for reviving “vowed” friendships—for getting the practice of two same-sex friends making a public commitment to each other back on the table in the contemporary church—I see myself more as an advocate for reimagining such friendships.

In other words, I tend to think (and who knows if I’m right) that a minority of us gay Christians who are seeking to live chastely in accord with Scriptural teaching will find ourselves in a two-person “vowed” friendship. And yet, at the same time, I want all of us to take courage and hope from the rich, varied, surprising, and exciting history of such friendships in past eras of Christian history.

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Can Vows Change Friendships? And Should They?

Sam Allberry (whose own story of being a Christian and coming to terms with his same-sex attraction you can watch here) has written a sharp, charitable take on my new book Spiritual Friendship, and I’m grateful to him for it. While I don’t want to turn this blog into a platform for promoting my books, I do think, in this particular case, reflecting on what Sam says may help all of us grapple more deeply with what we’re trying to accomplish on this blog.

Sam says a lot of kind things about the book, but here is his primary substantive criticism:

[Hill] exhorts us to reconsider the place of covenanted friendships in the life of the church. No one can deny what earlier Christian generations can teach us about friendship. Nor can we deny that a lack of commitment drives so much of our contemporary loneliness. But it seems to me that resurrecting “vowed” friendships will only add to the current confusion about friendship. It’s hard to imagine such friendships not being confused with sexual partnerships. We also need to be mindful of the potential danger, particularly for two friends with same-sex attraction, of fostering unhealthy intimacy and of emotional over-dependency. One of the heartbreaking episodes recounted in chapter five suggests at least something of this. Hill anticipates these concerns but does not allay them for me.

I think there is also a significant category confusion. Making a close friendship covenantal takes it from a familial setting to something more approximate to a marital one. But whereas marriage is necessarily (at least in Christian thinking) limited exclusively only to one, close friendship is not. We have the capacity for—and it may be healthier to cultivate—close friendship with a small number. This is not the case with marriage. A covenant may not be the best vehicle for the commitment we need, and yet are so often lacking, in friendships today.

I have three main thoughts in response to this line of criticism. I’ll post the first one today and the second and third ones later in the week.

The first is simply that Sam and I may have a genuine disagreement here! I share all of Sam’s concerns about the dangers that might arise in a “covenanted” same-sex friendship, including co-dependency, sexual temptation, and others. But I have become more and more convinced that abusus non tollit usum (“the abuse of a thing does not negate its proper use”). Is it an adequate argument against committed, promise-bound friendships to note that they may go badly wrong? I’m not yet persuaded that it is.

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Aelred in Modern Dress

Here’s something I wish I’d seen when I was doing research for my friendship book—a wonderfully pastoral essay by scholar Timothy Lim Teck Ngern on how to live out Aelred’s vision of spiritual friendship in contemporary Western cultures.

Consider this very human paragraph:

Why does friendship hurt? Life is messy, and sometimes, even with preventive measures (such as setting good boundaries and demonstrating mutual reverence), heartaches still knock at our doors. The reciprocity of love as the fountain and source of friendship would imply that if a friendship hurts, it is often due to differing degrees of reciprocity between friends. It is like the case of Jerome’s disappointment with Heliodorus or William of St. Therry’s question to Bernard of Clairvaux that “you did not love me as I did you” (note: not to be interpreted with any sexual overtones). To a large extent, the degrees of reciprocity depend on the nature of the friendship in Aelred’s conception, whether it is carnal, worldly, or spiritual. In essence, friendship hurts because friends disappoint us, regardless of their intentionality, and because we live in a world characterized by jealousy, possessiveness, and selfishness.

I tried to write about these sort of heartaches in my book, and I hope to say more about that in another post soon, in dialogue with some thoughts from my friend Tim Otto.

And yet—

Aelred embraces a biblical notion that a friend loves at all times, even when friends falter; it would suggest that forgiveness is possible. On the limits of friendship in Book II, he acknowledges that those who previously followed wayward paths of lusts and avarices may return to fellowship if they are learned to control over their inordinate affections and behaviors. He further postulates that if Christ forgives us and asks us to love our enemies like friends, then, there can be forgiveness however difficult it may be. Some may read Aelred’s comment on distancing from the wayward as an act of judging others. However, the Aelredian paradigm is not an act of casting aspersion, but that of inner discernment, so as to admit into closer friendship with those who show signs of desiring a godly life.

If I wanted to give someone a quick digest of the wisdom of Aelred of Rievaulx on friendship, I’d probably point them now to this gently instructive essay.

Friendship Roundup

Spiritual Friendship has published over 400 posts by now, all of which are related to friendship in one way or another. This “roundup” post simply tries to collect some of the posts which will be the most helpful in introducing new readers to the main ideas of this blog.

