Bromance may save your marriage

So, in light of having recently led a study on Genesis 1-3 and what it means for men (hence my post Biblical manhood?) as well as my three-part series about St Aelred of Rievaulx’s Spiritual Friendship (part 1, part 2, part 3), I thought I’d finally write a thing that’s been inchoate in my mind for a long time, drawing on them both:

Bromance may save your marriage

Genesis – What is a human?

For this to make sense, we need to think first on what it means to be human. From Gen. 1-3, we learn (amongst many other things):

  1. Humans are made in the image of God, male and female (1:26)
  2. It is not good for the man to be alone (2:18)
  3. Living by the sweat of your brow is part of the man’s curse (3:19)

God is Trinity. Among the many things it may mean for us to be made in the image of God, many people believe that being made for communion is part of that. God is Three Persons. Human communions imperfectly reflect the consubstantial Trinitarian life. Metropolitan John Zizioulas goes farther and says that all of creation, in fact, rests on communion as its foundation — see his mind-bending but beautiful book Being As Communion.

We are made for connection — this is part even of the message of 1:26, where we are made male and female together, thus reflecting the image of God as male and female, not as solitary individuals. (I got that idea from Father John Behr somewhere.)

Fallen relationships

The problem is, we live in a fallen world (hence Gen 3). In many cultures, men live out the curse of Genesis 3 by overidentifying with their work. In our culture, as an ongoing outworking of the ill-health wrought by the curse and human sinfulness, by the world, the flesh, and the devil, men tend to have superficial relationships with each other.

This is typified by “bro culture”, the fullest version of which I have never been ushered into, having an aversion to a. locker rooms and b. sports. Without a hint of caricature, drawing on Peggy Orenstein’s article in The Atlantic, The Miseducation of the American Boy, bro culture seems to be a superficial realm of existence, where men relate to each other in a series of games of oneupmanship, mocking those who show ‘sissy’ emotions, and speaking ill of women. And speaking of doing ill to women, in fact.

Many young men find that they can only open to other young women, not their bros.

I am sure the variations are legion.

Now, it is worth pausing to note a salutary aspect of late modern life, which is that many men consider their wives their best friend. This is a good thing. If you read works from even a century ago, it was clear that to many intelligent, educated men wives were interesting creatures worth loving, having around, procreating with, and so forth. But having an intellectual conversation about religion, politics, art, poetry, or anything else like that — well, that was what the club was for, right? Thankfully, not all men have always been like that, and it seems fewer are today.

Yet the problem that I see arising is that our male-to-male friendships, even if not the perversions of Orenstein’s study, are shallow. We talk sports or movies or video games or art or even politics and religion. But our deepest hearts, our fears, our loves, our true hates, our dreams in shimmering gossamer — these precious selves we hide away. Our emotions don’t come into play.

Except, perhaps, with the wife.

What ends up happening, I think, is that all of our emotional burden is laid on our wife’s shoulders. There are no male friends to help with it. She carries it all. And it is too much to bear.

Spiritual Bromance

Bromance, then, is a way forward. That is to say, find a man whom you can trust, with whom you have things in common. But instead of only talking about how excited you are that Star Trek: Picard begins to air this Thursday, or the Superbowl or whatever it is normal guys talk about, you also talk about your real life — your hopes, fears, and dreams. Your struggles.

This is like an accountability partner, but with more than just, ‘Did you do your devotions? Did you look at naughty pictures?’ It is also about the bigger walk with Jesus.

This is where Aelred comes in — you have to test the waters, to see if someone has the character to be trusted with your secrets, to be loyal to you when you do wrong, to grow upwards with you. And to simply be compatible. If our non-spiritual conversation doesn’t move because I like Star Trek and my bro likes boxing, perhaps we should just be friends and find true bromance elsewhere.

Now, I’d like to have some of this in my life.

Wouldn’t you?

