Souls Knit Together

Justin Taylor points to an excerpt from an article by Michael A. G. Haykin, the Patristics scholar, on biblical images for friendship:

The Bible uses two consistent images in its representation of friendship.

The first is that of the knitting of souls together.

Deuteronomy provides the earliest mention in this regard when it speaks of a ‘friend who is as your own soul’ (Deut. 13:6), that is, one who is a companion of one’s innermost thoughts and feelings.  Prominent in this reflection on friendship is the concept of intimacy.  It is well illustrated by Jonathan and David’s friendship.  For example, in 1 Samuel 18:1 we read that the ‘soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.’  This reflection on the meaning of friendship bears with it ideas of strong emotional attachment and loyalty.  Not surprisingly, the term ‘friend’ naturally became another name for believers or brothers and sisters in the Lord (see 3 John 14).

The second image that the Bible uses to represent friendship is the face-to-face encounter.  This is literally the image used for Moses’ relationship to God.  In the tabernacle God spoke to Moses ‘face to face, as a man speaks to his friend’ (Exod. 33:11; see also Num. 12:8).  The face-to-face image implies a conversation, a sharing of confidences and consequently a meeting of minds, goals and direction.  In the New Testament, we find a similar idea expressed in 2 John 12, where the Elder tells his readers that he wants to speak to them ‘face to face.’ One of the benefits of such face-to-face encounters between friends is the heightened insight that such times of friendship produce. As the famous saying in Proverbs 27:17 puts it, ‘Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.’

Reading this excerpt made me think of one of the most memorable patristic texts on friendship, Gregory of Nazianzus’ praise of his friend (and fellow “Cappadocian Father”) Basil of Caesarea:

Basil and I were both in Athens. We had come, like streams of a river, from the same source in our native land, had separated from each other in pursuit of learning, and were now united again as if by plan, for God so arranged it.

I was not alone at that time in my regard for my friend, the great Basil. I knew his irreproachable conduct, and the maturity and wisdom of his conversation. I sought to persuade others, to whom he was less well known, to have the same regard for him. Many fell immediately under his spell, for they had already heard of him by reputation and hearsay.

What was the outcome? Almost alone of those who had come to Athens to study he was exempted from the customary ceremonies of initiation for he was held in higher honor than his status as a first-year student seemed to warrant.

Such was the prelude to our friendship, the kindling of that flame that was to bind us together. In this way we began to feel affection for each other. When, in the course of time, we acknowledged our friendship and recognized that our ambition was a life of true wisdom, we became everything to each other: we shared the same lodging, the same table, the same desires, the same goal. Our love for each other grew daily warmer and deeper.

The same hope inspired us: the pursuit of learning. This is an ambition especially subject to envy. Yet between us there was no envy. On the contrary, we made capital out of our rivalry. Our rivalry consisted, not in seeking the first place for oneself but in yielding it to the other, for we each looked on the other’s success as his own.

We seemed to be two bodies with a single spirit. Though we cannot believe those who claim that ‘everything is contained in everything,’ yet you must believe that in our case each of us was in the other and with the other.

Our single object and ambition was virtue, and a life of hope in the blessings that are to come; we wanted to withdraw from this world before we departed from it. With this end in view we ordered our lives and all our actions. We followed the guidance of God’s law and spurred each other on to virtue. If it is not too boastful to say, we found in each other a standard and rule for discerning right from wrong.

Different men have different names, which they owe to their parents or to themselves, that is, to their own pursuits and achievements. But our great pursuit, the great name we wanted, was to be Christians, to be called Christians.

The image Gregory uses here—“two bodies with a single spirit”—is an ancient, classical one, not original with Gregory. One thing I’d like to study, in light of Haykin’s quote above, is the way in which the Church Fathers’ writings on friendship fuse that classical image with the Bible’s “soul-knitting” image.

4 thoughts on “Souls Knit Together

  1. Nice article and imagery for the ancient tradition of spiritual friendships which we seem to have lost in the 20th century. For an in-depth history of spiritual friendships from the Greek and Romans through the Christian and post-modern age you might want to check out Pillars of Steel—How Real Men Draw Strength from Each Other. Available at: http://www.amazon.com/dp/1614853002.

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