Spiritual Friendship in 300 Words provides a concise overview of how Ron Belgau learned about spiritual friendship from a 12th-century Cistercian abbot named Aelred of Rievaulx. In Three Kinds of Friendship, he explains the same ideas in greater depth, and in Some Theses on Friendship, he discussed some of the important themes he hopes to explore in this blog. Joshua Gonnerman has written about how friendship can be helpful for growing in chastity.

In Is Friendship an Unconditional Love? and The Problem of Monastic Cliques, Wesley Hill examines the dangers of exclusivity in friendship. In Friendship and the Scandal of Particularity, Ron Belgau responds by pointing out that there is a legitimate need for the specificity of Friendship. Also relevant to this discussion are Eve Tushnet’s thoughts on Detachment in Friendship and Thomas Aquinas’s discussion of the relationship between friendship and charity.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that says that homosexual persons need the support of disinterested friendship.” This term is a frequent cause of confusion, which Ron Belgau helps to clear up.

Is there such a thing as Friendship at First Sight? Ron Belgau explores some of C. S. Lewis’s writings on this subject.

Finally, he shares about his own experiences with friendship, and Wesley Hill shares about his friendship with Ron Belgau.

What Does “Disinterested Friendship” Mean?

Popes Francis and Benedict

The Catechism of the Catholic Church uses the term “disinterested” in five different places. The most relevant instance for most readers of this blog is:

2359 Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.

The first definition for “disinterested” at Dictionary.com is “unbiased by personal interest or advantage; not influenced by selfish motives,” which would mean that a “disinterested friendship” is a friendship that is not biased by personal interest or advantage, nor influenced by selfish motives. In the context of 2359, the most obvious selfish motive in view would be lust, though any selfish motive will poison friendship. This unbiased and unselfish friendship seems like the sort of love most of us would want from our friends.

However, the second definition for “disinterested” is “not interested; indifferent.” A usage note points out that

Disinterested and uninterested share a confused and confusing history. Disinterested was originally used to mean “not interested, indifferent”; uninterested in its earliest use meant “impartial.” By various developmental twists, disinterested is now used in both senses. Uninterested is used mainly in the sense “not interested, indifferent.” It is occasionally used to mean “not having a personal or property interest.”

And, this confusion infects many people’s understanding of the term “disinterested friendship” in 2359. To many, “disinterested friendship” suggests a friend who is “not interested, indifferent.” Comparison with other usages of the same word in the Catechism, however, demonstrates that this cannot be the sense the authors of the Catechism had in mind.

2649 Prayer of praise is entirely disinterested and rises to God, lauds him, and gives him glory for his own sake, quite beyond what he has done, but simply because HE IS.

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Matt Jones at OnFaith: Avoiding Hypocrisy as the Church

matt_001Spiritual Friendship writer Matt Jones recently contributed to a series on sexuality and the church over at OnFaith, focusing on ways his current church community is modeling a traditional sexual ethic that avoids much of the hypocrisy found in more conservative churches. Some excerpts:

When I joined, I simply became a part of that redemptive movement. This is an enormous blessing, because — believe it or not — I really want to proclaim the gospel through ministry and advocacy. (And, as a white dude brimming with privilege, learning how to do this in a way that doesn’t reinforce inequality can be a challenge!) I want to be a Christian, and I want my church to urge the congregants on in our shared vocation of pursuing justice for the marginalized (which includes a sizable portion of the church population itself).

Often lgbt+ Christians are treated as if we have one job this side of Jesus’ return: don’t have gay sex. But, as Eve Tushnet so quotably stated, “You can’t have a vocation of no,” of only avoiding something. We need something to live for, and let me say that Christianity never makes more sense to me than when I am witnessing or participating in a Christian community that is unified toward imitating and proclaiming Jesus’ liberative gospel.

And:

It continues to amaze me how hard celibate lgbt+ people have to work to find space in churches that claim a more traditional sexual ethic. The social burdens experienced by sexual minorities in these communities vary widely, but usually include increased scrutiny and suspicion, painful comments from congregants who may or may not know about one’s sexuality, reduced ministry possibilities (e.g. I was once stripped of an internship and prevented from helping with a youth group because I wasn’t trying hard enough to be straight), insanely exhausting language policing,**** and at times, the general ache of being single in a culture that over-valorizes marriage and romance to the detriment of thechurch’s calling to be family.

I’m not sure how churches decided that the best ‘defense’ of the traditional sexual ethic is to place excessive burdens on those trying to abide by it and then fail to provide the support structures that would make such an ethic intelligible and healthy . . . but, well, here we are.

I believe the traditional sexual ethic is beautiful and good — I try to live according to it for a reason! — but I also believe that the way churches have approached the topic of human sexuality has largely failed to do any justice to the scope and nuance of the doctrine and has, in fact, done injustice to countless people who should have found a home and family within the church, and this requires sincere repentance.

Read the Whole Article at FaithStreet.