Spiritual Friendship – Fr. James Conner – Sept 2022 (Retreat talk)

Spiritual Friendship – Fr. James Conner – Sept 2022 (Retreat talk)

            Spiritual  Friendship

         The topic that you have chosen for your retreat this year is “Spiritual Friendship. This is particularly associated with St Aelred, Abbot of Rievaulx in England in the twelfth century. He was born about 1110 and served in the court of the King of Scots. He entered the monastery of Rievaulx in 1134. During a trip to Rome, he paid a visit to Clairvaux and met St Bernard. The two became close friends, and it was at Bernard’s encouragement that Aelred wrote his treatise on Spiritual Friendship.

`        Spiritual Friendship can be a difficult subject to deal with – and yet even more difficult to live out. When I first entered the monastery, some seventy years ago, the subject of spiritual friendship was a subject to be totally avoided. The reason for this was the fear of what was called “particular friendships”. This was a type of friendship which separated a couple of people from the general spirit of the community in ways that contributed to isolating the friends from community in various ways.

         When Aelred wrote of this subject, he indicated that certain types of people may find it more difficult to establish spiritual friendship. The sprt of person whom Aelred found most difficult to establish a spiritual friendship is one easily given to anger p or the choleric type. Since the goal of friendship is peace and relaxation which is the result of a calm love, the angry person finds it most difficult to relax and enjoy other people.

         Aelred first distinguishes friendship from charity. We are compelled by the law of charity to love not only our friends but also our enemies, yet     we call friends only those tp whom we can entrust our heart and all its secrets. This indicates that there are three types of friendship. There is a carnal friendship which Ae;red says is only falsely called friendship. He cites Psalm 10 saying: “He that loves iniquity, does not love, but hates his own soul.” The carnal springs from mutual harmony in vice. The second is called a worldly friendship which is based primarily on a hope of gain of some sort, whether of temporal advantage or possessions.  And the third is a love bound together by similarity of life among the just. It is based on a similarity of life, morals and pursuits, that is, a mutual conformity ib matters human and divine united with benevolence and charity. The fact that Eve was created from the side of Adam shows that human beings are equal, and in human affairs neither is superior nor inferior, a characteristic of true friendship. Hence nature from he beginning implanted the desire for friendship and charity on the heart of man. But after the fall of Adam and Eve, concupiscence caused private good to take precedence over the common good. . It corrupted the splendor of friendship and charity through avarice and envy.

         This is the reason for the suspicion of true charity, It is a virtue which entails the power of God living within us and directing our actions and relations in ways that are truly according to God. Jesus showed us that “for you, it is impossible, but for God, all things are possible.” Again He reminded us that “apart from Me you can do nothing.” But if we are filled with the presence of the Holy Spirit within us, then “all things are possible”.

         I remember several years ago, around the early 1950s, when Fr John of the Cross was giving his first Sermon jn Chapter.  he gave a beautiful expose on charity and love. However afterwards Dom James Fox gave an almost equally long expose on the dangers of love. There was at that time an inordinate fear of what Aelred called carnal friendship and what was commonly known as “particular friendship”. But such love is actually inordinate and cannot truly be called love. This was brought about by the fact that, at that time, very little was known of our early Cistercian Fathers and their writings.

         At that time, almost the only monastic writers pursued in monastic formation was the Benedictine Dom Marmion. Very little was known about our Cistercian Fathers until our Fr Louis Merton, followed by our Fr Chrysogonus, began to expose us to them. It was only then that we became acquainted with the early Cistercian tradition. It was only then that we began to be aware of the fact that there is a holy form of love apart from that of marriage, and that monks are called to strive for this form of love in forming true community. Monks are called to be friends not only of Jesus, but also to one another.

         This is equally true for married couples also. And since most of you present are married, it is good to remind you that the ideal of marriage is that the parties be true friends of one another, able to share what is going on and to be true friends as well as spouses.

         When Jesus was asked by the Pharisee “Who is my neighbor?”, his answer joined love of neighbor and love of God,  making both one single commandment. Later in his ministry he taught his disciples that this was also his “New Commandment”. It was new in the way that all are called to love even their enemies and those who may seem to be against them. It was also new in the sense that we are called on to follow the example of Jesus Himself, and be willing even to lay down our life for the other. In this way he showed us that the body of the disciples are to abide in one another just as they are to abide in him. All are joined together as branches on the vine. In time this even became something of the mark of the early Christian community, so that others could say: “See, how they love one another!”

