Sacred Companions (Spiritual Friendship)

In my previous reflection on The Gift of Friendship, I looked at the joys and provisions of friendship from the biblical angle drawing some thoughts from Ecclesiastes 4:9-12, as well as from the psycho-social angle, drawing some salient points from the book by Steve Duck, Understanding Relationships.

To make it more comprehensive and holistic, I thought it would be good to draw more insights from two other authors. [No worries, this should be it! – though I do have a dozen more books on friendship and will draw from another in my 3rd reflection!]. The emphasis here is on the spiritual dimension of friendship, what can be called, “spiritual friendship” or “sacred companions,” though I must be quick to add that it is hard to demarcate the “spiritual” from the psycho-emotional or even the practical aspects of friendship.

These thoughts are taken from a 12thC monk by the name of Aelred of Rievaulx, who was the abbot of a Christian monastery in Yorkshire, Scotland, and has written a classic entitled, Spiritual Friendship. The otheris from one of my favorite authors, a Christian psychologist, David Benner, in his book, Sacred Companions.

Aelred gives a delightfully simple definition of spiritual friendship: Here we are – you and I, and I hope a third, Christ, in our midst. In other words, he is saying that what distinguishes a spiritual friendship from a natural one is the presence of Christ. Aelred sees spiritual friendship as two people with Christ as their bond. The person and presence of Christ is central.  He goes on to say: “What more sublime can be said of friendship, what more true, what more profitable than it ought to begin in Christ, continue in Christ and be perfected in Christ.” 

Aelred also see Christ as the model-friend to men and women – like Peter, James and John, Mary and Martha, and their brother, Lazarus. He notes how the presence of Christ can transform one’s character and affections, making him or her capable of high standards of fidelity and selflessness, which he reckons are marks of deep friendship.

We recall how Simon, the impetuous disciple, was transformed into Peter, the Rock, who later became a pillar of the early church. In the same way, James and John, two brothers who were called, Sons of Thunder, and who clamored for high positions, became the apostle of love (in the case of John) and the apostle who advocated being patient, humble and a good listener (in the case of James). In the presence of Christ in friendship, there is transformation.

In spiritual friendship, Aelred notes that friends also encourage us to live relationally in harmony with the God of love and friendship. They point us toward Christ rather than being dependent on the self or other human beings. They invite us to live in faith when all around us are adverse circumstances and stormy situations. They encourage us to grow in close communion with the Lord in prayer and worship. 

Spiritual friends can also guide us with what is now commonly called, spiritual direction. Sometimes we are the least capable of assessing our own spiritual progress, or regress.  We are overly familiar with ourselves and are plague with blind spots and dark sides. We also overestimate our imaginary achievements or are oblivious to our genuine gains. Thus, Aelred suggests spiritual friends can help to chart the course of our journey, see what is happening to our lives, note the fruits of our ministry and label the gifts that are there or are emerging. He says, “a spiritual friend is one who can unblushingly make known what progress you have made in your spiritual life.” 

Finally, Aelred notes that “spiritual friends are those we can fearlessly entrust our hearts and all its secrets” – the good, the bad, and the ugly; our happy and troubled sides, as well as our failings and victories. Such friends are not only open to hear about our dark and troubled side, but people whom we can trust deeply enough to share our bright victories.

Sometimes it is as hard to talk about successes or achievements as it is with failures. We fear being smug or triumphalist. We want someone to trust the genuineness of our gratitude and the joy we feel in our achievements or spiritual growth. We want friends to feel joy with us, to celebrate with us, and not be envious or suspicious.  

David Benner, in his chapter (3) on The Ideals of Spiritual Friendship, noted five closely interrelated elements that appear in the relationships between David and Jonathon, Ruth, Naomi and Boaz, and Jesus and his disciples. They are love, honesty, intimacy, mutuality and accompaniment.

He states that friendships involve a bond of love that is never simply an obligation. He noted that Jonathon loved David as himself and was one in spirit with him. This made his sacrifices and risks inconsequential. He deduced, “true friends experience each other as being part of themselves in the same profound way.” He also notes that loyalty or commitment is an integral part of love, and this reminds me of the profound description of Christ’s love for his disciples: “Having loved his own, he loved them to the very end.” (John 13:1, KJV).

In honesty, Benner states that this is demanded because spiritual friends desire each other’s growth and development, which implies the willingness “to confront illusions and dares to risk temporary discomfort by calling us to the truth.” He noted that Jesus’ love for the disciples meant that he could not ignore some of the things he saw in them.

When people long for friendships that are meaningful, in which they can be known for who the really are, with freedom and honesty, they are wanting intimacy. Intimacy is shared experience, just as Jesus shared his experience with those who were his closest friends. He goes on to say that “shared intimacy is built upon sharing the inner self.”

The 4th element is mutuality. Mutuality does not mean equality, but it does mean that there is a free flow of uncalculated giving and receiving that is done out of care. One can offer support, counseling or ministry to someone who does not offer anything in return, but one can be a friend only to someone who offers the same in return.

The final element of spiritual friends in accompaniment, and by this Benner simply means that friends accompany each other in the journey of life. In so doing we stay in close supportive contact with the person we are accompanying. We keep in touch with, take an active interest in, and even participate in their life and journey in one way or another.

These then are the characteristics of spiritual friendships, which transcends the normal psycho-emotional ones that we read a lot from social science literature. The question is, “Are you (am I) a sacred companion?”