A reader just sent an email with an excerpt from a biography that I think will be of interest to a lot of our readers here. The book is Evelyn Waugh’s life of Ronald Knox, the English Catholic convert and author of many detective stories, among other things. In his early adulthood, Knox developed a strong friendship with a young man named Guy Lawrence. As Waugh reflects on the place of this friendship in Knox’s life, he includes a lengthy quote from Fr. Bede Jarrett, which was originally addressed to a monk who was troubled by how intensely he had developed an affection for one specific friend:
Then, as for the point you mention, I would only say this, that I am exceedingly glad. I am glad because I think your temptation has always been towards Puritanism, narrowness, a certain inhumanity… You were afraid of life because you wanted to be a saint and because you knew you were an artist…
… Now evil is overcome by good, by God, by love of God, by reaching for Him everywhere. You must not be afraid of looking for Him in the eyes of a friend. He is there. You can at least be sure of that. To love others is not to lose Him but if possible to find Him in them. He is in them. You will miss finding Him only if you merely love yourself in them. That is the blinding nature of passion; it is self-love masquerading under a very noble disguise…
… I agree to say that your desire to bring God to Y. is sufficient justification for your friendship is all bunkum… You love Y. because you love him, neither more nor less, because he’s lovable. You won’t find any other sincere reason however hard you try… Enjoy your friendship, pay the price of the following pain for it, and remember it in your Mass and let Him be a third in it. The opening of The Spiritual Friendship: “Here We are, thou and I and I hope that between us Christ is a third.” Oh dear friendship, what a gift of God it is. Speak no ill of it.
For a certain sort of Christian, the temptation to be especially independent, to hold oneself back from deep friendship, and to cultivate an excessive asceticism always lingers. Sometimes, perhaps especially for those of us who are gay and Christian, we may think that when we’re keeping our distance from every possible relational temptation and thereby suffering from loneliness (how often do we consider that the latter has its unique temptations too?), we’re somehow closer to God’s ideal for our sanctification. But, of course, that isn’t necessarily true. In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis writes:
There is no good trying to he more spiritual than God. God never meant man to be a purely spiritual creature. That is why He uses material things like bread and wine to put the new life into us. We may think this rather crude and unspiritual. God does not: He invented eating. He likes matter. He invented it.
What Lewis says here about the Eucharist, I’d like to tweak and say about friendship:
God never meant us to be purely spiritual creatures. That is why He uses material things like conversations, shared meals and trips, hugs, small kindnesses, and gifts between friends to enrich the new life He’s given us. We may think this rather crude and unspiritual. God does not: He invented human relationships. He likes friendship. He invented it.
This is so very wise Wesley…
There are two ways of distancing from God: Being too strict to the point of rejecting the good in us and being too lax to the point of allowing the evil in us.
I find these quotes helpful. And yet, I still find myself challenged by Jesus’s words: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters–yes, even their own life–such a person cannot be my disciple.” From what I understand, the word “hate” in the Bible often means to “love less” rather than to have malice. So if our love for family is to be small compared to our love for God, the same principle would apply to our love for our friends.
In concrete terms, I have a friend (he was my roommate for several months) who I love so much but I often have to ask God to purify my love and reorient my love so that it isn’t idolatrous, self-seeking, or harmful for my more important relationship with God.
I love the simple yet profound reality that we meet Christ in our friendships. As I participate in learning about spiritual direction in a cohort community, there is a deep friendship forming in the midst of loving detachment. Christ wants me to love as I am, as a human, and see other people as gifts. In their love, I will see God present and at work.