A couple times, I have actually taught a class on spiritual friendship. I have enjoyed tracing the idea of friendship from Aristotle through key medieval figures to our own contemporary world. In some ways I think the ancients understood friendship more deeply than we do in our age. It is too easy in our age to be superficial. It is too easy to claim a friendship with someone after barely meeting him or her.
However, I don’t want to dwell on the philosophical or historical levels. I want to stay with the everyday, real level where most of us live our lives most of the time. It was at this level yesterday that I became aware of the friendship process.
I am intrigued by the process of making friends. I know that I meet many, many people with whom I do not become friends. That is not bad; I cannot manage hundreds of friends, as Facebook suggests is possible. So I have many acquaintances, as I would call people I know, but who are not my friends.
This suggests there is at least one special quality of the relationship in friendship that is not present in acquaintance relationships. Actually there probably are many qualities, but let me suggest a basic quality. I think there has to be an attraction to the other for a friendship to begin developing. Of course, in saying this, it is easy to be misunderstood.
The language of “attraction” is tricky in our contemporary world because it is so easily sexualized. Somehow being “attracted” to someone often has sexual overtones. Attraction is the first step to who knows what! This is unfortunate. Certainly, attraction plays a role in sexuality. But surely not all the attractions I or anyone experience with other people are sexual.
I doubt that friendships can develop devoid of an ongoing attraction. Sometimes, the attraction is as simple as wanting to be with a friend. I have had friendships for decades that last because I still want to be with them. If the attraction were to dry up, the friendship would wither.
Yesterday I had lunch with a younger person who is becoming my friend. I enjoyed it and clearly that is one function of friendship: joy. I enjoy the exploration process with a new friend. Part of the attraction is a willingness to explore who each other is, etc. Friendships are open-ended. Because a friend is another person, there is always a potential depth just because most people are deep. Probably I don’t even know my own depths; I need friends to help me in my own inner exploration.
In all this musing about friendship, I realize I also have been doing spirituality. For me Jesus is the model friend. He was attracted to a wide range of people. Many of these folks were suspect, i.e. tax collectors, Samaritans, etc. With them Jesus engaged in exploration. Many of them became new people because of friendship.
Maybe that is the theme of spirituality: becoming a new person, a deep person, a person of the Spirit. Becoming friends is a great way to engage this transformative process. And so I thank my new young friend. Through friendship I get one more crack at a richer spiritual life.