True and False Friendship

Suzzallo Library - University of Washington

I saw the Graduate Reading Room in the Suzzallo Library for the first time during freshman orientation at the University of Washington—just a few hours before the fateful party where Jason and I discovered our mutual love of planes. As it turned out, the reading room has proven a happier and longer-lived companion.

The reading room has always been a kind of academic cloister for me. As an undergraduate in the mid nineties, I had no cell phone, no laptop, no WiFi internet access. Once I settled into one of the comfortable armchairs at the end of the reading room, I was almost cut off from the outside world, left alone with my thoughts and my books.

The architecture called to mind the great halls of Europe’s castles and sanctuaries of Europe’s cathedrals. It was easier to conjure up the past there than it was in the more utilitarian modern spaces of the libraries at Saint Louis University and the University of Notre Dame. I could feel people, places, and events come alive as I read there, in a way that they did not in my dorm room or a coffee shop or in the the fluorescent glare of the Hesburgh Library.

It was there that I first encountered the sermons of Martin Luther and the novels of Charles Williams. I met George McDonald there, and E. M. Forster, as well. I tasted Clement, Athanasius, Tertullian, and Augustine there, and it was there that I ploughed through the Institutes of the Christian Religion for the first time. (I also read the Kinsey Report there, so the reader should not imagine that all my undergraduate reading was elevated and spiritual.)

I remember the day I found Aelred of Rievaulx’s little treatise on Spiritual Friendship in the stacks. As I walked across the library to the reading room, I remember looking out the window, and seeing gray skies, with rain falling, and glistening on the bricks below.

I reached the reading room, settled into a chair, and began to read.

Soon, I was completely captivated. For the first time in my life, I read someone who could help me make sense of my feelings for Jason—and my friendship with Matt.

For Aelred, friendship was one of the most beautiful things in the world, and one of the surest paths to union with God. But it was also beset by dangers and temptations. True friendship could not be separated from virtue.

With its sweetness it is a foundation for all the virtues, and with its virtue it destroys the vices. Friendship so cushions adversity and chastens prosperity that among mortals almost nothing can be enjoyed without a friend.

Because Aelred held the union of friendship so high, he believed that one must select a friend with the same care modern Christian writers speak of choosing a wife.

Since a friend is the partner of your soul, to whose spirit you join and link your own and so unite yourself as to wish to become one from two, to whom you commit yourself as to another self, from whom you conceal nothing, from whom you fear nothing, surely you must first choose, then test, and finally admit someone considered right for such a trust. For friendship should be steadfast, and by being unwearied in affection, it should present an image of eternity.

Much to my surprise, Aelred thought that lust was one of the dangers which could confront friendship—a danger which must be resisted and overcome. Like Plato, he thought that friendship itself provided an inspiration for virtue. For in friendship, “Reason is so joined to affection that love may be chaste through reason and delightful through affection.”

Though this provides a way of thinking about same-sex love (friendship) as well as same-sex lust, it is very different from the sexual orientation paradigm which dominates modern thinking. On many popular versions of that view, if a person is sexually attracted to the same sex, their only chance for real love lies in a homosexual relationship. On the other hand, Christians often think that if the Bible forbids gay sex, then it must also forbid any close same-sex love.

Aelred offered a new framework, which was Biblically grounded and which jibed more closely with what I had experienced in my crush on Luke and in my relationship with Jason.

Reading Aelred’s little book thus sparked my interest in finding out what other Christian writers had said about friendship. Spiritual Friendship referred again and again to Augustine, and so before long I was back in the library, this time to find a copy of Augustine’s Confessions.

In the Confessions, St. Augustine described his experiences searching for friendship as an adolescent:

The single desire that dominated my search for delight was simply to love and to be loved. But no restraint was imposed by the exchange of mind with mind, which marks the brightly lit pathway of friendship. Clouds of muddy carnal concupiscence filled the air. The bubbling impulses of puberty befogged and obscured my heart so that it could not see the difference between love’s serenity and lust’s darkness. Confusion of the two things boiled within me. It seized hold of my youthful weakness sweeping me through the precipitous rocks of desire to submerge me in a whirlpool of vice.

Augustine was not writing a straightforward indictment of friendship: he made clear that his dominant desire was to be loved and to love, and that friendship itself could be a “brightly lit pathway.” Yet he offered viscerally compelling images—clouds, darkness, bubbling, boiling, precipitous rocks, and a whirlpool—of the corruption of love and friendship that he experienced as an adolescent. We see the same contrast between original goodness and its corruption in his remark that he “polluted the spring water of friendship with the filth of concupiscence.”

