I was in California last week to speak at Biola University about spiritual friendship (I’ll post a link to the video when it becomes available), and I got to spend a lot of good time with a friend I’ve known since college days, named Chris. As we were talking one night, Chris pulled out a passage from a sermon by the twentieth-century German theologian Helmut Thielicke that struck me as unusually powerful:
I once knew a very old married couple who radiated a tremendous happiness. The wife especially, who was almost unable to move because of old age and illness and in whose kind old face the joys and sufferings of many years had etched a hundred runes, was filled with such gratitude for life that I was touched to the quick. Involuntarily I asked myself what could possibly be the source of this kindly old person’s radiance. Otherwise they were very common people and their room indicated only the most modest comfort. But suddenly I knew where it all came from, for I saw these two speaking to each other and their eyes hanging upon each other. All at once it became clear to me that this woman was dearly loved. And it was as if she were like a stone that has been lying in the sun for years and years, absorbing all its radiant warmth, and now was reflecting back cheerfulness and warmth and serenity.
Let me express it this way. It was not because she was this kind of a cheerful and pleasant person that she was loved by her husband all those years. It was probably the other way around. Because she was so loved, she became the person I now saw before me.
This thought continued to pursue me and the more it pursued me the more it lost all its merely edifying and sentimental features, until finally they were gone altogether. For if this is true, then I surely must come to the following conclusion. If my life partner or my friend or just people generally often seem to be so strange and I ask myself: “Have I made the right marriage, the right friendship; is this particular person really the one who is suited to me?”—then I cannot answer this question in the style of a neutral diagnosis which would list the reasons for and against. For what happens then is that the question turns back upon myself, and then it reads: “Have I perhaps bestowed too little love upon this other person, that he has become so cold and empty? Have I perhaps caused him to become what perhaps he really has become? The other person, whom God has joined to me, is never what he is apart from me. He is not only bone of my bone; he is also boredom of my boredom and lovelessness of my lovelessness.”
Parts of this veer toward sentimentality (as Thielicke himself notes), but I can’t help it—I find this passage profound and moving. I do wish it had stressed the mutuality and reciprocity of marriage—husband and wife are both ingredients in one another’s joy—but aside from that, I just love this.
I’m struck by the immediate move to expand the application beyond marriage to friendship, which makes marriage a species of friendship, so that a point about husband and wife can seamlessly expand into a point about relationships more broadly.
I’m also struck by the givenness of friendship here. The key question Thielicke wants to pursue is not whether we need to strike out in search of new friends but rather whether we’re rightly related to those whose lives are already enmeshed with ours.
And, finally, I’m struck by the turning of responsibility back onto ourselves, and vice versa, the turning of responsibility for us back onto our friends. Our friend’s flourishing is bound up with ours, and our flourishing is dependent on our relatedness to our friend.
A while back, in an especially difficult time of loneliness, I remember stumbling across Marilynne Robinson’s essay “Family,” in which she says this: “‘Love is not love / Which alters when it alteration finds,’ in the words of the sonnet, which I can only interpret to mean, love is loyalty. I would suggest that in [loyalty’s] absence, all attempts to prop the family…will fail. The real issue is, will people shelter and nourish and humanize one another? This is creative work, requiring discipline and imagination.” Those verbs—shelter, nourish, humanize—still come to mind all the time when I think about friendship and family and intentional community, and you could read this excerpt from Thielicke as a sort of narrative illustration of what Robinson’s talking about.