We live in an age where we can strike up a new friendship with the click of a mouse, where our “friends,” many of whom we’ve never even met, can number into the hundreds, or even thousands, thanks to social networking sites like Facebook. And yet, despite all the connections and links and “likes” about everything from what we cooked for dinner last night to whom we’re voting for in the next election, most people are hungry for something more, for friendships that dip below the surface to touch the soul.
Although that may seem like a modern problem, the need for soul mates, spiritual friends, is nothing new. We can go back to the Book of Sirach in the Old Testament and read, “A faithful friend is a sturdy shelter; he who finds one finds a treasure” (6:14). Aelred of Rievaulx, a 12th-century Cistercian monk who wrote the book on “Spiritual Friendship,” literally says that a true friend is a “guardian of the spirit.”
It was that passage from Sirach, and my subsequent reading of Aelred’s book, that led to my several-year odyssey researching and writing my latest book, “Walking Together: Discovering the Catholic Tradition of Spiritual Friendship” (Ave Maria Press, $13.95). When I began, I counted a few people as my spiritual friends, but as I explored and reflected and read about the spiritual friendships of some of our greatest — as well as some of our lesser-known — saints and holy men and women, I began to realize that I had been blessed with an abundance of spiritual friends throughout my life. These were the people who came onto the scene at a certain time or place almost as if on cue, people who had clearly influenced my own faith journey in positive and powerful ways. You may find the same once you start looking at your own relationships through the lens of spiritual friendship.
Fostering the connection
What sets a spiritual friendship apart from a more typical friendship, and how can you spot such a soul mate? It’s fairly simple, actually. Spiritual friends are those people who share our hunger for God, those faith-filled companions who walk with us on the path to heaven, sometimes without us even realizing it. Think of the friend you meet at the parish picnic one summer afternoon — someone who makes you laugh, shares some of your interests, but, even more significantly, shares your desire to deepen your faith life. You may find the two of you always end up talking about the latest spiritual book you’re reading or about starting up a Scripture study group, or about some new service project you’d like to take on.
In those seemingly casual friendships, we find the seeds of a spiritual connection, tender shoots we can nourish, if we are aware of their presence in our lives and their significance to our spiritual journey. If you look around at your life right now, you’re likely to spot at least one person — a spouse, a sibling, a neighbor, a co-worker — who connects with you on a faith level, someone who is not only comfortable joining you for a movie, a ballgame or shopping trip but who also feels free to talk about God, to pray for you and with you, to push you farther along your own path and help you reach your fullest spiritual potential.
When we reach back to Scripture, it becomes apparent that spiritual friendship goes hand in hand with our Christian faith. After all, Jesus sent the disciples out two by two, knowing they would need spiritual support and companionship for the sometimes-difficult journey ahead.
“Wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them,” Jesus told his followers in Matthew 18:20, reminding us that God is at the center when spiritual friends get together. And Jesus had his own spiritual friends — Mary and Martha and their brother, Lazarus; Mary Magdalene; the disciple whom Jesus loved and entrusted with the care of his mother; and Peter, absent from the foot of the cross but proof that a true spiritual friendship can withstand the toughest trials, doubts and fears.
Keeping in touch
Unfortunately, our culture doesn’t lend itself to developing deep and lasting friendships. We live in an ultra-mobile world where even close family members often live in far-flung cities accessible only by long plane rides once a year. We cannot, as Jesus’ friends did, follow after a good friend day after day, eating with them, living in makeshift communities with them, and waiting for the next miracle to provide us with food or drink. At least not if we don’t want to be arrested for stalking. So how do we build spiritual relationships in our fast-paced secular world?
Ongoing communication is key. In his book “Introduction to the Devout Life,” St. Francis de Sales, who shared a deep, chaste spiritual friendship with St. Jane of Chantal, talked about communication in spiritual friendship as critical to its existence and growth. He called spiritual friendships the “most dangerous of all affections” because, unlike other relationships, true friendship cannot exist without “mental communication.”
Spiritual friendship implies a vulnerability on both friends’ parts. It requires a sharing of deepest feelings, and an honesty that lesser friendships might not be able to survive. Spiritual friendship is something that may get its start while we’re standing on the sidelines at our child’s soccer game with another parent, but it can only deepen when we take our communication to the next level.
We can use the very technology that threatens to unravel the fabric of deep friendship with superficiality and turn it to our advantage. Email, texting and social networking can be ways for spiritual friends to stay connected amid the busyness of work and parenting and life in general. With even the most seemingly imper-sonal communication modes, we can begin to weave together spiritual threads that will create a web of friends who share our love of God and our desire to live the Gospel.
Of course, the conversation can’t stop there. While today’s high-speed, high-tech means of communication give us an immediate access that the saintly friendships of days gone by did not have, deep and true friendship cannot survive on Facebook alone. Those more fleeting connections need to be shored up by letters, lengthy phone calls, and in-person visits, at least now and then. That is where will dig down into the depths of our souls to share, to pray, to take that next step on the path to God.
If all this makes spiritual friendship sound like too much work, don’t be scared off. Real spiritual friendship is not a chore, but rather one of life’s ultimate blessings, giving us a partner on a shared journey. Whether the support comes through prayers shared side by side, emails exchanged in a moment of crisis, or carefully crafted handwritten letters, a spiritual friend can be, as the words of Sirach tell us, “a treasure” in our fast-paced and sometimes isolating world.
Mary DeTurris Poust, who blogs for OSV Daily Take, is the author of “Walking Together: Discovering the Spiritual Tradition of Catholic Friendship” (Ave Maria Press, $13.95).
Guiding Each Other (sidebar)
A couple of years ago, when Pope Benedict XVI made his brother, Father Georg Ratzinger, an honorary citizen of Castel Gandolfo, the pope wrote: “From the beginning of my life, my brother has always been for me not only a companion, but also a trustworthy guide. For me he has been a point of orientation and of reference with the clarity and determination of his decisions. He has always shown me the path to take, even in difficult situations.”
What the pope described was a perfect example of spiritual friendship — two people who serve as trusted guides to each other, companions who are not afraid to speak the truth and share their sorrows and joys. Even in this age of social networking and instant communication, those kinds of deep and lasting bonds can be forged between any two friends who find common ground in God.