Part 2: Sacred Unions by Dan Brennan

This is a series written by author Dan Brennan (you can buy his book here) on sacred unions and friendship. You can see Part 1 here.

Part 2:

“John Newman wrote of his friend, Ambrose St John after he died, “From the first he loved me with an intensity of love, which was unaccountable.” A hundred years earlier, William Wirt, a lawyer and married, expresses to his close friend Dabney Carr, “I long for your hand—I hunger for your face and voice—can you not come down this winter, if not sooner?” If we travel back more than one century further, Gregory the Theologian writes of his friend, Basil, “We had all things in common, and a single soul, as it were, bound together in two distinct bodies.”

Friendships between women conveyed the same spiritual and relational depth. Anglican Emily Shore in the middle of the 19th century writes of her friend, “She was sitting up in bed, looking so sweet and lovely that I could not take my eyes off her.” Mary Grew, writing of her lifelong friend, Margaret Butler, “To me it seems to have been a closer union than that of most marriages.” Leoba, an 8th century nun, tells her friend, queen-saint Hildegard as she was dying, “Farewell forevermore, my dearly beloved lady and sister; farewell, most precious half of my soul.”

While it is tempting on this side of Freud to read this language as homoerotic, it is not the only conclusion. Some [hetero and gay] scholars for example, believe that not all of these passionate premodern friendships were erotic. No doubt there will be those from any number of people today who see these friendships as sexualized friendships. But that is just not the case.

I was fascinated to find the same heartfelt language and union in male-female friendships. I take a deeper look at these stories in my book Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions. Before Freud and his fellow European psychologists eroticized or sexualized yearning, passion, and union, it was possible to discover deep spirituality in friendships stories in every century. This was an unfolding, progressive discovery for me. The more stories I uncovered, the more questions I had about views of love, marriage, friendship, and sexuality.

I didn’t come across a mere handful of scattered stories of union and friendship. It was quite clear there were numerous friendship stories flowing from one generation to the next, from one culture to the next culture, from one century to the next century. These findings drove me back to read and reread the Bible.”

Much love.

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  • “While it is tempting on this side of Freud to read this language as homoerotic, it is not the only conclusion. Some [hetero and gay] scholars for example, believe that not all of these passionate premodern friendships were erotic.”

    Thank you for pointing this our, Dan. I’m sure you are aware there are not a few people reading this blog who believe that David and Jonathan had a homoerotic friendship in the Old Testament. I am presuming you write about this in your book.

    We have lost touch with many finer points about human relationships over the past few centuries. The art of friendship is beautifully illustrated in many classic works of literature. There is a depth of friendship that exceeds even sexual bonding.

  • Debbie,

    I understand these stories to reveal a much deeper connection between sexuality and spirituality than present day heterosexist romantic, sexualized friendship script.. This script is accepted as routine in many contemporary liberal/conservative evangelical churches as normative (I would say even the LGBT community is impacted by the sexualized, romantic friendship script).

    In conservative circles, the script is reductionistic in the sense that it follows of modern enlightenment. In the twentieth century, Protestant theologian Anders Nygren argued against preferential, deeply personal, passionate attachments in relational love. This modern assessment thought such deep friendship love was not in step with *universal* Christian principles of agape and rationality. This reinforced centuries old prejudice against women (and their relationships) rooted in ancient Greek thought–a deep skepticism against emotion and passion. Several scholars have pointed out how early Christian writers absorbed Hellenistic ideas about passions. This emerged in the 20th century, as language and love becoming detached, objective, dry, with a heavy emphasis upon the rational and supposedly unbiased scientific observation. The Greek tradition associates with women–and not only women, but “loose women.” Even in our present day, it is more acceptable for a woman to show passion than it is for a man.

    Simultaneously, along this same stretch in the twentieth century you have the Freudian legacy associating all passion, desire, yearning, etc, with sex and sexuality thereby (I know this is rather “simple” here) paving the way for all intensity, passion, yearning, union, etc. to be “healthy” if one is some form of sexualized friendship–and accompanied throughout much of the 20th century pre-feminist, this sexualized friendship followed male supremacy lines of encouraging man to be active, woman to be passive.

    Okay, I felt I need that to explain some background to say, I have greatly benefited from scholars within the LGBT community who have unearthed some of these stories. And while, yes, I believe David and Jonathan has a deep, passionate friendship (a thought-provoking study on this is Susan Ackerman’s *When Heroes Love*) and did not have sex, I think those in the LGBT community have done more to unearth the passion between David and Jonathan than the typical stories I’ve read in the heterosexual community who basically see David and Jonathan as loyal political friends who are “one” in political alliance.

    I wonder why, for example, in so many conservative, heterosexist, Christian communities, deep passionate friendships are so rare? Same-gender or cross-gender? I’m a white male, but part of the issue is the white Western male who jettisoned friendship-unions, friendship passions for modern rationalism in science, community, and the church while still maintaining supremacy over women in the sexualized friendship of the romantic myth.

