A Meditation on Friendship as Spiritual Practice
16 November 2014
James Ishmael Ford
First Unitarian Church
Providence, Rhode Island
One day while walking quietly together, out of the silence the Buddha’s attendant Ananda declared, “Teacher, to have companions and comrades on the great way is so amazing! I have come to realize that friendship is fully half of an authentic spiritual life. They proceeded along quietly for a while more, before out of that silence the Holy One responded. “No, dear one. Without companions and comrades, no one can live into the deep, finding the true harmonies of life, to achieve authentic wisdom. To say it simply, friendship is the whole of the spiritual life.
Upaddha Sutta, freely adapted
By way of preamble, I’ve explored from the pulpit the nature of friendship, of our deep relationships as human beings with one another, from one direction or another, every few years ever since I entered the ministry. I probably should have given fair warning some time ago, but I intend on continuing to do so until I get it right. And so here we go, try number twelve, or thereabouts, to unpack the endless mysteries of friendship.
First, an illustration exploring a little of what friendship is and what friendship isn’t. I’ve told this little anecdote before, but it’s important for lots of reasons. So, please indulge me. It’s now been a bunch of years ago, but I remember it clearly. I received an email from a member of the congregation I was serving in Massachusetts. It was an invitation to become her Facebook friend. While I’d never before that moment given any thought to joining a web based social network, I thought that this invitation was so sweet. I mean how long has it been since you’ve been asked by someone to be their friend?
I followed the link that had been provided and filled out the required form. However as I came to the part that asked if I would like to invite my email address book to be Facebook friends, before I actually had finished reading the question and absorbing its meaning, I had already pushed the yes button. Pretty close to instantly I had nearly four hundred friends. Today, a fistful of years later, I have something north of thirty five hundred Facebook friends. What can I say?
Now, and this is connected, another aspect of my electronic life are the various list serves to which I belong, some official, most not, for the most part these days as special groups on Facebook. Among these are several for Unitarian Universalist ministers. I don’t follow any of them closely. They can be phenomenally boring, when not silly.
Actually I do tell seminarians to join the official email listserv as soon as they are allowed, if for no other reason in following what people post will assure the seminarians that if some of these characters parading their rather unlikely views of reality in front of everyone can be ministers, then there should be little doubt, so can they. And, of course, not everything that is posted is a waste of time. So, I quickly scan the messages to at least see if my name has appeared, hopefully without an epithet attached.
Sometimes we return over and over to a subject on these lists on some mysterious rhythm, probably related to the alignment of the stars. Among these regular subjects are flurries of queries and responses as to whether ministers should respond positively to Facebook “friending” requests. And related to it, should one defriend people when they leave a congregation? The concern is that in seminary they’d all been told there are two opinions about whether a minister can have friends within the congregation they serve. The majority opinion is that one may not. The minority opinion is that it is excruciatingly difficult. I believe I’ve explored this issue before. It is not a silly question. In fact right now it is closer to my heart than it has been in recent years. So, I’ll be returning to this particular point in a bit.
But, first back to Facebook friends and Facebook friendships. These writers, not all brand new ministers, are worried whether becoming Facebook friends would or could compromise their ministries. And whether remaining friends after leaving a congregation would compromise their successor’s ministry? Real questions.
So, back to who might be a friend. A dear friend once gave me a good working definition of friendship. He said a friend is someone who will help you move. Being of a somewhat jaundiced nature he added how a real friend will help you move a body. I suggest as sweet as the Facebook term friend is, no one should assume a Facebook friend will ever help you move, furniture or body. It’s all pretty lightweight stuff. Or, is to all but the most naïve. And so for my minister colleagues worried about friending or defriending on Facebook, I suggest, get a grip. And maybe, just maybe try to get some perspective.
Friendship. Friendship is something in fact, I suspect, more complicated than helping us move whatever. No doubt friendship is a mutable term with casual and more profound meanings. But I suggest today and will explore today the thesis that friendship is in fact a part of that larger whole we call love. Love, the subject I return to more than any other in this pulpit.
Friendship and love are connected, deeply. Without a doubt. The Greeks, as anyone who has studied the New Testament knows has four terms for aspects of what we in English call love. The big ones are eros, romantic or erotic love and agape, what we usually think of as Divine love. Given less attention, but nonetheless in the family of love are storge, affection or familial love, and philia, or friendship.
The Christian apologist C. S. Lewis wrote a delightful if occasionally eccentric study of these titled the Four Loves, which if you’ve not read, I commend to you. One of his theses is that these loves each inform the other. And I am really taken with that. I believe as we look at one kind of love, each of the others are illuminated and illuminate the whole of the dynamic human experience of intimacy. And that’s what its all about, intimacy. Intimacy. I’m confident that is where the Buddha was coming from when he told Ananda that friendship was the whole of the spiritual life. As we explore each aspect of our intimate encounters I believe we’re on the way to meaning and purpose and direction. We are on the way to genuine wisdom.
