I recently started a series of posts about graced realities which I have found to helpful in the pursuit of chastity, defined deeply as the mastery through grace of internal sexual desires and passions, and their ordering according to the will of God. When people are married in the Church, they undergo marriage counseling; when people enter religious life, they have a period of intensive formation. Yet for people in the most difficult situation within which to pursue chastity, cut off from both marriage and the support of a religious community, there is little discussion of how to make this sustainable in a lifelong way.
To regular readers (or indeed, readers who saw the URL!), it may come as no surprise that the first graced reality I will talk about is friendship. In the little book from which this blog takes its name, St. Aelred of Rievaulx defines friendship as “that virtue through which by a covenant of sweetest love our very spirits are united, and from many are made one.” Like other contributors to this blog, I find St. Aelred’s vision of spiritual friendship, rooted in in a shared life in Christ and drawing the friends into communion with Christ as two souls knit into one to be deeply sustaining.
We are made in the image and likeness of a God who is love, and without love, we shrivel. Love is the fundamental vocabulary of Christian existence, and the very heart of the experience of grace. Yet we find in our culture (and, all too often, even in the Church) a sort of a idolatry of particular loves, the sexual and romantic, to the diminishment of other kinds of love. We must learn to value romantic love in its proper place, as one way of loving among many: a way of loving which is graced sacramentally, true, but not the only love which is a conduit of grace. When we do so, we begin to smash the idols and tear down the high places; then, we can learn to better value other ways of loving.
The power which is available to us in friendship can be earth-shaking. It was through the joint work of friendship that Basil of Caesarea and Gregory Nazianzus laid the groundwork for the reception of the Nicene doctrine. It was in friendship that John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila offered such riches to the spiritual life of the Church. It was in friendship that Felicity and Perpetua, Sergius and Bacchus, and others like them were graced with the crown of martyrdom. When our moral imagination is re-vitalized to see, not only the depth and intimacy, but the ability to shape the world that can come from friendship, we learn how truly awesome it is for Jesus to say to us, “I have called you friends.”
Celibacy is not the negation of love; rather, it is the location of love primarily in friends and those who broadly share life with us, rather than in a spouse and spouse. When a person truly lives into a celibate vocation, they are not less capable of love than a person who lives into a married vocation, but their love is poured into different vessels. We still do life together with others, but we do so, not with those who are related by blood or legal bond, but with those to whom our bonds are purely affective and spiritual.
But what of chastity? Sexual desire and relational needs are deeply inter-connected. If relational needs are not met, then sexual desire can easily grow in strength, and be more difficult to turn away from. In the Christian tradition, the practice of celibacy has always been associated with a community living a shared life. Only those who have attained a high degree of spiritual perfection have been seen as capable of living a more solitary eremitical life (and if we look closely, even the hermit is often less cut off than he appears to be). The solidarity of brothers or sisters in Christ sharing life with someone helps to meet their relational needs, and make celibacy manageable. While most celibate people living in the world cannot hope to achieve the level of relational embeddedness a religious community offers, a cultivation of deep and abiding friendships can make up some of what is lacking.
In seasons of my life where close friendships abound, the power of the libido is lessened. When a friendship is (as the best friendships are) rooted in shared religious experience and outlook, when the friend is one whose relation to Christ, to the Church, to the Christian tradition largely echoes my own, the friendship is more nurturing and sustaining, touching as it does on the very center of my life. Friendships in general, but especially these kinds of friendships, can become conduits of grace in our lives, not only through nourishing our relational needs, but also through providing a sort of training ground for our own spiritual growth.
When discussing friendship, there is one sour note I must hit. Classical formulations insisted that a true friendship was for life. If a friendship ended, it was prima facie evidence that it had never been a true friendship. Such a claim is not altogether sustainable today, given the increase in mobility. People are less and less likely to stay in the same place for long periods of time, let alone a lifetime. While the lack of geographical proximity does not destroy a friendship, it does hamper it, for a core element of a deep friendship is that friends, in some real sense, do life together. It is simply not possible to sustain doing life together in as real sense when your friend is a thousand miles away.
It may be tempting to bemoan the dissolution of friendship into Facebook friendship and bi-monthly phone calls. I would prefer a less reactionary response; this teaches us something significant about friendship. One of the distinctives of marriage is that it is a lifelong bond. We need to recognize, however, that friendship is not, at least not necessarily. It has a more seasonal character. As people move in different directions in life, their friendship may fade (without disappearing). To acknowledge this is not to denigrate what was. It is simply to own up to what is, and to prepare ourselves for what yet may be.
Joshua Gonnerman lives in Washington, DC, where he is pursuing a doctorate in historical theology. His main focus is on Augustine, and he hopes to dissertate on Augustine’s doctrine of grace. He has also occasionally published in First Things, Spiritual Friendship, and PRISM Magazine, where he makes small attempts to help re-orient the way the Church relates to gay people. He can be followed on Twitter: @JoshuaGonnerman.