On Christian Friendship

Can a 12th century monk teach something to us, free men in a hyper-connected world? If the reader is tempted to give a negative answer, I may ask him to suspend his judgement in a kind of epoché. Any man has the power to talk to another man’s heart. And this is the case of Aelred of Rievaulx, our 12th century monk, a saint indeed. He was an English disciple of St Bernard of Clairvaux, a prolific writer, an erudite with a large acquaintance with Classical authors, and especially a man with an extraordinary personality. People who met him use these adjectives to describe him: gentle, benign, charitable, smart, and eloquent. He was considered a peak of the cultural world of his time. Simply put, his whole life can be considered inspiring.

Perhaps Aelred’s most remarkable book (certainly the best known) is called De spiritali amicitia, or in English, On Spiritual Friendship. It is written in form of a dialogue, and made up of three scenes. Actually the book could be easily transformed in a stage play. Everybody should feel encouraged to read and enjoy it.

Friendship is the theme but, as a Christian, Aelred wanted to go beyond the explanations of this kind of love that were given in the Classical era. He recalls Cicero’s celebrated definition. Friendship is, according to the Roman orator, “nothing else but an agreement on all human and divine things, with benevolence and kindness”[1]. This is a definition of friendship that Aelred considered good, but lacking in some aspects. The monk, indeed, wanted to have a more complete definition and decided to explore the meaning of friendship among Christians. What does it mean for a Christian to be friends with somebody? How is Christian friendship rooted in human nature and in Sacred Scripture? These were the questions that Aelred tempted to solve in his book.

The first phrase reveals and includes in itself the whole book’s thesis: “Here we are, you and me, and I hope that Christ might be between us as a third”[2]. Friendship is understood as a way that leads to God through the friends’ mutual union in Christ. Christian friendship binds men together and is meant to help them become friends with God. One friend (amicus in Latin) becomes the guardian of the other (animi custos), the one that helps him or her in the strife for complete maturation and development. Friendship unites people so much that they become as one.

Christian friendship is a hard but not impossible endeavour. In fact, Christian friendship is distinct from friendship as understood by the world. Christian friends help each other to be better, while worldly ‘friends’ induce themselves into sin and vice. Christian friends place God over everything, while worldly ‘friends’ give too much importance to transient creatures, like money and honours.

“He who does not have a friend is completely alone”[3], says Aelred. Friendship enhances life, provides company, makes the good moments happier, and takes burden away from suffering. “A friend, thus, is the best medicine in life”[4].

Those who are friends in Christ become in Him a single heart and a single soul. Indeed Christian friendship is more than the Ciceronian ‘agreement’ and identity of opinions and desires. Christian friends love each other so much that they are willing to give their own life up for their friends, imitating in that way the Divine Master’s example. “Christ Himself indicated the true measure of friendship when He said: ‘Nobody has a greater love than he who gives his life for his friends’. To this extent must the friends’ love tend: to the point that the friends might be willing to die for each other”[5]. But one must not commit even the slightest sin for the apparent good of the friend. Sinning is opposed to love, and a denial of true friendship.

Christ is the perfect friend. Aelred highlights our Lord’s friendly behaviour towards the apostles, especially Peter and John. Jesus became their source of love, grace, sweetness and charity. They learned to find their rest in Him, as He opened his Heart to them. He prayed for their friends and united them all in Him. At the same time, Jesus was not effeminate or inordinately affectionate. He thus sets up the example of unspoiled friendship as should be practiced by any Christian, who must transit from the human friend to the Divine Friend, our Lord.

[1] Cicero’s full phrase is: “Est enim amicitia nihil aliud nisi omnium divinarum humanarumque rerum cum benevolentia et caritate consensio” (De amicitia, section 6).

[2] All the quotations from St Aelred’s book found in this article have been translated by the author. The footnotes display the Latin text. In the original, thus begins the first book: “Ecce ego et tu, et spero quod tertius inter nos Christus sit”.

[3] Solus omnino est qui sine amico est.

[4] Optimum ergo vitae medicamentum amicus.

[5] Certam in amicitia metam Christus ipse praefixit: Maiorem hac, inquiens, dilectionem nemo habet, quam ut animam suam ponat quis pro amicis suis. Ecce quousque tendi debet amor inter amicos, ut scilicet velint pro invicem mori.

Photo credit: nicholaschan.

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On Christian Friendship