         St Benedict, following Cassian, Pachomius and Basil, wanted his community of disciples to follow in this same way. His community of monks was to be an image of the early Church of Jerusalem, sharing all things in common and living the life of the gospels. He demonstrated this throughout his entire Rule, but particularly in ch. 72:

         This, then, is the good zeal which monks must foster with fervent love: they should each try to be the first to show respect to the other, supporting with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body or of behavior, and earnestly competing in obedience to one another. No one is to pursue what he judges to be better for himself, but instead what he judges better for someone else. To their fellow monks they show the pure love brothers; to God, loving fear; to the Abbot, unfeigned and humble love. Let them        prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may He bring us all together to everlasting life.

         Beyond even the life of the early Church, the monastic Fathers saw monastic life as a reflection of the angelic life. Our Cistercian Father Baldwin of Ford has a long treatise on common life. He sees it as first expressed in the very life of the Triune God – three Persons who share in one life and who chose to share this divine common life with those they created.

The common life of the angels is a sort of copy of that common life which is in God, of God, and is God. It is united in perfect peace by the Holy Spirit, who is its love, its bond, and its communion. ‘By the word of the Lord the heavens were estab­lished, and all their virtue by the spirit of his mouth. The heavens are the angels in whom God dwells as their common life and common blessed­ness, and in his love they live in concord and hap­piness. Each of them loves all the others, and all of them love each; they all want the same things and all are averse to the same things; what pleases one is displeasing to none, and what one wants, they all want. There is one purpose and one will for all; all feel the same thing, and all sense the same thing. There is no one here puffed up with pride, no one consumed with envy, no outbursts of anger, no quarrels or discord, no murmurs of impatience, and no one is defamed by treacherous tongues. Here all is at peace, all is calm, all is tranquil. There is nothing disordered, nothing undisciplined, nothing contrary to order or obedience, nothing secretly put away with the intention of keeping it for oneself. Everything is open and aboveboard, everything is plain, and things which are proper to each individual are common to all through the sharing of love and the love of sharing. They are all [assembled] in one temple and raise their shouts of joy to God in com­mon; all at the same time read and meditate and contemplate in the book of life; and they all refresh themselves communally at one and the same table. They take their rest together in the place of eternal repose, and there is no one who does anything on his own which can disturb or damage their common peace, obedience, or order. Such is the fellowship— the happiest and most joyous [of fellowships] —of the citizens of the realms above who live the com­mon life, and we who are still upon earth should follow their way of life by [living] the common life after their example. Thus, we might deserve to be joined with them in intimate companionship, a companionship which will be the more intimate the more it is granted us from above to imitate their life, through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the charity of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

         It is obvious that Baldwin is making a point for his community – highlighting the very differences between that angelic life in heaven and what he inevitably experienced within his own community. And yet he does so in such a way as to strive to lead them further in the common life they have embraced. It is a call to love. Since God is Love and we are created in the image and likeness of God, then we also are created to love. And this love is to show itself in the daily actions and reactions of one another. That is why St John can say that “he who does not love does not know God” (Jn 4:7) Even more strongly he says: “If anyone says: ‘I love God’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.” (Jn 4:20) Living in community, we encounter God each time that we encounter a brother. And how we respond to that brother is a sure indication of how we respond to God. It is not a question of some unreal ideal for monks. It is more than an ideal, for it flows from the very injunction of Jesus that we are to love one another as He has loved us. And He not only gives us the command and the example. He gives us the very ability to do so. For as He said: “Apart from me, you can do nothing”. Our ability to live in harmony and in love comes from the power of the Holy Spirit living within us. We fail in this only when we overlook this fact and try to depend on our own natural abilities and responses.

         Certainly community life is never easy. Every one of us could readily state ways in which we daily fail in this, both as individuals and as a community. At the same time, though, we need to remind ourselves of a fact taught by all psychologists – namely, that what we react to in others usually expresses something within ourselves which we either deny or try to hide even from ourselves. In psychological terms it is called “projection”. In order to avoid this, it is necessary that we have the courage to face ourselves first of all, knowing full well that while we are filled with the Holy Spirit and the divine life, yet we are also afflicted with the darkness of our fallen nature. And the only way to eliminate that is by bringing it to the light. This is why the early monastic Fathers made so much of the practice of revealing our thoughts to a spiritual elder. This throws light on the darkness and brings the beginnings at least of freedom.

