What is Spiritual Friendship? A Basic Primer

Mac Stewart, a curate at All Souls’ Episcopal Church in Oklahoma City, has just written a post on friendship that brings together so many of the threads we’ve talked about here at SF over the years. It’s basically a one-stop primer on some classic Christian thinking about friendship. But Stewart is also concerned to talk about friendship’s contemporary relevance:

A Christian understanding of friendship as the richest and most intense possible form of human closeness may in fact be one of the gifts that Christianity has to offer a post-Christian world that now has a very hard time imagining forms of intimacy and affection that don’t involve genital contact.

Specifically, Stewart wants to encourage us all—married or single—to think about friendship as a site for deep devotion and affection:

[T]here is a whole wonderful realm of relational intimacy that our culture misses out on by loading all of its human-closeness eggs in the basket of specifically sexual intimacy. We tend to refer to these latter relationships as “romantic,” and yet perhaps our sense of romance here is a bit impoverished. Perhaps there is room for a kind of romance with our beloved friends: doing for one another the little deeds of affection that we often associate with a lover wooing his or her espoused, things like writing letters that affirm the beloved’s virtues and beauty, attending carefully to the things that delight their soul and spontaneously and gratuitously fulfilling them, forbearing with their irritating eccentricities while dwelling on their excellences, overcoming their occasional coldness with a deeper kindness.

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On the Death of a Friend

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One of the curious things about friendship is that it is often “death-haunted.” “It is as if,” writes Andrew Sullivan, “death and friendship enjoy a particularly close relationship, as if it is only when pressed to the extremes of experience that this least extreme of relationships finds its voice, or when we are forced to consider what really matters, that we begin to consider what friendship is.” So, many of the great literary depictions of friendship—Augustine’s, Montaigne’s, Tennyson’s—don’t depict so much the daily course of friendship but rather its dramatic loss. It is death that moves the poet or the preacher to take up the theme of friendship and try to pay tribute to that most un-dramatic of all loves.

Alan Jacobs, in a beautiful essay, has speculated that this nexus between death and the verbal portrayals of friendship may owe something to the “homely, comforting” nature of friendship. Friendship usually isn’t about “a story to tell, a sequence of events to dramatize, an intensity of experience to lyricize.” Furthermore, friendship isn’t about undertaking some quest to achieve some goal. Unlike, for instance, the love of parents for children, which is very much oriented toward the telos of “training up a child in the way he should go” (Proverbs 22:6), the love of friendship is its own end. And because of that non-flashy, goal-less quality of friendship, it sometimes takes the dramatic rupture of death for us to see the friendship as a whole, and for us to be able, then, to give voice to our gratitude for it. As Jacobs puts it,

Having so specific goal in mind, having nothing to strive towards, friendships possess no intrinsic narrative quality. This is not to say that we should not strive to be better friends, that is, to practice more assiduously the virtues that strengthen friendship, but we cannot do so for reasons intrinsic to the friendship. It is in the nature of friendship, I think, that the demands a friendship makes upon us wax and wane: we go through seasons of relative closeness, seasons of relative separation, without re-evaluating the basic character of the friendship. (I have dear, dear friends whom I can see only rarely, but they are no less dear because of this, and would be no more dear if we could meet regularly.) This stability of affection coupled with great variation in occasions for intimacy is almost impossible to represent in narrative terms, or indeed in other literary terms.

Whether it’s for these sorts of reasons or for others, I’m not sure, but I have been struck this week in the wake of my dear friend Brett Foster’s death on Monday night by how Brett’s death has prompted an outpouring of appreciation for his friendship, specifically.

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Why Should A Straight Person Care About Spiritual Friendship?

