Spiritual growth through friendship

This article is the first in a two-part series on spiritual friendship. The second will appear in next week’s issue.

The topic of spiritual friendship is a perennial one. Aelred of Rievaulx (1110-67) wrote a classic book on spiritual friendship in the Middle Ages. St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622) and St. Jane de Chantal (1572-1641) exemplified spiritual friendship in the 17th century, and that tradition continues in Salesian communities to this day, including my own.

While a great deal has been written about spiritual friendship over the centuries, my impression is that this literature is not widely known. I always remember a Lutheran seminary student whom I taught several years ago saying that my discussion of spiritual friendship enabled him to see his relationships more clearly. As the Church continues to find new ways to engage contemporary culture, rediscovering a seemingly simple concept such as friendship can be a powerful tool for spiritual growth and discernment.

Friends through Christ

There are many types of friendships. Some are focused on common interests like baseball or haiku poetry. Many occur at work and involve the sharing of work-related interests or concerns. Some friendships relate to families as the parents of the children’s friends become “our” friends. Most friendships begin simply and move from casual chatting to deeper sharing about life and family.

Any friendship that begins to focus on the spiritual journey of life can be deemed a spiritual friendship. This does not exclude any or all the elements of friendship mentioned in the previous paragraph — in fact many spiritual friendships begin outside of a church setting.

God occasionally and somewhat unpredictably brings a spiritual friend into our lives. A spiritual friend is a person whom you could call on a moment’s notice and ask for their prayers for a family member who becomes seriously ill. They share regularly about the spiritual journey of life and seek to respond to the guidance of the Holy Spirit and to have each day contain some small manifestation of love of God and love of neighbor.

Spanning divisions

In recent decades, spiritual friendships between Catholics and other Christians have come to the fore. Previously, in our centuries of conflict, Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox and Anglicans tended to avoid one another. When I was a boy in Philadelphia, we did not go into one another’s churches even though we played basketball together every day.

Since the Catholic turn toward ecumenism with the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Ecumenism (1964), dialogue and collaboration between the various sects have increased. We have been open to attending prayer services at one another’s churches. We have learned from one another’s spiritual traditions. Our newfound openness to one another’s gifts can lead to spiritual friendship with its deep conversation and personal sharing.

A personal example: Several years ago, when I went on a retreat at a Trappist monastery, I didn’t know the religious background of anyone. This was partially because of the silence kept at the monastery. But it also was because nowadays the guest house is open to all, not just Catholics.

A few months later, I ran into a Lutheran minister after a lecture. We said to each other: “How do we know each other?” We discovered it was from the monastery. We had seen each other at every meal but had never spoken, sharing without words.

These friendships with other Christians allow for thoughtful engagement. As with many friends, we may have differences in family background that can be explored. With our Christian friends, we usually have differences in the church backgrounds that provide our “frame of reference.”

Sharing our varying religious backgrounds can be very enriching. We may discover that we are using the same words but with different understandings or overtones. Or we can be using different words with the same meaning. We wind up learning the vocabulary and context of our friend’s faith. A little exploration can help us to communicate more clearly and share more deeply while at the same time growing in our own faith.

Spiritual friends can help discern God’s will for our lives, whether that’s through a sudden inspiration or from observing the long-term pattern of events in our lives. Shutterstock

Focus on the other

Spiritual growth and growth in friendship are not characterized by too much introspection. Spiritual friendships have a characteristic focus on others and on God and not on ourselves. Rather than constantly reviewing relationships, consideration of spiritual progress (or regression) in spiritual friendships can occur most profitably on a yearly retreat or perhaps during the season of Lent.

To maintain relationships, spiritual friends should keep each other in their prayers. Such friends share spiritual readings that they have found helpful. They may talk about worrisome family or personal situations where the peace of Christ is not evident and listen to us when we do the same.

To strengthen the bond, spiritual friends should pray together. I used to ask the participants on weekends for engaged couples if they prayed together. Often, I got a puzzled look. I tried to encourage them to attend church together and to pray together as they entered married life. I expected that couples would become spiritual friends, but I realize now there can be no such presumption. Spiritual friendship is a gift from God and cannot be forced.

In praying with and for one another, friends notice the virtues that God has given the other person. These virtues are gifts that are shared primarily by example. The good example of friends often encourages us to practice virtues like patience, humility and generosity ourselves.

Learning from neighbors

Frequently, Christian neighbors can provide an exterior inspiration through their good example of mercy toward others. Recently, I watched a young religious sister exiting the subway system ahead of me stop to talk to the homeless man begging at the exit. This was a fine example of respect for human dignity. I learned from it.

The Holy Spirit will choose how to inspire us; we just need to be attentive. A person can come to greater insight into interior and exterior inspirations with the help of a friend.

Friends may talk about the interior inspirations of the Holy Spirit that have been given to them. These inspirations can be surprising and challenging.

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Spiritual friends can also help us in our discernment of God’s will. This can become known from a sudden inspiration or from the pattern of events in our lives. Discernment can concern long-term commitments to a job or a ministry.

Spiritual friends have our best interest at heart and can be quite honest and insightful in their comments and observations. Sometimes, they see us more clearly than we see ourselves. They also can help us to find God’s hand in the decision-making process.

Spiritual direction

Spiritual friends are our companions on the spiritual journey. For St. Francis de Sales, spiritual direction, a type of spiritual friendship characterized initially by one person knowing much more about the spiritual life than the other and sharing this knowledge/experience, becomes a relationship of equality over time.

Friends walk together on the spiritual path. St. Francis de Sales offers some markers that help us know where we are on the path and if we are heading in the right direction. We will explore these next week.

Father John Crossin is an Oblate of St. Francis de Sales. He writes from Washington, D.C.