Paul Wadell, author of some of the few contemporary treatments of friendship in the Christian tradition (that draw on St. Aelred, among others), has an article in an old issue of the Christian Century on a complicated friendship of his. Going through some of my old files today, I ran across Wadell’s essay and found myself thinking about it again. (The piece is behind the paywall, sadly. But for the few of you who may subscribe, here’s the link. It’s worth reading.)
Wadell tells the story of an especially rich friendship from his high school days that later became painful and led to heartache and a “parting of the ways.” He and his friend started traveling different roads and lost the ability to understand and sympathize with one another. But neither of them, it seems, gave up on the friendship entirely. Wadell only tells snippets of the story, but it seems to me from what he wrote that the relationship remained pretty touch and go until the friend’s death. There was genuine love, even reconciliation and forgiveness, but never a return to that joy that sparked the friendship in the first place. And this got me reflecting on a paradox at the heart of friendship.
As I think back on the friendships that have meant the most to me — that still mean the most to me — I’m aware of all the ways that all of them have led to a sort of heightening of pain. Not just the pain at having to stretch and yield and change in order to love my friends, but also the pain of feeling unloved by the friends and having to figure out what to do with that sense of rejection and woundedness. My most treasured friendships have lessened my loneliness, without question, but they’ve also created more capacity for loneliness — capacity I wouldn’t have had otherwise — precisely by being so rich in love. The cavern wouldn’t seem so big and dark if the flame illuminating it didn’t burn so brightly.
This seems important to keep in mind as I continue talking to Christians about how I want the church to be a place of hospitality and community for queer Christians. In a sense, that hospitality should go a long way toward dampening the burn of loneliness. But in another very real sense, it may only make it burn more painfully — because that’s just the way human love works in a world where we’re finite, fallen creatures. There are risks and costs involved in any authentic self-giving. It’s part of the deal.