The definition of “friendship” has taken some hits in recent years. After all, we live in a world where social media allows us to “friend” or “unfriend” someone with the click of our computer or smartphone. But that’s precisely why face-to-face and heart-to-heart friendship is needed more than ever. These are the times that call for spiritual friendships, the kinds of bonds that reach to a place deep within our souls, far beyond shared interests, book clubs, and shopping dates.
Spiritual friendship is not an invention of our modern times. In fact, we can trace it back into the Old Testament. “A faithful friend is a sturdy shelter; he who finds one finds a treasure,” we read in Sirach 6:14. We’re not talking about just any good friend here; we’re talking about a friend whose hunger for spiritual connection, whose journey toward God mirrors our own.
Aelred of Rivealux, a Cistercian monk who lived in the 12th century, wrote the original book on spiritual friendship. His collection of letters was meant to help readers discover the beauty of this kind of soul-to-soul relationship. Five centuries later, St. Francis de Sales took up the mantle and wrote extensively about spiritual friendship in his classic “Introduction to the Devout Life.”
“If the bond of your mutual liking be charity, devotion, and Christian perfection, God knows how very precious a friendship it is! Precious because it comes from God, because it tends to God, because God is the link that binds you, because it will last forever in Him,” wrote St. Francis.
But spiritual friendship is not some remnant of a bygone era. It is alive and well among faithful friends who want to be companions on the spiritual journey through highs and lows, good times and bad, from here to eternity.
“Nothing is more sacred than a letter or conversation in which one human being opens his or her heart to another.” – “Compassionate Fire: The Letters of Thomas Merton and Catherine de Hueck Doherty”
In their book “Love & Salt: A Spiritual Friendship Shared in Letters,” authors Amy Andrews and Jessica Mesman Griffith allow us to enter into their relationship. The pair began writing letters to each other in 2005 as a way to “seek and struggle together.”
“We wrote to preserve and make sense of our daily lives; we wrote to confess and console, to rant and grieve. But more than anything else, we wrote because it was the only way we knew how to pray,” they explain in the prelude to their book.
In their personal and sometimes painful letters, we see in black and white the power of spiritual friendship to lift us up and push us forward even when we think we can’t move a spiritual muscle.
For instance, following the death of her baby, Andrews received support from her husband, family and church community. Yet it was her friendship with Griffith that provided the greatest consolation because of their spiritual bond. She explained on Christopher Closeup, “Seeing Jess beside me, weeping when I was weeping—that’s the incarnational nature of our faith. I was seeing God suffering through her, and that absolutely lightened my burden. It didn’t make it go away, but it redeemed it.”
So you see, spiritual friendship isn’t about a connection between two already-perfect friends. It’s often about two people slogging through life and serving as both anchor and buoy to each other, inching closer to “perfection” together.
“Do not ask me to abandon or forsake you! For wherever you go, I will go.” – Ruth 1:16
True Soul Mates
Jesus told His disciples, “I no longer call you servants…I have called you friends.” (John 15:15) We can see some of Jesus’ own spiritual friends gathered around him in the stories of the Gospel: Mary, Martha and Lazarus; Mary Magdalene; Peter; and the disciple whom Jesus loved. Jesus gives us an example to follow, a reminder that we are not meant to walk this path alone.
Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, we are called to relationship and community, and this community is made up of friends who share our faith and our longing for God. In “Walking Together: Discovering the Catholic Tradition of Spiritual Friendship,” author Mary DeTurris Poust talks about the ways friends can lead each other to “great things” through their spiritually intimate understanding of each other.
“They can coax each other along the spiritual path, nudge each other to face a spiritual challenge that may seem daunting, and shore each other up when one or the other is struggling or maybe even veering off course,” Poust writes. “Spiritual friendship in short, starts with God, grows in God, and ultimately finds fulfillment in God.”