Editor’s Note: Matthew Loftus, a family physician, will soon leave his current life in Sandtown, Baltimore to move with his wife and children to South Sudan, where he will serve at His House of Hope Hospital. A writer for multiple publications such as MereOrthodoxy.com, ChristandPopCulture.com, First Things, and The American Conservative, he is also a regular columnist for Christianity Today. Matthew is a personal friend to some of us who write here at SF, and it’s an honor to have his first “guest post” with us today. — Wesley Hill

The author with his family, some of whom have disordered inclinations towards the natural use of their tongues.

The author with his family, some of whom have disordered inclinations towards the unnatural use of their tongues.

Unlike many other people who write or post on social media about the Church and LGBT relations, I don’t have a lot of gay friends. I have a handful of close friends who are either out publicly or who have confided about their sexuality to me, but I haven’t had to walk through the same difficult journeys that many others have experienced as they tried to support and care for loved ones who wrestled with their faith and sexuality. Even the intense conversations I’ve had with my gay and lesbian friends who introduced me to Wesley Hill’s Washed & Waiting and the rest of the Spiritual Friendship crew have not exactly been epochal for any of us involved.

When Wesley found out about this, he asked me to write about why I was still so interested in Spiritual Friendship. It had never struck me that a big emotional investment was necessary to be sharing and commenting on SF posts, but the question was a great opportunity for me to reflect: why should straight people care about Spiritual Friendship and the questions taken up here?

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When Friendships Fail

One of the things I’ve often hoped we here at SF would write more about is disappointment and failure—disappointment and failure, specifically, in spiritual friendship. It’s very easy to want to clean up one’s stories of friendship, not only for oneself but also for the sake of the hope we’re trying to instill in our churches. Those of us who write here want to see our churches change and become more committed to friendship, and many of us want to find places to belong and love and serve, so it’s always tempting, for me at least, to let the positive rhetoric overwhelm the actual lived experience of friendship, which often is more ambiguous and complicated than my publicly hopeful statements would suggest.

I want to try to say more about this soon—especially in relation to Tim Otto’s poignant review of my book about friendship—but for now I thought I would simply point to a wonderful essay by Laura Turner on grieving the loss of a friendship.

What I love about this piece is that it limns the experience of “falling in friendship” (“I covered my desire for deep connection with a thin layer of nonchalance, taking what I could get and never expressing that I wanted more”) and then losing it with such recognizable honesty, but it also does what so many of us have trouble doing: it turns the spotlight back on oneself, on our tendency to blame and paper over our part in a friendship’s demise.

Here’s Turner:

“Only the hand that erases can write the true thing,” wrote the German mystic Meister Eckhart. I think what he meant is that in order to construct something good, you need to be able to deconstruct what came before it. This applies generally: In order to create just societies, we need to be able to dismantle injustice; in order to cook a good omelet, we need to be willing to crack a few eggs, and so on.

It also applies on the personal level. In order for me to be the person I want to be, I need to be able to deconstruct the myths I’ve written about myself. When my friendship with M ended, my myth was that I was the victim. I was hurt, nursing wounds, feeling self-righteous and angry, and so I believed that the end of our friendship had been all her fault. More than wanting to examine my own intentions, I wanted to be able to place the blame squarely on her shoulders. I wanted to write the story without ever having to erase. There was too much satisfaction in refusing to revisit the story; too much sadness to get into it all over again.

A lot of us tend to imagine friendship, I think, on the analogy of other kinds of love. Our friends are like a brother or a sister, we say. Or our friends are such a permanent part of our lives, they’re like a spouse. Maybe better than a spouse, we think (and maybe we think that especially if we’re gay and celibate, like I am). For those of us who think that way, Turner’s essay leaves us asking what we do when those analogies break down, when friendships collapse. It’s a question I, for one, would like to read and write more about.

Reflections on the Feast of St. Francis

Today is the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, whom I chose as my confirmation saint when I was received into the Catholic Church in 1999.

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G. K. Chesterton’s biography of St. Francis was one of many books that helped introduce me to the truth and beauty of the Catholic faith. But Francis himself stuck with me in a special way.