         But to harbor that darkness within ourselves brings us to refuse that same darkness in the brother. Paul Tillich has shown that every person needs a close relationship in which he feels acceptance and is, therefore able to accept weakness in himself. He says: “Man to man acceptance-of-the-unacceptable in the other is the source of self-affirmation.” He uses the word “acceptance” in place of forgiveness, for forgiveness humiliates while acceptance equalizes. Another is accepted not because he is good, but because he wants to be so. Acceptance includes forgiveness and is therefore redemptive.

         It is necessary that one maintain fellowship with others not only as believers and sharers in the divine life, but also as sinners. To accept one’s sinfulness is a liberating thing, which enables one to put away the mask of untruthfulness. And once this mask is removed, one can truly be himself both before God and his brother. We are ensured against all self-deception by opening our self  to our brother (or sister). But we are created anew in this act. Brother loves brother not because of their qualities, but in order to engender deeper qualities or to awaken qualities which are already present. Jesus saved us by loving us in the name of his Father. We also, by loving our brothers, are to heal them spiritually and physically. Louis Evely has said that “a man can only increase his spiritual status for those who love him. If we want to condemn others to sterility, it is sufficient merely not to love them,” In community, forgiveness is not only a matter of accepting the mistakes a brother makes; it is accepting the brother who makes mistakes. This is why forgiveness can never be limited.

         Dietrich Bonhoeffer said: “Anybody who lives under the Cross and who has discerned the utter wickedness of all men and of his own heart will find that there is no sin that can ever be alien to him. Looking at the Cross of Jesus, he knows the human heart. He knows how utterly lost it is in sin and weakness, how it goes astray in the ways of sin, and he also knows that it is accepted in grace and mercy. Only the brother under the Cross can accept the sinner.”

         But from the fellowship in sinfulness, one naturally passes to a deeper communion with the brothers on a level where all are most perfectly one: namely, on the truest level of who each person is. At this level, communication is not necessary in order to maintain community. All are truly one in Christ who is the deepest center of our being. At this level, communion is experienced and expressed through prayer, through silence and solitude. Communion is first and foremost communion with another in a common value. This value is that of the Koinonia in the very life of the Trinity. This is a sort of community which is deeper and stronger than the association usually resulting from the intercourse of subjects through intelligence and reasoning. Communion is consummated beyond language. There is a demand for silence which is the atmosphere necessary for authentic communion. That inevitably sets up a dialectic between the proper form of communication and the proper form of silence and solitude. The community which is formed only on one of these two poles will inevitably remain shallow and fragile. Bonhoeffer sums this up by saying: “Let him who cannot be alone beware of community; but also let him who is not in community beware of being alone”. It is this which enables us to have communion with the brother as he is before God and as we are before God. The true “We” of community can be found only in the presence of God and in contact with our own deepest and truest self. This communion is a common listening to the call of God in the heart of each person and in the world at large. Thomas Merton says: “He who attempts to act and do things for others or for the world without deepening his own self-understanding, freedom, integrity and capacity for love, will not have anything to give others. He will communicate to them nothing but the contagion of his own obsessions, his aggressivity, his ego-centered ambitions, his delusions.

And we can come to that self-understanding only by facing up to the times when we are faced with a broken heart. And every person finds his heart broken myriad times in the course of life. But it is a question of what do we do with it. Do we face that broken heart in a way that can enable us to unite our broken heart with the broken heart of Christ or do we spend the rest of our life defending that broken heart from the incursions of others. Merton again says: “it is in deep solitude that I find the gentleness with which I can truly love my brothers for what they are, not for what they say.”

         In this way the monk is united not only with the brothers of his community, but with all peoples. This is seen in the words of the dying monk, Fr. Zossima, to his brothers in The Brothers Karamazov :

“Love one another, Fathers, said Fr. Zossima. Love God’s people. Because we have come here and shut ourselves within these walls, we are no holier than those that are outside, but on the contrary, from the very fact of coming here, each of us has confessed to himself that he is worse than others, than all men on earth. And the longer a monk lives in seclusion, the more keenly he must recognize this fact. … Only through that knowledge, our heart grows soft with infinite, universal, inexhaustible love. … Love God’s people.”