  • Sorry, I wrote: The Greek tradition associates with women–and not only women, but “loose women.”
    I thought I had “passion” in there, as in the Greek tradition associates passion with women–“

    • I think all of those movements, whether within a Christian framework or not, have over time deprived men, especially, of meaningful friendships. Most men today are simply afraid of getting that close to another man. Part of it is, of course, the fear of homosexual branding. I think the other part of it is a fear of unearthing too much emotion. That equates with losing control or being too feminine. It’s a shame we condition men to deny their feelings. I am not at all uncomfortable with a man crying, for instance. I confess I want men to be tough and protective of women, but not to be so hard-shelled that they forfeit tenderness. I guess I desire the old steel-and-velvet axiom.

      Surely the norm that communities nowadays are so far-flung, families too uprooted and mobile and people too self-absorbed or career-driven has disconnected us and caused our relationships to suffer. We don’t feel we need each other as we should.

      • Thanks Debbie! As I elaborate in my book, I believe that Freud (at least the popular understanding of Freud coupled with our culture’s infatuation with private romantic/romantic intensity has brought great suspicion to friendship (cross-gender/same gender).

        Women’s friendships have been impacted by Freud and the romantic myth, just as men’s friendships have (look at the suspicion of Oprah Winfrey’s friendship with Gayle King).

  • Dana Ames

    Your friendly Orthodox Christian chiming in 🙂

    The word “passion” in Orthodox/Eastern Christian thinking and writing doesn’t have anything to do with quality or depth of emotion; it has a different definition entirely. It’s related to God not being “driven” by anything (a-patheia). A passion in the East is somewhat akin to an inordinate, unhealthy desire- something that may even be good in itself, but is incited by our thoughts -our own ideas about “how the world works”, which are sometimes lies we tell ourselves in our pain. If unchecked and unevaluated, a passion can develop and provoke a person to fixate on something, leading to being “driven” to fragmentation of our own selves and our relationships (sin) and away from healing.

    This can involve women (’cause genital sexual encounter is pretty easy to come by), or not.


    • Hey Dana,

      Yes, I’ve read that. Would it be fair to say that Orthodox allow for the shaping of an intense form of love, or a strong form of love for what is good and beautiful?

  • Dana Ames


    Union with God and other humans in a communion of love is the whole point.


  • Jack Harris


    I would first like to thank you for these articles– I have enjoyed reading them and they are thought provoking. I have to admit however that I am wondering how they connect to the discussion here about bridge building with respect to GLBT folks and Evangelical Christians. Sometimes I a little I need a little help. Peace, Jack

  • Dan Brennan

    Hi Jack,

    Great question. I think this connects at several levels. Using the language of friendship, I think what Andrew has done is build bridges (in the personal friendship path) with a wide number of those in the LGBT community. He did this intentionally, even chose to live amongst them, dwell amongst them, and he pursued a deeper path of relationship with them instead of merely trying to be their acquaintances. “Are you going to be there?” is a question of relationship, of loyal friendship. Andrew hasn’t viewed this as some kind of evangelical project. He has intentionally reached out in friendship with those in the LGBT community. At least part of authentic loving others (friendship) is to become vulnerable with them, to hear their stories, avoid stereotyping, and choose goodness and beauty whenever possible over social fears. I think Jesus modeled that. I see Andrew following Christ. It started with personal friendship with Andrew. It wasn’t some church’s missional project (good things cam happen from them but they can be so utilitarian, too).

    I can’t speak for Andrew here, this is only my opinion, but in a much broader application, I would suggest there needs to be a deeper conversation about sexuality, friendship, and marriage. In our contemporary culture, the language of “union” is usually applied to sexual relationships within both communities.

    Although I am straight and evangelical, I have greatly benefited from gay scholars, those in the LGBT community who have seen the deep need for flourishing, healthy, nonsexual love in same sex friendships. How do we navigate intimacy, commitment, passionate, faithful love in friendships? Evangelical men quite readily confess they are afraid to nurture a close intimacy with other men for the sexual weirdness. From another angle, gay men face their own struggles in nurturing close friendships.

    At still another level though, I would say that evangelicals can learn from the LGBT community about friendship.

    Off the top of my head, not speaking for Andrew, I think the deep friendships from the past give us some relational markers about the deep connection between spirituality and sexuality in friendship (nonsexual love).

    Friendship is a path where we learn to let go of our fears about the other. Friendship is a path where we learn to listen to the other–not through soundbites, or other’s opinions, or through some leader’s monologue, but up close and personal. In friendship, you enter into dialogue. Using the language of friendship, I would say Andrew’s book and message is that friendshi is a path toward complex and committed peacemaking with those who are different than you.

    Does that help?

    • Jack Harris

      makes total sense to me 🙂