I was particularly drawn by the powerful combination of joy and asceticism in his personality.

Asceticism was not new to me. I had grown up Southern Baptist, and joined the Presbyterian Church in America in college. I had been profoundly moved by Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship. I had also been committed to celibacy since my late teens. So though I have learned more of asceticism and the cross since becoming Catholic, I already knew about the cost and sacrifice involved in responding to Christ’s call to come and follow.

What I did not realize, until I encountered St. Francis, was the deeper “Yes!” that made sense of and gave life in the midst of the many things I had to say “no” to in order to remain faithful to Christ. Continue reading

Always Consider the Person

World Meeting of Families Transcript

This is a transcript of my presentation with my mother, Beverley Belgau, at the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, in conjunction with Pope Francis’s first pastoral visit to the United States. The World Meeting of Families is a global Catholic event, like World Youth Day. The first World Meeting of Families was called together by Pope St. John Paul II in 1994 to celebrate the International Year of the Family. It has grown into the largest gathering of families in the world, and this year’s meeting in Philadelphia beat all previous attendance records.

This was also the first time in the history of the World Meeting that an openly gay—and celibate—Catholic was invited to speak about his experiences in the Church and in his family. 

Because of a room scheduling snafu, we started late (the room was filled to overflowing and hundreds of people were reportedly turned away). To make up, we cut some material on the fly. This reflects the original transcript, not the presentation as delivered. Because this talk highlights a lot of points we have made at Spiritual Friendship over the years, I’ve included links to other posts, if you want to learn more. 

After the formal presentation, we answered audience questions for over two hours; even then, we only left because the Convention Center staff said we had to leave; there were still dozens of people in the room listening, and people in line waiting to ask questions. This speaks to just how important it is for the Church to take more time to talk about how families and parishes can respond to their lesbian and gay members with Christ-like love.

Given the length of the presentation, I have added numbered paragraphs to help locate material within the text.  
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Spiritual Friendship and Courage: On the Need for Variety in Ministry

This post is a somewhat tardy response to a question about Spiritual Friendship and Courage that Fr. Matthew Schneider asked last month:

First, the short, un-nuanced version: I think that each movement has something positive to contribute to the Church. Courage provides anonymous support groups, while Spiritual Friendship is more public and works toward the day when gay and lesbian people can receive all the support they need in their families and parishes. Both of us agree that friendship is important for those who are trying to grow in chastity. Like the Pope, Spiritual Friendship is comfortable using the word “gay” to describe attraction to the same sex, while many in Courage misunderstand and criticize us for this. Spiritual Friendship tries to talk about the difficult intersection between friendship and same-sex desire in a way that takes the Catholic moral tradition seriously. Some (though not all) writers at Spiritual Friendship have some reservations about the 12-Step model Courage uses. And we all disagree in varying degrees with the Freudian theories of causation that Courage has adopted, though we haven’t made attacking those theories a priority.

Now, the much longer, more nuanced version. (Because this is a large topic, this is, unfortunately, a long post. In order to make it a little bit easier, I have broken it up into sections addressing different parts of the discussion. It may be easier to come back to it and read it a bit at a time, rather than trying to read the whole article at once.)

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Friendship and the Kingdom

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A common critique of celibate gay Christians is the perception that we attempt to swap out romantic intimacy for friendship. Instead of having same-sex romantic partners we simply have spiritual friends and too often are seen as playing a semantics game. I believe though, as do many of my fellow side-B Christians, that friendship was never meant to take the place of the intimacy that comes about in romantic relationship. Much of what we do is an attempt to celebrate the beauty and benefits of friendship as a good in and of itself and not as a new outlet for romantic and sexual desire. Friendship and relationships in general are not some equal alternative to marriage where finding the right partner becomes finding the right best friend. Friendship inherently makes room for not only the “other” in relationship but for others. I have quite a number of friends who I am quite close to. Some I live in close proximity to and others live thousands of miles away. Each is different and as a unique experience and relationship is worthy of celebrating. Like all relationships there are certain people with whom the bonds of friendship are especially close which allows for deep intimacy. Within an exceptionally close friendship there can exist the full sense of being known, being understood, and being cared for. But at no point in that relationship does my friend’s identity merge with mine. There is no “one flesh” aspect of friendship. This I think is the beauty of friendship and its contrast to a romantic and sexual relationship.