So often the seeds for these types of friendships are right in front of us, just waiting to be nurtured. Once we become aware of the possibility of spiritual friendship, we can begin to seek out and invest in relationships that have the potential to help us grow as friends, as people, as spiritual seekers. Perhaps a co-worker or neighbor will stand out as someone who shares not only our sense of humor but our love of prayer or the saints or daily Mass. It is in these seemingly everyday friendships that we often discover the “treasure” we read about in Scripture.
Pat Gohn, author of “Blessed, Beautiful, and Bodacious: Celebrating the Gift of Catholic Womanhood,” talks about the importance of “spiritual motherhood,” those relationships where a woman—whether biological mother or not—nurtures the spiritual life of another. This is just one of the many incarnations of spiritual friendship available to us today.
Gohn says, “As the parent of a child, we freely pour our love and energy into their growth, even though a child is often not capable of a reciprocal giving back. A spiritual mother willingly gives of herself, and lets her love be planted in another person’s life, investing without expectation of a return, yet leaving the results to God, because God is the source of all our goodness in the first place.”
That same spirit is very much at the heart of spiritual friendship—loving without expecting anything in return, offering without strings attached. And it’s something that flies in the face of what our society tells us. In a world where there’s “no free lunch,” spiritual friendship is counter-cultural. It says, yes, you can give and receive this love, this bond, this communion without fear of indebtedness or guilt.
Growing Together in Faith
Perhaps one of the most beautiful things about spiritual friendship is that rather than isolating the friends, this kind of relationship moves ever outward, encompassing others. We can see this reality in the lives of saintly spiritual friends over the centuries. St. Francis and St. Clare of Assisi allowed their friendship to inspire their religious vocations and their ministry, as did so many others whose stories have changed the face of our Church and our world.
St. Teresa of Avila’s friendship with St. John of the Cross allowed each of them to develop their full spiritual potential — John in his vocation to the new Carmelite order and Teresa as a mystic. St. Jane de Chantal’s friendship with St. Francis de Sales inspired her to found the Visitation Sisters. Dorothy Day’s spiritual friendship and bond with Peter Maurin resulted in the Catholic Worker Movement.
Interestingly enough, if we look at those friendships, we notice something else unusual about them, at least according to our society’s norms: a deep friendship between a man and a woman without the promise of — or interest in — a physical relationship or marriage. Spiritual friendship is a deeply intimate relationship graced by chastity and an “agape” kind of love.
The Practical Side
If you’ve got a spiritual friend in your life or someone who has the potential to become a spiritual friend, you can nurture that relationship through some simple and regular practices.
Perhaps you can go on a pilgrimage together, even if it’s “only” to a local church or shrine. Maybe you can send each other daily emails with inspiring quotes. You don’t even need to communicate directly to nurture your bond. Try praying for each other at the same time every day. It’s a powerful way to allow prayer to infuse your relationship from afar.
Even technology – the same technology that has seemingly watered down friendship of late – can be used to assist spiritual friends. Regular contact on Facebook or Skype can actually allow you to share stories, photos, prayer intentions, or screen-to-screen conversations that may provide inspiration and support. Just be sure your spiritual friendships don’t remain solely in the virtual world. They require those heart-to-heart moments of communication that encourage spiritual friends to stand side-by-side looking out at the same ultimate goal: union with God.
“The greatest gift my friendship can give to you is the gift of your belovedness.” – Henri Nowen, “Life of the Beloved”
Meditation on Spiritual Friendship
We are not meant to be solitary figures
Walking a lonely path toward heaven.
We are meant for God and for each other.
We are one body with many parts,
sharing our gifts and growing in faith.
Today we pray for the grace
To recognize the friends in our midst,
to open our eyes, our hearts, our minds
to the possibility of what God has planned.
We long for a community of friends
to journey with us, and we know now
that through trust and abandonment,
we will be given exactly what we need.
— Mary DeTurris Poust, “Walking Together”
To receive a pdf or mailed copy of “Building Spiritual Friendships,” email your request to firstname.lastname@example.org