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An After-Dinner Conversation on Christian Friendship
by Addison H. Hart
[F]or a Christian, there are, strictly speaking, no chances. A secret Master of the Ceremonies has been at work. Christ, who said to the disciples, “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you,” can truly say to every group of Christian friends, “You have not chosen one another but I have chosen you for one another.” . . . At this feast it is He who has spread the board and it is He who has chosen the guests.
—C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves
I recall now two friends, who, although they have passed from this present life, nevertheless live to me and always will so live.
—St. Aelred of Rievaulx, Spiritual Friendship, 3:119
Aristotle asked an interesting question regarding the limits of friendship.” This was spoken quietly over the empty plates. Dirk, a dog resembling a small black-and-white bear in the light, could not now be seen, except as a darker blur against the room’s shadows. He could be heard, however, in a corner, licking clean the meat platter that had considerately been placed on the floor for him. The only light came from two candles on the dining room table.
About the table sat four men. I was there, and my two friends, John and Jerome. The fourth man, the eldest, was wearing a black cassock, his hair and beard gray-white. This was Father Haire, and we were visiting him in the Hermitage.
Outdoors, night had fallen, a chill wind was blowing through the leafless woods nearby, and a wet snow was coming down. Indoors, all was relaxed and comfortable. The meal was concluded, but we still sat with glasses of wine and a half-full bottle, and still another uncorked, before us.
Father Haire was the chaplain for the convent on the hilltop. To visit the grounds of this convent from time to time, where the chaplain’s Hermitage was located, was to experience the intimation that we had stepped into another world. To be here was to leave the world “out there,” to be some place else, a place that had the atmosphere of the ancient and ageless.
Jerome, John, and I had become well acquainted with Father Haire, and we enjoyed our occasional meals and conversations with him. He enjoyed playing the host, and we benefited by moving him to share his spiritual thoughts.
Somehow we had gotten onto the topic of Christian friendship. It was a subject that interested us longstanding friends, because our friendship had begun with Christ firmly at the center of our mutual attention. Jerome, John, and I belonged, in fact, to a much larger circle of friends, all of whom had come to faith in Christ as teenagers.
Some of us were now Catholics (like myself), others Orthodox (John and Jerome), still others Evangelicals and Anglicans. All of us held convictions we believed vitally important, which divided us between our various churches on Sundays, and yet our Christ-centered friendship remained strong. That fact intrigued us all, especially since we knew our bond was due to a common orthodox adherence to our Lord—the living and true Jesus, God and man. Not for us the tepid commissions, the platitudinous documents, the watered-down doctrine, the simpering and posturing we associated with the institutional ecumenical movement (not that we ever gave it much thought). Ours was precisely and naturally an ecumenism of friendship: We enjoyed meals, wine, beer, smoking, laughter, and argument. . . .
The Good of Divine Friendship
And so the conversation with Father Haire turned almost naturally to this subject, while the winter wind whistled outside and the snow fell.
“Aristotle asked an interesting question regarding the limits of friendship,” Father Haire said. “He said that there are natural limits to friendship whenever a great inequality between friends is realized. He asked whether or not we could wish for our friends ‘the greatest of all goods, namely, to be gods.’1 A fascinating question. Friendship, Aristotle explained, can only exist between equals, so he answered his question in the negative. He said that ‘when one partner is quite separated from the other, as in the case of divinity, the friendship can remain no longer.’”
Father Haire poured a bit more wine into our glasses and continued. “But Aristotle saw things, understandably, from a pagan and pre-Incarnational point of view. He couldn’t conceive of God the Son—deity in the ultimate sense—bridging the chasm of absolute inequality in himself. He saw the whole matter from the bottom up, as human beings without revelation must of necessity do.
“It isn’t the case, of course, that we mortal creatures could ever really become gods on our own steam. No one is capable of such a thing. God, on the other hand, is both capable of becoming, and did become, man. The revelation of Christ begins with that bold assertion, and that’s precisely where friendship between Christians finds its unique bedrock—as does everything else in Christian life. Friendship in Christ, unlike any other sort of friendship, is based solely on friendship with Christ, the latter being as unequal a friendship as one could possibly posit.
“What’s more, Christ’s friendship raises us up, in a way Aristotle could not have imagined, ‘to become by grace what he himself is by nature’—he came down to earth to lift us up to heaven, to make us (if you will) gods by grace.”
