Stealing Into Another’s Soul

What Do We Do With This?

In the Old Testament, David and Jonathan had a type of relationship that we moderns don’t quite know what to do with. A passionate friendship that surpasses the love of women? Surely there must be some sort of suppressed romance between the lines. But such an interpretation tells us more about ourselves than it does the characters in the narrative. What would it mean for our culture (in which men are so starved for touch and embrace) to come to grips with the possibility of male friendship that was deeply and chastely satisfying?

I’m not sure we would know what to do with it. We certainly don’t know what to do with it when we see it on the page or the screen. It’s exhausting watching Hollywood fumble around with something as deep and necessary as male friendship, dressing it up as eros beyond recognition. Both David and Jonathan married women. They burned for the opposite sex and their love for one another was of a stronger stuff than what they had in bed with their wives. And the amazing thing is that it was completely devoid of romance with one another.

So what are we to make of the Bible’s unblushing appreciation of a man’s love for his friend? It is not the Bible that is backwards and regressive. Rather, it seems that it is we that need to update our view of friendship. Compared to the honest and unflinching approach to human relationships, we have categorized everyone as a potential resource. A male friend is a “bro” or a wingman, a means to an end. When guys can transcend this template of machismo and find a kindred spirit in another mind, that is when the possibility of covenant friendship becomes real.

Men’s Men

It’s refreshing to me that the biblical archtypes of male friendship (David and Jonathan) are also quintessentially men. They are kingly warriors and hunters with the shared heart of a poet. Aristotle famously defined friendship as one soul inhabiting two bodies. Living centuries before the philosopher, we see these two great men embodying that ideal. What does that mean for us today? What, if anything, can we learn from the friendship of this prince and this future king?

Masculinity is compassionate. When Jonathan dies, David laments in 2 Samuel 1 that his love for Jonathan was “extraordinary, surpassing the love of women.” That is a depth of feeling to which few males can attest, and yet the Bible includes it at the very beginning of a book. It is held up as exemplary manhood. Perhaps we’ve only recently lost this ease of familiarity, but there’s hope we can find it again.

Masculinity is loyal. Their friendship was a brotherhood. It exceeded the family ties of clan and kin. It was such a powerful bond that Jonathan kept David alive, even in the face of the wrath of his own father, King Saul.

Masculinity is brave. To be loyal in their capacities and in their context, with death as a very real danger, required a steeled resolve to hold onto that friendship regardless of consequences. Friendship in the face of death is friendship with the weight of truth behind it. Fair-weather friends do not usually risk their own blood for one another.

A Monk’s Evaluation

Aelred of Rievaulx was a 12th century English monk who literally wrote the book on spiritual friendship. In the last of Aeldred’s dialogues on friendship, he discusses the outline of its progression. Friendship (like that of Jonathan and David) rests upon the foundation of God’s love. It begins, he says, with “he whom reason urges should be loved because of the excellence of his virtue steals into the soul of another by the mildness of his character and the charm of a praiseworthy life.”

Storing aside the lovely phrase “charm of a praiseworthy life”, let’s move on. Aelred then says that spiritual friendship passes through four stages:

  1. Choice (“electio”)
  2. Testing (“probatio”)
  3. Admission (“admissio”)
  4. The greatest agreement in things divine and human, with a certain love and goodwill.

But, the monk cautions, not all are likely to become “the companion of your soul, to whose spirit you join and attach yours, and so associate yourself that you wish to become one instead of two, since he is one to whom you entrust yourself as to another self, from whom you hide nothing, from whom you fear nothing.”

This has to be possible for more than just two Bronze Age warriors and a Celtic monk. Men charmed by the praiseworthy lives of other men, from whom they have nothing to hide or fear? I think it can be recaptured. And perhaps it begins with a bit of courage on our part. The courage to be charmed by a praiseworthy life is a good starting point.

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Ruth and Naomi

Only the Lonely

Loneliness is an American epidemic. Just a couple of weeks ago, Nicholas Kristof at the New York Times wrote about this. According to his research, a fourth of Americans live alone. That means that almost 82,000,000 people are lonely. That staggers me. Loneliness can be a factor in failing health and early death. Several countries are trying to fix the problem. Britain even has a minister for loneliness to offer societal alternatives to feeling alone.

Anecdotally, I know this is a problem in the American evangelical church as well. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve recommended or given away Vaughan Roberts’ little book. And, I’m happy to say, the Bible actually has some wonderful examples of deep and abiding friendships. Perhaps, if these stories were imitated, the Church could begin to model something helpful to the culture. The picture of friendship in Scripture shows me that it is at least possible.

I want to spend some time on this blog talking about friendship, both in the Bible and in the careful meditations of Christians over the last 2,000 years. Christianity has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to resources that can combat loneliness. I’d like to explore a fraction of them and see if this can be of help.

A Tale of Woe

The book of Ruth might be one of the greatest love stories ever told, but it’s not a romantic love story. Or, at least, it’s not mainly a romantic love story. It begins with and is sustained by the love between a daughter-in-law and a mother-in-law. 

A man from Bethlehem leaves his homeland of Judah because there’s a famine. He takes his wife, Naomi, and his two sons and they seek refugee status within the land of Moab. The narrator tells us that Ruth was written “in the days when the judges ruled,” referring to the book of Judges. At that point in Israel’s history, there was no king in Israel and everyone did what was right in their own eyes. And in those days, Moab was a constant threat to Israel.  