Augustine described a friendship from his youth. He had returned to his hometown of Thagaste, and he became close friends with a young man his age with whom he had played and gone to school as a boy. At that time, Augustine had embraced Manicheanism. He convinced his friend, who was from a Catholic family, to turn away to follow the Manichean way, as well, turning his friend away from true worship. Their shared intellectual and religious interests helped to cement the friendship, making it “sweet… beyond all the sweetness of life that I had experienced.”

After scarcely a year, however, his friend became seriously ill. When it became clear that he might die, his family had him baptized while he lay unconscious. Because they were so deeply dependent on each other, St. Augustine kept vigil at his bedside throughout the illness, and so was there when, contrary to expectation, his friend recovered enough to wake up and speak. Augustine made a joke about the baptism, but to his surprise, his friend rebuked him sharply, and insisted that if they were to remain friends, he must not make those kinds of comments again. Augustine was shocked, but held his tongue until his friend regained his strength. A few days later, however, while Augustine was away from his bedside, the fever returned and his friend died.

Augustine’s view of friendship was, for the most part, much bleaker than Aelred’s. Yet Aelred did not ignore the ways that friendship could be corrupted, and Augustine did not ignore the ways that friendship could be beautiful.

The book of Deuteronomy warns of the danger of being seduced into idolatry by “your brother, the son of your mother, or your son, or your daughter, or the wife of your bosom, or your friend who is as your own soul” (Deuteronomy 13:6). Both familial relationships and friendships are good, but their very goodness makes them a potential source of temptation: they can turn us away from God. It was because of the strength and closeness of his friendship with Augustine that Augustine’s friend was temporarily led away from the Christian faith and into the Manichean heresy.

When properly ordered to marital union, human sexuality can become a beautiful image of God’s love for His covenant people. But when it becomes disordered in adultery, fornication, or homosexual acts, it becomes an image of idolatry (Malachi 2:2-17; Ezekiel 16:1-63).

In a similar way, when friendship is set on virtue and growth in holiness, it can be a preparation for and foretaste of the communion of heaven. But friendship, too, can become disordered, as Augustine ably described.

Augustine believed that evil is always a distortion or corruption of the good. The corollary of this is that—at least within this life—goodness is fragile, and always open to corruption. And friendship is not exempt from this danger.

Today is the Feast of St. Luke, and the first reading for Mass celebrates St. Luke’s loyalty to St. Paul as so many others were deserting him:

For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica; Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you; for he is very useful in serving me. Tychicus I have sent to Ephesus. When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments. Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will requite him for his deeds. Beware of him yourself, for he strongly opposed our message. At my first defense no one took my part; all deserted me. May it not be charged against them! But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength to proclaim the word fully, that all the Gentiles might hear it. (2 Timothy 4:10-17). 

In the Gospel, we hear the story of the sending out of the seventy-two (Luke 10:1-9), who were sent out to minister in pairs. Paul, too, did not travel alone on his missionary journeys. He travelled with various companions, including Luke.

Aelred recognized that the true test of friendship is found when things become most difficult:

Now this loyalty, hidden indeed in prosperity, becomes conspicuous in adversity. “For in adversity a friend is proved,” as someone says. A rich man has many friends, but the onset of poverty tells whether they are friends indeed. “A friend loves at all times,”says Solomon, “and a brother is tested in adversity.”

“Behold, I send you out as lambs in the midst of wolves” (Luke 10:3), Jesus tells the seventy-two in today’s Gospel. Because Christ knew the adversity they would meet, He did not send them alone, nor did He send the Apostle Paul out alone as he carried the Gospel to the ends of the earth.

The more I have learned about and reflected on what Aelred and the rest of the Christian tradition say about true friendship, the more I see in my friendship with Jason that fell short. Yet even an imperfect friendship leaves some room for hope, if we are willing to make the hard choice to reject sin and pursue virtue, even if we have not yet arrived.

After Aelred described spiritual friendship to two young monks, one of them replied,

Such friendship is so sublime and perfect that I would not dare aspire to it. For me and Gratian here, the friendship Augustine describes is sufficient: to chat and laugh together, to treat each other kindly, to read or confer together, to be lighthearted or serious together, to disagree at times but without rancor as anyone might argue with himself, and through disagreement now and then to give sparkle to the countless times we agree, to share in turn our experience in teaching or learning, to long for each other anxiously when absent, and gladly to welcome one another’s return.

Aelred honestly diagnosed this Epicurean ideal as a kind of carnal friendship, which he regarded as typical of youth. However, he did not reject this kind of friendship out of hand:

if you avoid childishness and dishonesty, and if nothing shameful spoils such friendship, then in hope of some richer grace this love can be tolerated as a kind of first step toward a holier friendship. As devotion grows with the support of spiritual interests, and as with age maturity increases and the spiritual senses are illumined, then, with affection purified, such friends may mount to higher realms, just as we said yesterday that because of a kind of likeness the ascent is easier from human friendship to friendship with God himself.

