Friendship: The Grace to Be a Spiritual Friend

“You and I are here, and I hope that Christ is between us as a third.”

Thus begins the opening dialog in St. Aelred’s classic, Spiritual Friendship. Written in the early 12th century by the highly reputable Cistercian abbot, Spiritual Friendship is a short treatise on the universal experience of human friendship and the value of relatedness through common affection and goodwill. Few would deny that friendships bring comfort, companionship, and courage to the afflicted and contented. Yet for all its good, true friendship is difficult to attain on this broken earth. Why is that? Why are good friends so hard to find?

Looking back on my short life, I can count numerous friendships that started off as “close” but now have faded over time and circumstances. And as I have aged, new friendships feel tentative and fragile. Gone are the youthful ideals of forging bonds that can withstand all the storms of life. Perhaps we have Facebook to thank for that. We can fill our social media feeds with acquaintances and strangers, buying into the illusion of tribal bonds based on common interests and political leanings. Sharing life is a news feed. Or perhaps in our busy schedules we have less energy and time to devote in knowing someone well. Or it’s the consequence of a transient society as people move from place to place. But that still doesn’t explain why making good friends, friends that are cherished in this life and in the next, can be an arduous task.

What makes a spiritual friend? According to Aelred, a spiritual friend is one whom you share a common bond with Christ. Spiritual friendships are the truest of friends that find their origin in divine love and are maintained by it. All others are deemed carnal or worldly and such are not real friends.  To differentiate, friendships ought to be tested for its trustworthiness and consistency. Loyalty is the “nurse and guardian of friendship itself,” and “proves itself a comrade in everything.” No matter if times are difficult or prosperous, friends are friends for its own good and not for what it can give. This undoubtedly weeds out the fair-weather friends, the friends of convenience, and the social-climber friends (particularly when they have surpassed your life station). So it would seem that friendships are formed through trial and, most bothersome, through time.

Who has time these days? And if they do they must not be all that productive. But everyone makes time for what they care about or what they are committed to. Even in an instant-gratification culture, one still has to devote the time to be immediately satisfied.  Friendship needs that time to grow, like proofing bread dough for that soft and flavorful texture. Time is what’s required, but who gives? And if one does have the time, as yours truly, then what gives?

The inevitable question we come to after some consideration of our friendships is whether we can pass the test ourselves. Who have I been a spiritual friend to? Am I a true friend in all times, good and ill? In all honesty, I think I’ve come to the sobering conclusion that I’m a deeply selfish person. The primary person that I want to see happy is me and I’m happy being an emotionally limited person. I would like to be a good friend to everyone, but I’m reaching that stage in life where in order for me to be a good friend to some I have to be a fair-weather one to others. I know others have done the same, which is a relief. But at the end of the day, when my usefulness to people wanes, I wonder who would be around to appreciate my friendship just for friendship’s sake.

Nothing in human life is hungered for with more holiness, nothing is sought with more utility, nothing is found with more difficulty, nothing is experienced with more pleasure and nothing is posses with more fruitfulness. Friendship bears fruit in our present life and in the next (Rievaulx, Spiritual Friendship).

Now here’s a sobering thought: our earthly friendships somehow matter beyond our earthly deaths. This isn’t about being best friends forever, but how good friendships change who we are. How twisted, jaded and bitter I would be if not for my friends. How scornful, conceited, and smug I would be if not for being a friend to others. Instead I am bearing witness that the love of a friend changes everything; it changes our reality.

Finding good friends is hard because I have to be that good friend. Oh Lord, have mercy. I need grace to extend beyond my self-imposed limitations and to not buy into the lie that friendship uses up time, but to know that time was meant for real friendship.

You and I are here, and so is love.  May we give true friendships the time it deserves.


This was a contribution to Asian American Women on Leadership, a gathering of Asian American Women for leadership renewal and development.