A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, October 24, 2010
A Reflection on the Nature of Friendship
I awoke this morning with devout thanksgiving for my friends, the old and the new. Shall I not call God the Beautiful, who daily showeth himself so to me in his gifts? I chide society, I embrace solitude, and yet I am not so ungrateful as not to see the wise, the lovely, and the noble-minded, as from time to time they pass my gate. Who hears me, who understands me, becomes mine, — a possession for all time. Nor is nature so poor but she gives me this joy several times, and thus we weave social threads of our own, a new web of relations; and, as many thoughts in succession substantiate themselves, we shall by and by stand in a new world of our own creation, and no longer strangers and pilgrims in a traditionary globe. My friends have come to me unsought. The great God gave them to me. By oldest right, by the divine affinity of virtue with itself, I find them, or rather not I, but the Deity in me and in them derides and cancels the thick walls of individual character, relation, age, sex, circumstance, at which he usually connives, and now makes many one. High thanks I owe you, excellent lovers, who carry out the world for me to new and noble depths, and enlarge the meaning of all my thoughts. These are new poetry of the first Bard, — poetry without stop, — hymn, ode, and epic, poetry still flowing, Apollo and the Muses chanting still. Will these, too, separate themselves from me again, or some of them? I know not, but I fear it not; for my relation to them is so pure, that we hold by simple affinity, and the Genius of my life being thus social, the same affinity will exert its energy on whomsoever is as noble as these men and women, wherever I may be.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson, On Friendship
Today, let’s talk about friends. Not the television program, although I suppose we have to touch on it, if in passing. Let’s talk about friends, having them, being one. Let’s talk about friendship, and what it can mean.
Friendship can be a complicated thing, no doubt. For instance in the minister world there are two opinions about friendship with members of the churches they, okay, we serve. I’ve mentioned this before. After all it looms large in my life. The greater majority opinion is you can’t have friends within the congregation you serve, its just too complicated. Sometimes way too complicated. That’s the majority opinion. The minority opinion is it’s very complicated, and you really shouldn’t have friends within the congregation. As you might imagine, there are lots of lonely ministers out there.
And, if you think about it, all sorts of weirdness will follow such “wisdom.” For instance, with the advent of Facebook ministers often find themselves “friended,” a lovely term, don’t you think, by congregants. You might be surprised at how many wring their hands over whether to say yes, to have Facebook friends within the congregation. I told my spiritual director about this and he replied, “a friend will help you move, a real friend will help you move a body.” (Perhaps he was being metaphorical) “But,” he concluded, “A Facebook friend is neither. It’s just a term for contacts.”
I’m sure he’s right. Although that use of the contact as part of the category we today use for friendship in general cuts closer to the bone than perhaps is comfortable. There are ways in which our lives today are more attenuated, at a remove, and this seems true most of all within our relationships with others. Most of those we call friends are really of the Facebook variety whether we use social utilities, or not.
Not that this attenuated association hasn’t always been one of the possibilities for our lives. I am aware that Alexandra David-Neel was born in France on this day, today, in 1868. She’s one of my heroes, an absolutely amazing figure, among other things one of the first Europeans to visit Tibet. In 1924 the country was closed to foreigners. Already well traveled, and quite familiar with neighboring Sikkim, Tibetan culture and language she simply disguised herself as a Tibetan matron and together with a single companion crossed the border taking four months to walk to Lhasa, then spending two months in Tibet’s ancient capital. Personally I would consider this whole story, which is pretty fantastic on the face of it, as bogus, actually part of a fairly large literature of fake adventures in Tibet; that is I would have if it hadn’t been quite so well documented. She ended up writing something in the neighborhood of thirty books, mostly about Tibetan Buddhism, of which she was a very serious student, and among the very first European to be so.
But for today it wasn’t her adventures, or even so much her theology that has burrowed into my brain and heart, but rather her personal relationships. How best to say this? They were complicated. Sort of like the complicated for ministers who are wary of having friends. She married Phllipe Neel, a French engineer, whom she met in Tunis in an early part of her life. They barely ever lived together, eventually legally separating although never actually divorcing. Later she took a young Tibetan monk into her employ as a servant, eventually adopting him, but it appears the relationship was never really so clear, son or servant? A brilliant mind, no doubt. And I am convinced she had wisdom about her. And, if you care, apparently she could put together quite the dinner party. Always had something witty to say. But never so good with people in any intimate way, it would seem.
Now before saying she just had Facebook friends, Madam David-Neel in fact had disciples, people who hung on her words, so perhaps there were those who might move that body for her. But, I sincerely doubt there was anyone for whom she herself would help haul that body. And that lack of mutuality, of crazy commitment is critical to friendship, to real friendship. I’ll come back to that in a bit.
Let’s consider the situation on the ground today a little more. The columnist David Brooks wrote of in his October 21st column about what he saw as the shift in television from family sitcoms to what he called “flock” sitcoms, of which Friends was among the first examples. He acknowledges the scripting advantages of having shows about a group of friends, just gives more opportunities for variety in the plot than in a show about a family. Still, he suggests this also points to “something deeper about the patterns of friendship in (our) society.” Brooks notes the great relationships of history, after love, or, perhaps including love are what he calls dyadic. Involving two. “Throughout history,” He opines. “(T)he most famous friendships were one on one. As Ruth says to Naomi in the biblical narrative: ‘Whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.’”
Brooks cites C. S. Lewis’ Four Loves. “It seems no wonder if our ancestors regarded Friendship as something that raised us almost above humanity. This love, free from instinct, free from all duties but those which love has freely assumed, almost wholly free from jealousy, and free without qualification from the need to be needed, is eminently spiritual. It is the sort of love one can imagine between angels.”