Thus Aelred recognized that—if the friends strive to obey the commandments and invite God’s grace to transform them into His likeness—even a carnal friendship can, in the words of the Catechism, “gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.”

Note 1: Some scholars have argued, based on some of the phrases about lust and friendship above, and the intensity of his emotions for his friend in Thagaste, that St. Augustine engaged in—or, for more cautious scholars, may have engaged in—homosexual activity. For a thorough discussion of these claims, see Alan G. Soble, “Correcting Some Misconceptions about St. Augustine’s Sex Life,” Journal of the History of Sexuality, Vol. 11, No. 4. (October, 2002), pp. 545-569. After examining the claims of a number of authors who have either argued or hinted that this relationship was sexual, Soble makes a convincing argument that the relationship was emotionally intense but not sexual.


This post is part of a larger series of posts loosely organized around the question, “What hope can the Church offer lesbian, gay, and bisexual Christians?” To see other posts in the series, click here.

9 thoughts on “True and False Friendship

  1. Hi Ron,

    I was wondering if you could help me out with this question. I understand the moral reasons why Christianity forbids homosexual acts, but what are the theological implications, with same-sex marriage. How would this affect our understanding of God or the creed?

    • This may seem like an impertinent question, and I’m sorry if it does.

      The reason I ask is that you described in “Desires of the Heart” your relationship/journey with “Jason”. Since to really understand a relationship requires looking at both parties, I felt the absence of “the rest of the story” re: Jason.

      • I think it is a legitimate question, not impertinent. It’s reasonable for you to ask. However, I also think it’s reasonable for me not to answer, as I’ll try to explain.

        Several years ago, when I first talked with “Jason” about publicly discussing this story, he said that I had his permission to tell my story, but not his.

        As I said in the original post, “I’ve not only changed Jason’s name—I’ve also changed some superficial details in the story to make it harder for those who knew us to guess his identity, while describing my own feelings and experiences in the relationship honestly.”

        I’ve discussed this at various times with “Jason,” and he’s been critical of my telling of the story at some important points. Or at least, when we discussed it years after the fact, he’s pointed out ways that he saw the relationship very differently than I did—although I think that is nothing particularly unique to our situation. It is true of most relationships between teenagers, and much more true of a quasi-romantic relationship between two guys who grew up in conservative Evangelical churches in the late 80s and early 90s. We had different understandings of what was going on, and no common language for describing our feelings or intentions.

        I will add, parenthetically, that his own attempts to correct my memories have not always been consistent. He has not always presented the same story when he attempts to correct my story.

        But this, too, is not too surprising, I think. My own telling of the story vaccilates on some points. For example, I think that I both tended to make my relationship with “Jason” into an idol that came before my relationship with God, and that the relationship with “Jason” helped me to see the possibilities of serving God together. And in different tellings of the story, I have tended to accent one tendency or the other. I think this has several explanations. There is the haziness of memory. Then there is the process, as one gets older of examining, and trying to go back and understand one’s own past. And there are the challenges of trying to tell a story in a few hundred or a few thousand words; you have to condense, cut, simplify.

        What I tried to do in telling this story was to keep the private moments (like the late-night argument about gays in the military) as accurate as I possibly could, while making some alterations in the surface parts of the story—the parts that our friends would have known—to give “Jason” as much privacy as I can, and honor his request that I focus on telling my story, while leaving his story to him, to tell or keep private as he chooses.

        I will say that Jason’s life took a very different course than mine, and he remains enough of an enigma to me that I would not feel comfortable attempting to tell his side of our story, let alone trying to tell the story of his life in the last twenty years.

        Nevertheless, in telling the story, I have tried to describe as honestly as possible my own experience in a relationship that significantly shaped my thinking about love, sex, and friendship.

        As a post-script, and since I mentioned the movie Out of Africa in the original post, I would recommend the exercise of reading the book and watching the movie of Out of Africa, combined with reading West With the Night, by Beryl Markham. You get very different pictures of the relationship between Karen and Denys out of the different tellings of the story. And yet, you can see that each telling might be more or less true.

        In the movie, which is told from Karen’s point of view, her relationship with Denys is presented as a great love, and the fact that he won’t commit to her is passed over very briefly. In West With the Night, we learn that he also carried on an affair with Beryl Markham. Markham describes him as much less into Karen than Karen believed he was. On the other hand, in the book, she describes Denys as a close friend, and intimates an affair, but leaves much to the imagination that the movie spells out in detail.

        As far as I know, Denys Finch Hatton never told his side of the story.

  2. Pingback: Notes for University of Dallas Talk | Spiritual Friendship

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