Jerome looked thoughtful, leaned back in his chair, and then said, “C. S. Lewis noted how infrequently friendship, or philia, is used in Scripture as an image of the love between God and man. He wrote that familial ‘affection is taken as the image when God is represented as our Father; eros when Christ is represented as the Bridegroom of the Church.’ I think he even says that Scripture very nearly ‘ignores’ friendship as an analogy, though it doesn’t neglect it altogether.”2
Father Haire reached down to Dirk, who was now lying by his foot, scratched behind one of the dog’s ears, and replied: “I don’t believe that God is ‘represented’ as our Father. He is the Father ‘from whom every fatherhood in heaven and earth derives its name’ (Eph. 3:14–15). Likewise, human marriage has as its archetype the union of Christ and his Church: The union of man and wife in the sacrament of marriage ‘is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the Church’ (Eph. 5:32). In other words, the Father and the Son are not ‘represented’ by images derived conceptually from a set of basic human relationships, like marriage or fatherhood or friendship.
Rather, it’s the other way round. Human relationships are modeled by God, patterned on the deeper reality of his eternal triune inter-personal nature, and ordered within the earthly creation as his gift, so as to reveal something about himself. In one instance, we learn that the true and eternal Fatherhood is divine, and human ‘fatherhood’ is itself a pale reflection of that; in another, we discover that the true Marriage is between God and his creation through the Church. For the individual Christian, the human nuptial union reflects the greater truth St. Paul points to when he writes that ‘he that is joined unto the Lord is one spirit’ with him (1 Cor. 6:17).”
From Love to Friendship
“But,” Father Haire continued, “C. S. Lewis was surely right when he referred to agape as Love itself—it is God’s love, all-embracing, self-giving, and self-sacrificing, and the source of all loves. Familial affection and eros give us needed insights into that immortal love. And so, too, does friendship. Christ is the true Friend of the Christian soul, the standard and archetype for every other friendship.
“It is St. Aelred of Rievaulx, the twelfth-century Cistercian abbot, who might for us be the ‘doctor of friendship.’ . . .”
“He has been adopted by the homosexuals as one of their own,” I interjected. “In some quarters it is sadly typical to hear him referred to as ‘probably gay,’ or something along those lines.”
“Which is, of course, utterly without any reasonable shred of evidence, and an intentional twisting of his words and biography by unscrupulous people to promote a sick agenda.” Father Haire fairly growled these words, and Dirk growled with him. “No, no, no. St. Aelred is not even remotely an advocate of unnatural vice. He is, though, someone who deeply understands the value of friendship in Christ, what it means, and what is its origin. I refer you to his delightful Spiritual Friendship. You won’t regret working through this book, or anything else written by him for that matter.
“Since, for the Christian, all love is based on the love of God (agape or caritas, ‘charity’), Aelred—as I understand him—says that friendship (philia or amicitia) is rooted in, and revelatory of, God’s love.” Father Haire produced, as if by magic, a copy of Spiritual Friendship.
“For example, Aelred says here that ‘what is true of charity, I surely do not hesitate to grant to friendship, since “he that abides in friendship, abides in God, and God in him,”’ and ‘God is friendship.’3 These are strong words, implying that, at heart, agape and philia cannot be dissociated in the mind of the Christian.
“Just as the nuptial union and eros reveal agape in one significant way (that is, in the mystery of union), so friendship reveals the mystery of following Christ together, but as individuals. Agape, without the evidence the other sorts of love provide, could easily appear to us to be only a general sort of love: ‘For God so loved the world,’ . . . ‘he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good,’ . . . ‘God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us,’ and so on (John. 3:16; Matt. 5:45; Rom. 5:8). Such verses as these tell us of the universal, non-particular character of agape. We should also take note of the fact that when followers of Christ are taught, for example, to ‘love their enemies’ (Matt. 5:44), it is an exhortation to mirror God’s long-suffering, universal agape—certainly not a call to become intimate acquaintances with them.
“But philia takes us from this general love of agape to the particular: Each soul is potentially and individually the friend of Christ. Here is where we discover the call to discipleship, to which each person, on his own, must respond. Philia lies behind the most demanding words of Jesus in the Gospels, addressed to individuals: ‘He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me. He that findeth his life, shall lose it; and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it’ (Matt. 10:37–39). This is even more directly stated by Jesus in John’s Gospel: ‘Greater love (agapen) hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends (philon)’ (John 15:13).”
