Why talk about spiritual friendship? Many Christians think that growth in our spiritual life should lead us to love all people equally, and look with suspicion on an exclusive, particular love like friendship. Since friendship is going to be an important theme on this blog, I want to address this concern.
Both C. S. Lewis and John Henry Newman talked about how particular friendships can be an especially important school for learning to love people in general, and it is this insight which I want to explore in this post.
In his sixth letter, Screwtape advises his nephew Wormwood on how to handle the virtue of charity growing up within the soul of the patient he is trying to guide toward damnation:
Do what you will, there is going to be some benevolence, as well as some malice, in your patient’s soul. The great thing is to direct the malice to his immediate neighbors whom he meets every day and to thrust his benevolence out to the remote circumference, to people he does not know. The malice thus becomes wholly real and the benevolence largely imaginary. There is no good at all in inflaming his hatred of Germans if, at the same time, a pernicious habit of charity is growing up between him and his mother, his employer, and the man he meets in the train. Think of your man as a series of concentric circles, his will being the innermost, his intellect coming next, and finally his fantasy. You can hardly hope, at once, to exclude from all the circles everything that smells of the Enemy: but you must keep on shoving all the virtues outward till they are finally located in the circle of fantasy, and all the desirable quantities inward into the Will. It is only in so far as they reach the Will and are there embodied in habits that the virtues are really fatal to us. (I don’t, of course, mean what the patient mistakes for his will, the conscious fume and fret of resolutions and clenched teeth, but the real centre, what the Enemy calls the Heart.) All sorts of virtues painted in the fantasy or approved by the intellect or even, in some measure, loved and admired, will not keep a man from Our Father’s house: indeed they may make him more amusing when he gets there.
Screwtape identifies two related but different progressions: the first moves from a person’s circle of friends and family out to people in far off places; the second moves from a person’s will to their intellect to their fantasy. Screwtape wants charity to be pushed away from the friends and family the patient interacts with every day towards people far away, and away from the patient’s will and into their fantasies. From Screwtape’s perspective, generalized benevolence toward mankind at large is no great threat; charity towards those the patient encounters every day is a disaster.
John Henry Newman takes up a related theme in his Parochial and Plain Sermons, Volume 2, Sermon 5, on “Love of Relations and Friends.”
Newman begins by dwelling on the special relationship between Jesus and the beloved disciple, noting several of the ways that the beloved disciple enjoyed a more intimate connection with Christ than the other apostles.
Much might be said on this remarkable circumstance. I say remarkable, because it might be supposed that the Son of God Most High could not have loved one man more than another; or again, if so, that He would not have had only one friend, but, as being All-holy, He would have loved all men more or less, in proportion to their holiness. Yet we find our Saviour had a private friend; and this shows us, first, how entirely He was a man, as much as any of us, in His wants and feelings; and next, that there is nothing contrary to the spirit of the Gospel, nothing inconsistent with the fulness of Christian love, in having our affections directed in an especial way towards certain objects, towards those whom the circumstances of our past life, or some peculiarities of character, have endeared to us.
With regard to personal friendships, then, Newman’s argument begins simply by noting that Christ Himself had a particularly close relationship with the beloved disciple. Even if we say no more about why such personal friendships are good, Christ’s example places a very difficult burden on those who would argue that such friendships are bad.
However, Newman does not want to claim just that personal friendships are permitted for Christians. He argues that they are an important school of virtue, in which the particular love for our friends enables us to learn charity for all. In making this argument, he presents (not surprisingly) a picture that is almost an exact photographic negative of Screwtape’s argument:
There have been men before now, who have supposed Christian love was so diffusive as not to admit of concentration upon individuals; so that we ought to love all men equally. And many there are, who, without bringing forward any theory, yet consider practically that the love of many is something superior to the love of one or two; and neglect the charities of private life, while busy in the schemes of an expansive benevolence, or of effecting a general union and conciliation among Christians. Now I shall here maintain, in opposition to such notions of Christian love, and with our Saviour’s pattern before me, that the best preparation for loving the world at large, and loving it duly and wisely, is to cultivate an intimate friendship and affection towards those who are immediately about us.
Both Screwtape and Newman recognize that charity, like other virtues, is grounded in habits. Screwtape wants to push it out to the periphery—to a person’s fantasy, to thoughts of people far away, so that benevolent thoughts remain disconnected with reality, while malice is cultivated in the will and directed to those nearby. Newman, on the other hand, recognizes that we must begin by cultivating the habit of charity for those nearby.
I could say more about Newman’s argument here, but it may be easier to dig into the details of this process if I think about my own experience. (I would, however, urge everyone to read Newman’s sermon in its entirety, and reflect on his whole argument, which I have only given the barest outline of here.)
A closing observation, which is probably the thesis of another post, but which I throw out here as a mere coda: having a friend or family member come out generally dramatically alters the way that most people respond to homosexuality. A person for whom homosexuality was previously confusing or frightening or a source of anger comes to see the issue very differently when they see not an abstract issue, but the human face of their brother or sister or aunt or friend. And in seeing that particular human face, they are able to see the humanity of a whole class of human beings in a newer, clearer light.