I'm just back from a weekend retreat with the theological college my wife attends. I had attended a couple of these retreats before and while we were going out, so I jumped at the chance this year to go, partly because I really love this community and partly because it was a good chance to have a rest before the craziness of a new school year begins.
We had a couple good speakers this year; one of whom talked about Christian friendship. While I was listening, I began to think a bit about friendship in general which, I would suggest, has become rather impoverished over the last century or two, particularly male friendship. Close friendships were not at all unusual in societies in many cultures and in many times. In fact, it was believed that male friendship was one of the primary loyalties which people could have. Further, these friendships included a level of emotion which we, today, would either squirm in discomfort to hear or would assume that the two friends speaking were, in fact, gay. For instance, Cicero wrote hundreds of letters to Atticus in which he would express his longing to see his friend and his sense of loss in his friends' absence or giving his friend the news of the day in Rome or in Cicero's own family.
What confounds me (and worries me) is the degree to which this language and practice of friendship has become sexualized. That is, if we used the language of Cicero today with a friend, there is a very good chance it would be either mis-interpreted as a pass or would be regarded as evidence of a gay relationship. It seems that the only close male relationship that our culture can conceive is one that is sexualized. That is, perhaps, hyperbolic, but I wonder sometimes how much.
Yet, as the speaker at the retreat pointed out, it is these bonds of friendship which serve as one of the ways that communities function. It is in mutual friendship and all that entails which permits our faith communities to build the bonds that unite us. That cohesion is something wonderful to see and to experience, but it is not always present in our Christian communities. That is sad and worrying because it means that we really lost our way as a people, if we cannot even unite as individual communities.
This entry sounds pessimistic, I know. Yet, the scene is not all black. I know that my own life has been profoundly influenced both by close Christian friends (and some non-Christian ones, of course) and by healthy supportive communities (such as the college whose retreat I attended this weekend) where the bonds of friendship are strong. I have no doubt in the world that I would be a lot worse off in life without these influences. I think that is true of an awful lot of people, Christians and non-Christians. We haven't lost that God-given gift of friendship because it is simply too ingrained in our souls for us to lose it altogether. That is a grace for which we should praise God and which give me hope for the future.
At the end of the day, what binds all Christians together is that we have accepted the friendship of God and that we are all the means by which God reveals that friendship. A spiritual advisor once commented to me that, while I was fine with individual prayer, I really tended to struggle with allowing God to act through other people. I suspect one reason for that is that I'm introvert and I'd much rather huddle in a quiet corner to pray or meditate or read than to risk meeting or connecting with new people. My challenge, and, I think, the challenge of a lot of people, is to take the risks that friendship with God and with others entail. That risk usually produces real grace as I found on this weekend.