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Spiritual Friendship PDF Print E-mail
Tuesday, November 09 2004 19:00
When I took religious vows, a colleague sent me a poem that he had written to commemorate the occasion. A person of considerable literary talent, David was able to reach into the significance of this ceremony and express its meaning beautifully.

A few introductory words made clear that David intended the poem “for a blessing.” The main theme of this 17-line poem, the original still preserved in my files, is to ask questions about the effort of the will to “fix itself in good.” David suggests that one should pray for “that last and certain knowledge of the heart’s/Renewed surrender to untrammeled grace.”

These words have remained important to me over half a century because they give evidence not only of a spiritual ideal but also of a precious relationship. First formed when David and I were apprentices in the Jesuit novitiate, ours can be called a spiritual friendship, a bond that has strengthened the values held by both of us.

My friend David and I do not often see one another now because we live too far apart. However, when we do get together, it becomes immediately obvious that the spiritual bond between us remains strong. The passage of years has not damaged the affection that we feel for each other and the serious interest in spirituality that has always marked our friendship.

Spiritual friendships have a long and valued history in the Judeo-Christian tradition, and no doubt in others as well. In the Hebrew Bible, David and Jonathan show forth some of the beauty in such a relationship. So does the friendship of Ruth and Naomi in the Book of Ruth.

In later times, St. Augustine writes about the subject with typical insight. Of his friendship with a man named Alypius, he wrote in 394 or 395: “Anyone who knows us both would say that he and I are distinct individuals in body only, not in mind.”

Two centuries later, Gregory the Great called this kind of friend the “guardian of one’s soul” (custos animae, in Latin). Such a definition, however, suggests a level of level of intimacy that is rare.

Spiritual friendship differs from the general kind by having as link the sharing of ideals. It also often features the exchange of experiences in the search for God. Soul brothers and sisters find satisfaction in helping one another in the ongoing pursuit of ultimate meaning.

In times of struggle, this bond becomes especially important. When we tire of keeping to our spiritual ideals and feel tempted to abandon the interior life, then we need the support of at least one other person.

Exchanging experiences in prayer can be part of it. You feel the need to complain of distractions and temptations, for instance, and reach out to your friend.

For not a few people, however, the big problem is not having such a friend. How is it possible to find someone who can become one’s soul brother or sister?

One suggestion is to find a community where people like you come together. Of course, church, synagogue, mosque or other place of worship might provide potential friends if you relate to such. Discovering a prayer group has given me friends who have graced me with various spiritual benefits.

Such a friendship should be seen as a gift. We can ask God to bestow it on us though, in most instances, to be so gifted one must reach out to others.

For those who are truly fortunate in marriage, they may find in their spouse a true spiritual friend. When that goes together with marital love, it is a precious combination. Then one does not need to reach out far to find vital friendship built on spiritual values, because it remains close at hand. Unfortunately, the real world does not feature this ideal marriage often enough.

For Christians, of course, Jesus remains the great practitioner of friendship. He called his disciples friends and seems to have had a particularly close personal relationship to St. John.

Jesus also provided a definition of friendship at its most sublime: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Inspired by these words, more than a few people, throughout recorded history, have made this sacrifice of themselves out of love for others.

Richard Griffin