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Deacon Jim Russell and the Hermeneutic of Suspicion

Update (9/18/2015): In his reply to this post (see his comment below), Deacon Russell says, “we can meet any time, face to face, to charitably address and correct things. I’d be all for that.”

He goes on to say, “As it is, now and forever, here is my challenge to you, Ron. We are engaged in public discourse. In that framework, I will gladly defend all my assertions and positions of the last three years in a direct exchange with you. I will do so charitably and fairly in any number of formats, including live and in person, publicly or privately. This offer will not expire. God bless.”

On July 1, 2015, I invited Deacon Russell to meet face to face with Saint Louis Auxiliary Bishop Edward Rice mediating our conversation. He did not accept. My offer still stands.

Original Post: I rarely respond directly to Deacon Jim Russell; I generally find that there is so much “spin” in his posts that it is difficult to find a productive point of engagement. I usually have responded indirectly, trying to present Church teaching in a positive way that I hope clarifies some of the misunderstandings about Spiritual Friendship that I see in his writings. A couple of points he makes in a recent article, however, may deserve direct clarification (especially in light of the timing of his post and the amount of media attention focused on me because of the World Meeting of Families).

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The gist of my response is simple: despite Deacon Russell’s efforts at spin, there is nothing contrary to the Catholic faith in ideas like, “obsessing over sexual temptation is unhelpful,” “service to others is helpful in overcoming temptation,” and “friendship is an important avenue of support and intimacy” for those seeking to live a chaste life. But since these straightforward claims have sparked Deacon Russell’s critique, I am taking the time to respond to his criticism at length.

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Love, Covenant, and Friendship

In my previous post, I drew attention to the way the Catholic Church frequently references friendship in her pastoral advice related to homosexuality. In this post, I want to examine the nature of friendship itself more deeply, particularly as it relates to two other crucial Biblical concepts: love and covenant. The relationship between love and covenant will be obvious to most contemporary readers; the connection between covenant and friendship, however, is frequently neglected in contemporary Christian teaching.

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If we examine the Bible, however, this neglect should surprise us. Each of the three most important covenants in salvation history is characterized by friendship between God and the human representatives—Abraham, Moses, the Twelve Apostles—to whom He entrusts the covenant. Abraham, the great father of all who share his faith (Romans 4:16) is also called a friend of God (2 Chronicles 20:7; James 2:23). God “spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (Exodus 33:11). And at the Last Supper, on the night when Christ instituted the new and eternal covenant, He said to the Twelve, “No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15). He also frames His own sacrifice on the cross—the definitive act in salvation history—as an act of friendship: “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). By calling His disciples friends, Jesus led Thomas Aquinas to conclude that charity (the Latin equivalent of agape love in New Testament Greek) was identical to friendship (Summa Theologiae IIa-IIae 23.1).

If we want to understand what God meant when He made covenants with His people, it’s important to understand what a “covenant” meant in the culture that God first spoke to. The most extensively described human covenant in the Bible is the covenant friendship between David and Jonathan (1 Samuel 18:3). For this reason, a significant portion of this post will focus on their relationship, which not only helps us to understand the connection between covenant and friendship at the human level, but also should help us to understand the connection between friendship and covenant in our relationship with God. If we persevere in faith and love, we will ultimately see God face-to-face, as Moses did (1 Corinthians 13:12, compare with Exodus 33:11). True friendship can thus give us a glimpse in this life of the love that we will experience in its fullness in Heaven.

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