I read that and I have to admit it felt a tad ethereal to me, and not all that real. I much preferred the messier deep friendship that at least imaginally can involve dragging a body somewhere. But I get Brooks’ sense that we are losing something in our culture, or might be.
His thesis is that there is a shift from these individual and passionate friendships, which were once a hallmark of life to more generalized, attenuated friendships. You look at the letters between friends in the nineteenth century and you get some of his point. These days when it is important to notice the variety of human sexuality as a normal thing has sometimes led people to read these nineteenth century or even earlier letters between people of the same gender and at least hope it means something homoerotic. In our circles, anyway. When the case most of the time is probably not. It speaks instead to how passionate friendship can be.
And thinking of all that, maybe relations are thinner today. Exceptions in the past duly noted, it kind of feels that way to me, too. Now Brooks’ didn’t completely disparage this shift, but he is clearly suspicious, and a little concerned. There are aspects of our culture that do appear to be shifting to a somewhat more distant sense, texting rather than calling, that sort of thing. But, also, we humans have a remarkable ability to paint the past in glowing colors. And, I’m not totally convinced those great and passionate friendships were ever particularly common.
But, there’s a call in noticing this, whether it has always been a problem, or as it appears, it is more of a problem today. Perhaps we need to attend to friendship, to our casual friendships, like on Facebook, but also to our deeper friendships. The Greeks, as anyone who has studied the New Testament knows, has four terms for aspects of what we in English call love. The big ones are eros, romantic or erotic love and agape, what we usually think of as Divine love. Given less attention, but nonetheless in the family of love are storge, affection or familial love, and philia, or friendship.
The Christian apologist C. S. Lewis wrote a delightful if occasionally eccentric study of these titled the Four Loves, the book David Brooks cited. If you’ve not read it, I commend to you. One of his theses is that these loves each inform the other. And I am really taken with that. I believe as we look at one kind of love, each of the others are illuminated and illuminate the whole of the dynamic human experience of intimacy. And that’s what it’s all about, really: intimacy. Intimacy. As we explore each aspect of our intimate encounters I believe we’re on the way to meaning and purpose and direction for our lives and for how we act in the world. So, important stuff.
A parish minister as the minister has a peculiar set of relationships, which makes it difficult to pal around, to spend a lot of social time with any small set of people. Much of this has to do with how we need to not be identified with a particular set or clique. That’s the legitimate point behind those cautions about friendship within the congregation. But really it’s most of all about time. Frankly, I feel guilty when Jan and I take a weekend away, like I’m stealing time from work that must be done. All that acknowledged, what kind of person do I become if I don’t find some time for friendship? And what kind of person do I become if I don’t hazard the dangers in trying to be friendly within this community, the place I live, and carve out a little time, and have some friendships?
And here’s a point for you. We’re almost all of us busy beyond reason. But… What kind of people are any of us going to be, are we, if we don’t hazard the dangers, and carve out some time and try to have and to be a friend? We come here, most of us, because of some pressing spiritual question. We are here in quest of a spiritual life, a life with meaning and purpose. Well, the Buddha tells us friendship is in fact the whole of the spiritual life.
Of course a big question is how is that so? Well, as I’ve said, it appears all the aspects of love inform each other. Agape, which for me is that sense of the greater - without grounding in specific instances, in my encounter with you or your encounter with the person next to you, is at best something arid. It’s a dream until it manifests within actual relationships. And this continues. Erotic love without a sense of affection inevitably becomes abusive. Familial love that doesn’t extend beyond the boundaries of the house is narrow and tribal.
And friendship that isn’t informed by all these aspects, all the dynamic variations of affection, misses its real value. Divine love informs erotic love which informs affection which informs friendship which informs all the others. Rearrange the list as you like. All aspects inform all other aspects. We live in a multi-causal universe, and nowhere is this truth more obviously true than in how we engage and must engage our friendships.
In the spiritual life nowhere do our ideals meet the actual more truly than in how we relate to each other, in how we make, sustain and are friends.
So, what does this look like in real life? How are we friends? What does friendship look like? Is it taking time after worship to wander over to the Stewardship Ministry Faire? Is it noticing someone you know here at church hasn’t been around for a while and giving her a call? My auntie asked what I was writing about. I said friendship and asked if she had a thought? She said sometimes being a friend is knowing when to say no. It is complex, no doubt. And there are no real lists of how one can do this. Boundaries are part of it. As is abandon. But knowing when which is which, is part of that dance we must engage, even if it means stepping on a toe now and again, or having our own foot trod on. We learn by doing.
But if we do this, it can count for so much. Our UU minister at All Souls in Washington, DC, Robert Hardies has one suggestion. In a 2002 sermon he wrote how “There's an old Talmudic story about a rabbi who is on death's threshold. In Jewish thinking he has become a goses, which is Hebrew for a soul that is trapped between life and death. The rabbi is ready to relinquish his hold on life, but he can't die because his students are kneeling around his bed, praying fervently for him to live. (I can't tell you how many times I saw this story take place when I worked as a chaplain in an Intensive Care Unit. It can be so very, very hard.) Finally, a sensible woman climbs up on the rabbi's roof; she takes a clay jug, and throws the jug crashing to the ground. The noise disrupts the students just long enough for their master's soul to slip quickly into heaven.”
Robert then adds the midrash, the commentary. “Because she helped the students let go, the Talmud notes, the woman will have a place in heaven, too.”
Here’s a suggestion. No one without friends can get into heaven. Our friendships, no doubt in my mind and heart, are the soul of our spiritual exercises. Our intimate relationships reveal our lives right now, here, as we really are. And let me tell you heaven and hell are nowhere other than here. And from that a bottom line: don’t have time for a friend? Well…
So, a caution, but also an invitation.