In today’s Washington Post, our own Eve Tushnet has an essay about how modern American culture idolizes romantic love and neglects other forms of community, and gives a shout-out to St. Aelred.
This vision that exalts and even idolizes couplehood should feel alien to most cultures and should feel especially wrong for Christians. Jesus died a virgin, so romance and marriage could never be the “one best way” in the Christian tradition. In earlier eras, Christianity saw freedom in unmarried life: The unmarried were set apart for God, undistracted by the needs of dependents. They could risk martyrdom without worrying about their children, devote themselves to those who were hardest to serve and spend hours rapt in prayer rather than knocking off a few harried Hail Marys in between diaper changes.
The fascination with romantic love also forgets forms of love that were once common in society. Devoted friendships that functioned like kinship used to be normal. Friends would share homes and finances, and pledge to care for one another’s children; often godparenthood cemented these bonds. “Spiritual Friendship,” St. Aelred’s beautiful medieval work, depicts friendship as an arena for utter honesty and sacrificial love—a place where we can be known, shepherded, cared for and forgiven. Most people don’t want every friendship to be like this, and it’s certainly fine to just want to socialize. But many single people, married couples and single parents suffer without the kind of friends they can pour their hearts out to and share burdens with.