Advertisement

Aelred’s Spiritual Friendship, Book 3

The first main discussion in book 3 of St Aelred’s Spiritual Friendship is about love, and what sort of love is suited to the building of spiritual friendship:

The source and origin of friendship is love, Although love can exist without friendship, friendship can never exist without love. Love develops either from nature or from duty, from reason alone or from affection alone, or from both together. We are bound together by a special affection from nature, as a mother loves her child. From duty, when introduced and accepted by reason. From reason alone, as we love our enemies, not from a spontaneous inclination of the mind but by the constraint of the commandment. From affection alone, when someone wins the love another because of such physical qualities as beauty or strength of eloquence. 3. From reason and affection together, as when one whom reason persuades is lovable because of his meritorious virtue enters another’s spirit through his sweetness of manner and the charm of a purer life. Reason is so joined to affection that love may be chaste through reason and delightful through affection. (3.2)

The final kind of love is that which is best suited to the sort of friendship under discussion in this dialogue.

Aelred says:

In a friend, a certain four qualities should be tested: loyalty, right intention, discretion, and patience. (3.61)

Loyalty, argues Aelred, is at the heart of friendship. There is no betrayal, no revealing secrets, no belittling of one’s friendship, and there is freedom from suspicion. Much of Book 3 discusses what sort of person should be chosen for this truest of friendships, with the warning ‘not to set our hearts too quickly.’ (3.40) If, however, you admit into friendship someone who has some of the forewarned vices and who commits a grave sin, be patient. If this person proves to be unsuitable, do not cut off the relationship quickly, but just slowly drift away.

If one who was a friend seeks to do you wrong, you should put up with that person’s behaviour patiently and lovingly, with regard to the former affection. Respond so lovingly and reputably that disgrace falls on the other person, not yourself.

However, it is always preferable to avoid the above through testing a potential friend, letting someone into your confidences and trust little by little.

The monks say that this is all well and good, but does not Aelred himself embrace many people who would make unsuitable friends? He responds:

With all affection I embrace many whom I do not admit into the intimacies of friendship, which consists especially in communicating all my secrets and aspirations. (3.83)

He gives the example of Jesus Christ, who loved everyone, but who still had some disciples closer than others, let alone the great crowds that followed him.

Having tested a potential friend, what do we do now? Aelred has quite little to say here, actually. He believes that such friendships will purify each other. Throughout, it is the sharing of confidences and the praying for one another that seem to do the trick. Having chosen a person of similar enough character who is also pursuing virtue and Christ, you can share with him (or her) your deep secrets, your fears and weaknesses as well as your joys and strengths. Because of the trust in this relationship, you know that your friend will not mock you or heap scorn on you for your weakness or be jealous of your strength, but give advice and pray for you as well as praise God for your victories.

So, besides whom you choose, what seems to set Aelred’s spiritual friendship apart from what most of us experience, is the intentionality. You and your spiritual friend discuss spiritual things. You have a strong relationship that you can accept criticism from each other — Aelred speaks of how a look from one of his close friends was able to calm his anger and keep him in check.

Most of us do not go deep with our friendly acquaintances, whom we have never tested, whom we have never considered going deeper with. I suspect that if we did, we would find that human intimacy leads to divine intimacy, as St Aelred recommends.

Whom might you choose as a spiritual friend, then?

Aelred of Rievaulx, Spiritual Friendship Book 2

Book 2 of Spiritual Friendship is the shortest of the three books of St Aelred’s guide to making friends and growing spiritually. In the drama of the dialogue, a few years have passed, and Aelred has gained new dialogue partners, his original interlocutor having passed away. We have a recap of what went before, and then discussion of the importance of friendship.

Basing his discussion in Scripture, Aelred sees friendship as one of the highest goods in a person’s life. Without friendship, we are like wild animals. Furthermore, friendship provides a foundation for the virtues. Friendship is medicine. One elegant passage runs:

Consequently, friendship for the rich is a glory, for exiles a country, for the poor remission of taxes, for the sick medicine, for the dead life, for the healthy a benefit, for the weak strength, and for the vigorous a reward. (2.14)

… One truth surpasses all these: close to perfection is that level of friendship that consists in the love and knowledge of God, when one who is the friend of another becomes the friend of God, according to the verse of our Savior in the Gospel: “I shall no longer call you servants but friends.” (2.14)

Such wonderful friendship, though, such friendship that brings excellence and lays the foundation for virtue, exists only among the good. To be more precise, Aelred says that it exists perfectly among the perfect, but has its origins among the good and progresses as they themselves progress in perfection.