The Circle of Love
John, a mountain of a man, who had been sitting quietly up to this point, was holding his wineglass in his hand in a way that looked ludicrously delicate. “This wine has good legs,” he muttered, peering through the glass at the candlelight. One expected such offhand comments now and then from a chef (which John was), and we would have resumed the conversation where Father Haire had left it, but John uncharacteristically continued to speak.
“This reminds me of an interesting image,” he said, “which, I think, fits what you’re saying about both the general nature of agape, and the individual’s following of Christ as philia. Besides, Jerome here is an artist, so he’ll especially appreciate having a visual image to help him think through all this stuff. Wake up over there, Jerome.”
“Thanks, John,” mumbled Jerome. “A real pal.”
John extracted, as if from nowhere, a copy of the Faber and Faber volume, Early Fathers from the Philokalia. (Just where these books came from, which Father Haire and now John so effortlessly produced, did not concern me at the time. Later it would become evident to me why both men could work this apparent magic, and also why it seemed so perfectly normal that they did so.)
“This comes from the sixth-and-seventh-centuries abbot, St. Dorotheos of Gaza,” said John, finding his place. He began to read:
Imagine a circle with its centre and radii or rays going out from this centre. The further these radii are from the centre the more widely are they dispersed and separated from one another; and conversely, the closer they come to the centre, the closer they are to one another. Suppose now that this circle is the world, the very centre of the circle, God, and the lines (radii) going from the centre to the circumference or from the circumference to the centre are the paths of men’s lives. Then here we see the same. Insofar as the saints move inwards within the circle towards its centre, wishing to come near to God, then, in the degree of their penetration, they come closer both to God and to one another; moreover, inasmuch as they come nearer to God, they come nearer to one another, and inasmuch as they come nearer to one another, they come nearer to God. It is the same with drawing away. When they draw away from God and turn toward external things, it is clear that in the degree that they recede from the central point and draw away from God, they withdraw from one another, and as they withdraw from one another, so they draw away from God. Such is also the property of love; inasmuch as we are outside and do not love God, so each is far from his neighbour. But if we love God, inasmuch as we come near to Him by love of Him, so we become united by love with our neighbours, and inasmuch as we are united with our neighbours, so we become united with God.4
John closed the book, and said, “This is a good illustration of agape, I think. The circle may be, as St. Dorotheos says, the world; but he might also have said it was the whole body of the redeemed throughout the world (and heaven, too). It’s a vision of koinonia as seen with the eyes of faith. Love of God and neighbor are held together by a common focus on God himself—or, we would no doubt prefer to emphasize, on God Incarnate, Jesus Christ.
“Each Sunday, after the Divine Liturgy, when everyone else has gone downstairs for coffee, I like to remain sitting in the church before the icons for awhile, looking especially upon the face of Christ; after all, ‘the light of the glory of God [is] in the face of Jesus Christ’ (2 Cor. 4:6). And that’s where philia is best realized for me, and I mean specifically friendship with Christ.
“What Christ shares with us—what makes this a friendship involving real mutuality—is his own transfiguring glory, which conforms us to his image (Rom. 8:29; 2 Cor. 3:18). In other words, he gives his friends a share in his Spirit. But St. Dorotheos also describes each man’s individual life, with his own individual commitment and individual loyalty, as a line drawn from the circumference to the center. Either our personal lives are moving along those distinct lines towards Christ or away from him. For us to move thus nearer to him, we must each have an individual, unique, developing friendship with him, which cannot be shared with any other human being (as some of the saints said of this relationship: ‘my secret is my own’), and yet it is this reality that we have in common with all other disciples of Christ. . . .”
Jerome and I looked at each other with eyebrows arched. We weren’t used to hearing John expound firsthand on deep things, which he usually kept close to his chest. On those extremely rare occasions when he did so speak, we found ourselves speechless, as indeed we did now.
Ties That Bind
“Anyway,” John went on, “closeness to Christ draws us closer to each other in Christ. Universally, this is true, of course, of the whole, vast Christian koinonia in heaven and on earth. But if we believe that the Lord also provides particular Christian friendships for each of us in particular times and places (as I know we do)—bringing together those who mutually sustain and fortify their spiritual lives through God-given ties, making them more than simply comrades—then we might also rightly see in this a sacramental microcosm of the universal koinonia. Friendship in Christ, made tangible within the smaller circle of good and lifelong friends, is providential. True Christian friends come to us as gifts from our greatest Friend, at the same time making us spiritual gifts to them. And what defines such a circle of friends—what is mutual between them—is, of course, friendship with Christ.
