“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.”