Pre-modern Christians have no qualms in stating outright that if we are less holy, we will enjoy the benefits of life less fully.

Nevertheless, the argument as it sits in Aelred, with his descriptions of what friendship is, makes sense. Friendship is a unanimity of mind, a deep bond of harmony. It is the foundation for virtue and a balm in distress. Moreover, and this is a vital point first made in book 2, friendship is a pathway to Christ. It only stands to reason, then, that we will enjoy its benefits more the more we become like Christ.

Consider as follows. Let’s say I suffer from the passion of anger, due in part to my own prickliness, in part to my own selfishness, in part to my own pettiness as I judge others. This will limit the number of deep, true, spiritual friendships I have, and limit the depth of any friendship I form. But if I am able to acknowledge that I have such a weakness, and profess it to a friend — well, my friendship has become a stepping-stone to becoming more like Christ.

Moreover, my friend can pray for me about this problem, and I can pray for him. As I overcome my own anger and the selfishness whence it comes, I will be better able to listen to my friend’s weaknesses and to take his concerns to Christ in prayer. As I pray for him, and as he prays for me, we both become holier. Our mutual growth in holiness will stir us up to become even holier.

But if I remain petty and selfish, judging my friend for the ways in which he is unlike me, neither will I have the vulnerability to open up to him, nor will I have the magnanimity to take his own concerns seriously.

This is just my own imagining. Nonetheless, I think it true. So let’s find someone at least as good as ourselves to be vulnerable with, to pray with, and to be friends with.

This will be a path to Jesus and the heart of God.

St Aelred’s Spiritual Friendship, Book 1

I just finished reading St Aelred of Rievaulx’s Spiritual Friendship, Book 1 (Aelred d. 1167). You can read the introduction through to the end of book 1 for free as a publisher’s preview from Liturgical Press (the Benedictines who now publish [or at least distribute] Cistercian Publications) if you like. I thought I would share a few reflections on Book 1 here.

The whole of Spiritual Friendship is a dialogue, and Book 1 consists of an abbot named Aelred conversing with a monk named Ivo on the question of friendship. For a starting point for the discussion, they take up Cicero’s definition from On Friendship 6.20:

Friendship is agreement in things human and divine, with good will and charity. (Aelred, 1.11)

From here it is pondered whether this is attainable outside of grace and of Christ. As they proceed, three kinds of human relationship that might be called ‘friendship’ emerge:

  1. Carnal friendship: Simply enjoying things, mostly sin, with another person. Like Augustine’s friends and the pears, or like a band of thieves.
  2. Worldly friendship: Maintaining a relationship with someone else for personal gain. They mostly discuss wealth, business, and the like, but we can imagine ‘career advancement’ or, in their own 12th-century context, ‘advancement at court’, being the same basic thing.
  3. Spiritual friendship: Friends who are friends simply for the sake of each other’s company.

This third friendship is not charity (caritas), for charity embraces both friend and foe, whereas in spiritual friendship you can entrust everything to each other. Moreover, this friendship is between people with ‘agreement in things human and divine’, so it differs from caritas since caritas is to be given to all, friend, foe, stranger.

To distinguish it from the other two friendships, Aelred says:

Now the spiritual, which we call true friendship, is desired not with an eye to any worldly profit or for any extraneous reason, but for its own natural worth and for the emotion of the human heart, so that its fruit and reward is nothing but itself. (1.45)

An important idea that emerges is the statement that friendship is part of human nature — therefore, it is good, and it has been there since creation. Evidence for this comes from Genesis, where it is said that it is not good for the man to be alone, so the woman is created out of him. This is also, for those who have an interest, used as evidence that male and female by nature are equals.

Friendship, however, was corrupted at the fall by cupidity, avarice, envy that brought in contentions, rivalries, hatreds, and suspicions. This is the state of the world we live in. But true, that is, spiritual, friendship is still possible.