“So, whereas some might place it nearer the periphery of spiritual life, I believe friendship is the best picture of divine love among disciples, and particularly so for men. It is also profoundly biblical. Friendship was, after all, important for Christ during his earthly ministry; think of John, the Beloved Disciple, and James, and Peter, and Lazarus and his sisters. If it was important for him, it can’t be unimportant for us.”
Father Haire began to recite the words of an old, familiar hymn (something he was prone to do):
Blest be the tie that binds
Our hearts in Jesus’ love:
The fellowship of Christian minds
Is like to that above.
When we at death must part,
Not like the world’s, our pain;
But one in Christ, and one in heart,
We part to meet again.
From sorrow, toil, and pain,
And sin, we shall be free;
And perfect love and friendship reign
He stopped and poured himself some more wine. “A little sentimental, perhaps, but it’s all true,” he said. “St. Aelred would say as much, and he would agree wholeheartedly with what you’ve said, John. Speaking of which, let me go back to St. Aelred’s insight about the relationship of agape and philia, and with that in mind consider the Gospel of St. John, where I think this relationship is, in fact, highlighted.
“John’s Gospel is the gospel that tells us something concrete about the role of friendship in Christ’s life. John the Baptist says that he is ‘the friend of the Bridegroom’ (John 3:29), a title that is more than just a title of honor, one suspects. Lazarus is ‘our friend (philos),’ and when Jesus weeps before his tomb, those present say, ‘See how he loved (ephilei) him!’ When Christ teaches his disciples to love (agapate) one another as he has loved them, he goes on to tell them that they are no longer to be called servants, those who don’t know what their master is up to. Instead, the revelation he has committed to them makes them his friends (philoi), and their friendship with him is vitally connected to obedience to his commandments (John 15:12–17).
“This is agape, of course, but it is something more—something more specific, something based on shared objectives, shared suffering (as John 16, for instance, makes clear), and shared struggles. It is philia with and in Christ, a fellowship that will grow and include others (John 17:20; 1 John 1:3).”
Father Haire paused, sipping his wine. The flicker of candlelight was reflected in his eyes in the semi-darkness.
“Yes. Lazarus,” said John thoughtfully, but said no more. For a few moments we listened to the wind outside, and the creaking of tree limbs arching unseen above the roof of the Hermitage. Jerome produced a pipe and began to stuff the bowl with tobacco.
Friendship & Failure
“It is John 21, and Peter’s reclamation, that intrigues me,” Father Haire suddenly went on after the lengthy silence, the air now fragrant with tobacco smoke.
“It has often been noted how the words agape and philia are interspersed in 21:15–17, and there have been conjectures as to whether these words are to be understood as synonymous or not. Perhaps they are to some extent, as in John 15:13 (‘Greater love—agapen—hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends—philon’), but notice that the ‘greater love’ of agape is in fact understood here precisely in terms of philia.
“Earlier in the Gospel, Peter had said to Jesus, who had just spoken of his coming death and given the commandment for his disciples to love one another ‘as I have loved you’: ‘Lord, why cannot I follow thee now? I will lay down my life for thy sake’ (John 13:37). At which point Jesus tells Peter that he will deny him three times. Christian love is defined by Christ as willingness even to ‘lay down one’s life’ for one’s friends, something that Peter over-confidently claimed to possess, and then failed miserably to show in the courtyard of Caiaphas.
“John 21:15–17 redeems those three terrible denials with three confessions and three demands. Here’s the passage. See how the words play out, keeping St. Aelred’s distinction between the more general agape and the more particular philia in mind:
So when they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest (agapas) thou me more than these? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love (philo) thee. He saith unto him, Feed my lambs. He saith to him again the second time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest (agapas) thou me? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love (philo) thee. He saith unto him, Tend my sheep. He saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest (phileis) thou me? Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Lovest (phileis) thou me? And he said unto him, Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love (philo) thee. Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep.
