INTIMATE, INTIMATE: On Friendship & the Spiritual Life

INTIMATE, INTIMATE: On Friendship & the Spiritual Life February 19, 2017

Holding Hands
On Friendship & the Spiritual Life

James Ishmael Ford

19 February 2017

Unitarian Universalist Church of Long Beach
Long Beach, California

You may have noticed Valentine’s Day was observed last week. Possibly you celebrated it. Jan and I, we exchanged cards in the afternoon, after which we took off for our regularly scheduled Zen meditation group here at the church. When we returned we shared a couple of chocolate covered strawberries. I’m sure a lot of people who are here today did something more or less elaborate. Perhaps a nice dinner was in the offing.

Others among our friends, however, as a matter of principal do not celebrate Valentine’s Day, even when they’re coupled. This holiday does have some connection to a Christian saint of that name, although which one precisely, or, even what the connection is supposed to be to that saint, is not at all clear. Instead it is well known that this festival is largely the creation of a conspiracy amongst the greeting card association, the national confectioners association, and the national alliance of floral associations. I’m pretty sure we have a solid paper trail on this one, including hotel bills and photographs of smoke filled rooms.

All that acknowledged this day has become a moment within our culture to celebrate romantic love. And, you know, that’s a worthy thing, even if it does at the same time play into the nefarious hands of the greeting card manufacturers, candy makers, and florists.

Now, if we’re a little lucky, this holiday also inclines us to reflect some on the nature of love. Nearly always I find that a good thing. Love is, as you may have heard, a many splendored thing. In fact romantic love is just one, a very important one, but still one among many aspects of a larger mystery that is key, I believe, to our humanity.

And so today, I find myself thinking about that range of meanings encompassed within that one word we use, love. As anyone who has studied the New Testament knows the Greeks actually had four terms for aspects of what we in English cram together into that single word. The big ones are eros, erotic or romantic love, and agape, what we usually think of as Divine love. Given less attention, but nonetheless completely within 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 do commend to you. One of his theses in that book 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. Another word for love is intimacy.

That said I find myself particularly drawn to an aspect of love that has gotten pretty mixed up of late. Today I would like to reflect a little on the nature of philia, of friendship. Looking at it, I believe, can illuminate the whole project of love, complicated, messy, and ultimately necessary.

It’s now been a bunch of years, but I remember it clearly. I received an email from a member of the congregation I was then 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 found this invitation was just so sweet. It made me smile. I mean how long has it been since you’ve been asked by someone to be their friend?

So, I followed the link that had been provided and filled out the required form to join Facebook. However as I came to the part that asked if I would like to invite my email address book to be Facebook friends, as well; 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 a few more than four hundred “friends.” I put scare quotes around that word friends, and will return to that point in a moment. Today, a fistful of years later, I have something in excess of four thousand Facebook friends. In part, its because I’m an author and these days a Facebook presence is pretty much required of anyone trying to hawk a book. Still, a lot of that number of Facebook friends is just because, well, because life happens.

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, which today is the king of these things. Anyway, among these list serves, mostly hosted by Facebook are several for Unitarian Universalist ministers. I don’t follow any of them closely. To be brutally honest about it, they can be phenomenally boring, when not just plain silly. In fact I tell seminarians to join the official email listserv as soon as they are allowed, if for no other reason than that following what people post will assure the seminarians how if some of these characters 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. And over the years I have seen how there are patterns of a sort. We return over and over to one subject or another on these lists following 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 from congregants. And related to it, should one “unfriend” 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 larger majority opinion is that one may not. The minority opinion is that it is excruciatingly difficult. This, at least, is not a silly question. 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.

However, first we need to ask who is a friend? A dear friend once gave me a good working definition. He said a “friend” is someone who will help you move. Being of a somewhat jaundiced nature he immediately 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.

On Facebook, for the most part, we’re actually talking about a different category of relationship. Think acquaintance. A sturdy and useful term that sadly has fallen out of common use. We’re afraid of insulting someone by calling them an acquaintance, so we pretend friend. But, really, within most of our relationships we’re not talking about moving, furniture or bodies. And Facebook is a perfect example of that much looser connection. And so for my minister colleagues worried about friending or defriending on Facebook, I suggest, get a grip.

Of course for all of us the invitation buried within this is to try to get some perspective on what friendship is, as well as what it is not. Friendship is in fact more complicated than helping us move whatever. No doubt friendship as we use it, is a mutable term with casual and more profound meanings.

And with that let’s turn to what Buddhism might have to say on the subject. We’ll be getting a lot of that sort of thing over these next couple of months. In fact, the Buddhist tradition has next to nothing to say about romantic love. Well, other than to avoid entanglements, if you can. The tradition is big on monasticism. But, it does have something to say about friendship. In fact there’s a story from the Upaddha Sutta, one of the Buddhist scriptures that goes right to it. Here’s my paraphrase of the text.

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.”

In my last settlement before retiring from parish ministry, near the end, I received a note from one of the congregation describing some desires for what would become her memorial service. In it in passing she mentioned how she saw me as one of her friends. And, she was right. With all the complications, all the difficulties, all the ways we fail each other when we try to be friends, yes. Yes.

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 so than in how we engage and must engage our friendships.

Friendship has many faces, is complex. And there are no real lists of how one can do this. Boundaries are part of it. That’s important. And, so I repeat: boundaries are part of it. As is abandon. Getting the mix right is hard. And, me, I’ve experienced getting it wrong a lot. But to have a worthwhile life, to live a life worth living, the mysteries of love becomes a dance we must give ourselves to, even if it means stepping on a toe now and again, or having our own foot trod on.

The mysteries of love. The truth of friendship. Intimate. Intimate.

To summarize. Take a chance. Be a friend. The healing of your own heart is deeply connected to it, as is within the mystery of intimacy, of true love, the healing of this world.

It’s that important. It’s the whole of the spiritual life.


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