As the book draws towards its end, Aelred also makes a provocative statement:

if you weigh these teachings carefully, you will discover that friendship is so close to or steeped in wisdom that I would almost claim that friendship is nothing other than wisdom. (1.67)

Ivo disputes that, and as part of his wider explanation, Aelred says:

Since in friendship, then, eternity may flourish, truth light the way, and charity delight, see for yourself whether you should withhold the name of wisdom where these three co-exist. (1.68)

Some thoughts arising from this very brief account of only a few points in Aelred’s text.

First, not having read Cicero’s On Friendship and so speaking second hand, it seems that from texts such as that and from what Aelred says, that in the ancient mindset, life was a contest — so most friendships were of the ‘worldly’ kind at best. What Aelred has not imagined in this part of the book is that kind of friendship that arises between persons of mutual interests but where the relationship ultimately does exist for its own sake but will never progress to the kind of spiritual friendship that I understand the second and third books discuss.

What do we do with this? Do we see it as a foundation for true friendship that cannot be realised in the unregenerate outside of the grace of Christ? That said friends, if converted, would find themselves strengthened even more?

Second, I think this text was important in Aelred’s day for much the same reason as in our own. St Aelred is writing in the same era as the troubadours of France, the same era as courtly love, of Chrétien de Troyes, of Marie de France, of others. This is an age where a secular literature emerged of ‘true’ love being the highest good, rising (in literature) even higher than that of the Christian God, where ‘true’ love is erotic and not bound by marriage but often of necessity found only in adultery.

We may no longer esteem adultery so highly, but we are not so far from the courtly ethic of love and its power and its importance as might be though.

In such a context, to find a great, high, and magnificent ideal in friendship is powerful. And then to find in friendship a pathway to Christ through those humans around us — this is a message that we need in our age that is at once more connected and more lonely than ever, our age of sex without intimacy, and online ‘friends’ we’ve never met.

Let’s see where the next two books will take me…

Saint of the Week: St. Clare of Assisi

Adapted from a post originally situated here.

St. Clare of Assisi was probably St. Francis’ (saint of the week here) best friend. She, like Francis, came from a wealthy family in Assisi, and abandoned it all for the Gospel — which for a woman in thirteenth-century Italy was a lot harder than for a man; she had to run away from home basically and escape out of an arranged marriage.

Having made the Laudable Exchange (blogged here), she joined up with Francis. Since the Church of the Middle Ages did not have a place for women in the wandering, preaching work of mendicants, she and her sistren who also abandoned the world lived the cloistered life. The order she founded is the Poor Sisters of St. Clare, the nuns who are the female counterparts of the Little Brothers.

Now, the thirteenth century was still the Middle Ages, and Sts. Francis & Clare were out to change the Holy Catholic Church from within, not start a hippie commune (as it looks in Brother Sun, Sister Moon) with Donovan leading the Gregorian Chant. The Poor Clares lived separately from the Little Brothers; mediaeval monastics, no matter how counter-cultural, knew well the temptations and lusts of the flesh. Having large quantities of unmarried men and women living in close community is not necessarily conducive to righteous living.

St. Clare is another reason we love Franciscans. St. Francis treated her as an equal, as a friend, as a sister. Many great things there are about the Middle Ages, but the treatment of the average woman by the men around her is not one of them. That Francis and Clare were such good friends is a testament to the power of the Gospel to transform lives. Their friendship is also one of those beautiful spiritual bonds that many of us long for, such as between St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila, or St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory of Nazianzus. They would meet and discuss the things of Christ into the wee hours, unconscious of the passage of time. Their conversation and prayers would get caught up into the heavenly realms as these two mystics sought the glorious Trinity together.

So, here’s a collect for St. Clare’s Day, as found over at the Daily Office blog:

Collect of the Day: St. Clare of Assisi, 1253

O God, whose blessed Son became poor that we through his poverty might be rich: Deliver us from an inordinate love of this world, that we, inspired by the devotion of your servant Clare, may serve you with singleness of heart, and attain to the riches of the age to come; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.