While Naomi and her husband are in Moab, the husband dies. Naomi’s two sons take Moabite wives and then, a decade later, both of her two sons die. This family is acquainted with grief. One of the wives, Orpah, goes back to her people, but Ruth, the wife of Naomi’s other son, decides to stays with Naomi. She goes back to Bethlehem with her and commits to love her mother-in-law unconditionally.  

The rest of the story is a beautiful story about Boaz, the man who redeems (buys) their land and marries Ruth to keep both Ruth and Naomi from coming to utter ruin. But take some time to read Ruth 1:6-18

Stuck on You

In verse 14, notice that Ruth “clung” to Naomi. It’s the same Hebrew word used in Genesis 2:24 to describe a man “clinging” to his wife or in Prov.18:24, “A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend that clings or sticks closer than a brother.” It’s to be voluntarily glued together in love. This is super glue friendship.  

By gluing herself to Naomi, Ruth also glued herself to God. “Your God shall be my God.” This almost looks like wedding vows! One writer called this a “wedded friendship.” But it’s committed, God-honoring friendship. And it’s deeper than most relationships we come across today that parade as “friendship.” 

Ruth was voluntarily committing to Naomi across ethnic lines, cultural boundaries, religious differences, and clan ties. There’s no real reason for Ruth to stay with Naomi. There’s nothing in it for her. There’s no obligation. We can’t really blame Orpah for heading back home to what’s familiar. It  was reasonable for her to go back to your biological mother and your home culture. But Ruth commits in love and friendship to her vulnerable mother-in-law and stays with her.  

A Christmas Friendship

Before we leave this amazing commitment between Ruth and Naomi, look at the last chapter of Ruth. In 4:18-22, we read about Ruth’s son, Obed. Obed was King David’s granddad. Ruth was David’s great-grandmom. And 27 generations after David, who was born? Jesus Christ, lying in a manger. 

Ruth was a foreigner, someone who had nothing to do with the God of Israel, and now she’s forever enshrined in the genealogy and ancestry of Jesus Christ. Why? She glued herself to Naomi. As one scholar said, “Here, friendship is seen as the means by which the Davidic line is established.”  

At the risk of overstating what is admittedly not the main point of the text,  you never know how God is going to use the friendships that you have. The Messiah of the world obviously isn’t going to be the byproduct of your friendships because that already happened, but God has shown over and over through the course of history that he delights in using friendships to change the world, sometimes centuries downstream.  

One last note: what was Ruth doing when she was clinging to Naomi in 1:14? She was weeping with her. Orpah kissed her, showing respect and affection. But Ruth clung to her and they wept. Friend-love is a call to weep with those who weep, to enter into the suffering of another person, to bear another’s burdens. When they hurt, you hurt. That is the natural, emotional reaction of true friendship. Friendship, on the Christian understanding, is all about giving up yourself for the sake of others, dying to yourself so that you might put the interests of others ahead of your own.  

That’s what Christ did for us, after all.

To Love as Humans Do

Sometimes we think we love too deeply. Billions of hearts are broken and reformed and rebroken every year. The silver screen and mp3 pour out the tears and the tears refill them. There is such much riding on the girl next door, the spouse in your bed, or the friend across the table. We are so desperate for closeness and so tired of loneliness (beggars, all of us) that we make each other the whole world in paraphrase.

“You’re the moon.”

“You are my everything.”

“You have my heart.”

“One soul inhabiting two bodies.”

Deep, thick, resilient love is a wonderful thing. But it can also be the most fragile thing in the world. In my job, I’ve learned that if the roof is too vast, it cannot support itself. It needs to be sustained by structure, by unyielding steel. Otherwise everything will collapse around our ears. And until the end credits roll, what is more unyielding than death?

The bored graves gnaw down every one of our friends. All our loves eventually will blend into the dirt and the dark. And our hearts, worn once on our sleeves and perpetually held by all those irreplaceable people, will fray like flags in a thunderstorm. Who can withstand that weight? What soul can stand up under the immeasurable banner of another human creature’s love? O Lord, what can we do?

An African Wolf of Wall Street was once ambushed by the living-again Lord of his mother’s homespun and simple faith. But before the wolf could live again himself, he lost his beloved friend (Confessions, iv/7-x/14). Augustine had to leave the city to escape his friend’s memories that were attached to the streets. He was afraid of death because to die would be to snuff out all that was left of the departed.

Flipping through the pages, years later, Augustine recognized that he failed to love his deceased friend humanly. He had loved his friend as if he were immortal, as if his shoulders were immovable and the burden of life-giving love as weightless as sunlight. In Rowan Williams’ excellent study on the church father, he discusses that we need to learn how to grow in our capacity to bear loss and absence. That’s what it means to love as humans. We are leaves in autumn and we love each other’s beauty because we know that winter is coming.

“Our great temptation,” Williams says, “Is ‘inhuman’ love, loving the finite for what it cannot be, loving people or things for magical symbiotic relation they have to my sense of myself, my security and self-identity.” Tom Cruise, telling Renée through tears, “You can complete me,” is beautiful, but ultimately an inhuman love. It’s a hope for an eternal autumn without bare branches. Augustine, latching onto his friend and splitting asunder when his friend died, loved outside the bounds of his own creatureliness, his own humanity.

Sometimes we think we love deeply. But perhaps we only love too wildly, like fire spilling out of the fireplace. But when we remember that we are like grass, that we flourish like day lilies, love finds its parameters. And love finds its depth.