You Just Call Out My Name
Everyone of a certain age remembers Carole King’s classic 1971 song from her Tapestry album, “You’ve got a friend,” with its great lyric. James Taylor made it hugely popular. I am sure that there were churches that used it as a hymn in those experimental worship days. It still speaks to us of a deep need.
Everyone needs friendship. It is the stuff of life, even as bread is the staff of life. And yet friendship was not recognized throughout the Christian world as a virtue until rather late. The first treatise ever written on friendship came from Aelred (1110-1167), Abbot of Rievaulx Monastery. Despite its French name, Rievaulx is a town near Helmsley in Yorkshire, England. Aelred had so few sources to turn to in the tradition of the church that he had to reach back to Cicero (106-43 BC), the great Roman orator and philosopher, for a template for his book. Cicero had written to his friend Laelius in 44 BC with a treatise he called simply “on friendship.” Aelred used many of Cicero’s concepts and issued his book under the title “on spiritual friendship.” You can still find it in print.
Aelred influenced Bernard of Clairvaux, the first person in the western church to tackle the concept of love on the ground, rather than love for God, since Augustine had written about it centuries earlier. So Aelred’s book got some traction in those days.
The real issue I’ve wrestled with is this: Why didn’t the church affirm ordinary friendship as a spiritual pathway for so many centuries? A millennium went by before Aelred put quill to parchment and penned his little, and singular, classic – and it was dependent on a Roman model from a millennium before. I think there are two reasons.
First, the church was hesitant to condone much at all in the way of relationships outside marriage. Monks and nuns were to be celibate, which seems to have meant sexless, or at the very least a personal abandonment of sexuality. It’s less than a century until the IV Lateran Council of 1215 (held at Rome) made celibacy mandatory for the priesthood throughout the western church (eastern Orthodoxy never adopted this rule). Friendships across sexual lines were frowned upon, despite the fact that some Celtic monasteries had both men’s and women’s houses. And of course there was the constant worry that friendships between people of the same sex might lead further.
Second, look to the church’s lack of support for friendship in the monastic concept of commonality. If, as a monk, you hold all things in common, this idea extends to include your fellow monastics, so that no one becomes more special than another in your world.
In our society, in which so many people are “churchless Christians,” it makes perhaps even more sense to affirm natural aspects of living that carry a spiritual quality. Friendship may top this list.
You don’t need a whole lot of friends. In fact, it is quite difficult to craft a bevy of friendships. It requires commitment, a certain ruthless honesty, and years of fermentation to come to fruition. I have a handful of friends; some I’ve had for as long as fifty years, but some are much younger. You need variety. Everyone else I’m friendly with, but really they are better called acquaintances.
In the early English we usually call Anglo-Saxon, friendship has a double meaning: that you guarantee the freedom of another, and that you love the person. A friend is someone who loves you enough to allow you to be free. Would to God that we cultivate such friends; they are a blessing.