With that in the back of our hearts, let’s return to that caution we would-be clergy were given in seminary. I think it can hold up many of the difficulties in understanding friendship, having friends, and being a friend. A parish minister has a peculiar set of relationships, which makes it difficult to pal around, to spend a lot of social time with any small set of people. Much of this has to do with how we need to not be identified with a particular set or clique. But really it’s most of all about time.
This week I received a note from one of us describing some health issues the writer is suffering through. In it in passing she mentioned how she saw me as one of her friends. And, she’s right. With all the complications, all the difficulties, all the ways we fail each other when we try to be friends, yes. Yes.
And here’s a point for all of us. We’re almost all of us busy beyond reason. But… What kind of people are any of us going to be, are we, if we don’t hazard the dangers, and carve out some time and try to have and to be a friend? We come here, most of us, because of some pressing spiritual question. We are here in quest of a spiritual life, a life with meaning and purpose.
The Buddha tells us friendship is in fact the whole of the spiritual life. And, you want to know something? The Buddha was right.
It is all bound up together. And at the same time dividing out the four loves helps us get some perspective on the dynamic of it all. So, agape, divine love, or as I see it our individual experience of the whole, can’t be understood without experiencing in some degree each of the other three. Here we find some of how all the loves inform one another. Some examples. Erotic love without a sense of affection inevitably becomes abusive. Familial love that doesn’t extend beyond the boundaries of the house is narrow and tribal. And sadly, so sadly, we know what evils follow narrow, tribal loves.
Any friendship that isn’t informed by all these aspects, all the dynamic variations of affection, misses its real value. Divine love informs erotic love which informs affection which informs friendship which informs all the others. We live in a multi-causal universe, and nowhere is this truth more obviously true than in how we engage and must engage our friendships.
It’s that important. And it’s that complicated. And so perhaps you get why I haven’t yet quite gotten it right. In the spiritual life nowhere do our ideals meet the actual more obviously than in how we relate to each other, in how we make, sustain and are friends.
So, what does this look like in real life? How are we friends? Is it taking time to sign up for the care crew? Is it noticing someone you know here at church hasn’t been around for a while and giving her a call? Perhaps it’s that monthly commitment to the food pantry or preparing meals for Harrington Hall. These days I write much of sermon in the living room. My auntie, who was sitting next to me watching my furious typing, asked what I was writing about. I said friendship and asked if she had a thought? She said sometimes being a friend is knowing when to say no.
Friendship has many faces, is complex. And there are no real lists of how one can do this. Boundaries are part of it. As is abandon. Getting the mix right is hard. And I’ve experienced getting it wrong a lot. But to have a worthwhile life, it is a dance we must engage, even if it means stepping on a toe now and again, or having our own foot trod on. We learn by doing.
But if we do this, it can count for so much.
Now, as our time winds down, I want to return to that thought that haunts me about ministers and continuing friendships when leaving the parish. Our UU minister at All Souls in Washington, DC, Robert Hardies, in one of his sermons wrote how “There’s an old Talmudic story about a rabbi who is on death’s threshold. In Jewish thinking he has become a goses, which is Hebrew for a soul that is trapped between life and death.
“The rabbi is ready to relinquish his hold on life, but he can’t die because his students are kneeling around his bed, praying fervently for him to live. (I can’t tell you how many times I saw this poignant story take place when I worked as a chaplain in an Intensive Care Unit.) Finally, a sensible woman climbs up on the rabbi’s roof; she takes a clay jug, and throws (it) crashing to the ground. The noise disrupts the students just long enough for their master’s soul to slip quickly into heaven.”
Robert then adds the midrash, the commentary. “Because she helped the students let go, the Talmud notes, the woman will have a place in heaven, too.”
I’m particularly caught by that story as I am so aware of my upcoming retirement, and the truths hidden among the sillier aspects of the questions about continuing Facebook friendships when one, no, when I depart this pulpit. There are changes. There are things I need to let go of. As will each of us.
For me, when the time comes, I don’t expect to sit down and delete names from my Facebook account. That analogy with the rabbi isn’t precise, I’m not dying. But, there will be a shift, and relationships will change within the great dance. There will be a new minister here, and I will become, not a goses, but certainly much less in the foreground. Allowing each other to change is part of friendship.
No one without friends can get into heaven. Our friendships, no doubt in my mind and heart, are the soul of our spiritual exercises; the purpose of our lives is found within them. Our intimate relationships reveal our lives right now, here, as we really are.
That’s how precious each of our relationships are, nothing less than the divine dance of holding tightly, and letting go.
It is the whole of the spiritual life.
The whole of the spiritual life.