“You will note that Peter was ‘grieved’ or (better) ‘distressed’ when Jesus moved from using the word agape to the more pointed philia. Peter had been protesting all along that his love for Christ was one of ‘friendship’ (philia), even though Jesus was using the less intimate word, agape. When Jesus asks Peter the third time, and compounds this near repetition by switching to the word philia, two memories must have instantly surfaced in Peter’s mind: his three denials of Christ after professing his willingness to lay down his life for him (13:37), and the subsequent definition of Christ that friendship means precisely such a ready willingness (15:13). No wonder Peter was pained by these memories, and we see in him the pain felt by every sincere penitent, the sorrow of every Christian who sins against the love of Christ.”
At that moment I felt a keen stab in my own heart. “Sin jeopardizes our friendship with Christ,” said Jerome softly. All I could manage was a nod.
Father Haire went on: “And Peter then hears from Jesus the merciful call to follow him afresh, and that he will indeed one day lay down his life for his Lord. Peter, true to form, immediately wishes to know what the future holds for the Apostle John, as well; but Jesus rebukes him by saying, ‘If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee? Follow thou me’ (John 21:18–23). With these words we see the priority of individual friendship with Christ over friendship in Christ. Like the ‘lines’ of St. Dorotheos’s great circle, the center of which is God, the lines of our individual lives, as they relate to and in Christ, should not interfere with another’s unique call to discipleship, even though, in God’s providence, they must converge in him.”
“Lazarus,” said John. There was a pause of some moments’ length as we waited to hear what was on John’s mind, but he hesitated to speak. I recall now that it was getting increasingly difficult to see either John or Father Haire in the darkness. I could see Jerome, who was seated nearest me, plainly enough in the candlelight, but the other two almost seemed to be fading into the shadows.
The wind had died down, and through the ice-glazed windows one could only just make out those branches closest to the panes. The dog Dirk had evidently left the room without my noticing.
John spoke again, and it seemed as if his voice was coming from all points of the room at once, filling it; and now I couldn’t make him out across the table at all.
“Lazarus was the friend of Christ,” he was saying, “and we see how greatly his death affected him. Christ knows grief. When death, that unnatural end of man, touched his friend, Christ grieved for him, and then raised him. I believe—I know—that to Christ all of us are ‘Lazarus.’ His friends are those whom he will raise and bring, through the power of his own resurrection and victory over death, to share his glory. When I died I knew this.”
These strange, unexpected words were like an electric shock, and Jerome and I shot wide-eyed glances at one another. Before our minds could assimilate their full import, however, Father Haire seamlessly continued John’s line of thought.
“But, in Christ, the death of friends is not the death of their friendship,” he said. His voice, like John’s, filled the room, though he was now entirely invisible to my eyes. “Just remember those words of St. Jerome, which St. Aelred liked to quote: Friendship which can end was never true friendship.”6
When one awakes from a particularly deep and dream-filled sleep, it is often difficult to remember immediately what has gone on in the waking world. With some mental effort one gropes for one’s memory, and groggily recovers those facts and details that we tend to accept as reality. This began to happen to me now.
First, I heard Jerome’s voice say, “I remember. John did die. It was sudden. And Father Haire died more than twenty years ago. . . .”
And as he said this, I felt sharply the loss of these friends anew.
It was with this lingering sense—a curious mixture of absence and presence—that I awoke.
Later that day, I phoned Jerome, a thousand miles away, to recount the dream and recall old times in the light of eternity.
1. Aristotle. Nicomachian Ethics 1159a, 1 ff.
2. C. S. Lewis. The Four Loves (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovitch, 1960), p. 78.
3. St. Aelred of Rievaulx, Spiritual Friendship (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1974), 1:70, 69; 3:5, 54; cf. 1 John 4:16.
4. E. Kadloubovsky and G. E. H. Palmer (translators), Early Fathers from the Philokalia (London: Faber and Faber, Ltd., 1954), pp. 164–165.
5. Hymn by John Fawcett, written 1782.
6. St. Aelred of Rievaulx, op. cit., 1:68; also 1:24.
Addison H. Hart is retired from active ministry as parish priest and university chaplain. He is the author of Knowing Darkness: On Skepticism, Melancholy, Friendship, and God and The Yoke of Jesus: A School for the Soul in Solitude (both from Eerdmans). His forthcoming book is a study of the Sermon on the Mount. He lives and writes in Norheimsund, Norway.