Spiritual friendship, according to the great twelfth century English Cistercian Abbot, Aelred of Rievaulx is “mutual harmony in affairs human and divine coupled with benevolence and charity” (Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications). What he meant is that spiritual friendship is the love of the Christians given by God that combines goodwill and charity and is only possible between those who resist sin and seek to follow Jesus. There are certain characteristics that make up spiritual friendship.
Firstly spiritual friendship has ‘sacred space’ that allows each of us to grow in our relationship with the Lord, with other people and with ourselves. The ‘sacred space’ is a safe space where we are free to make mistakes. It is also a space where we are to be non judgmental about each other. Therefore this ‘sacred space’ allows us to be ourselves, without the burden of putting on our false selves and trying to be someone else. In spiritual friendship there is an understanding of ‘agreeing to disagree.’ This meant that it is possible to hold differing opinions about politics, theology, lifestyle preferences, and cultural heritage without the need to prove ourselves right or to tear down the other person’s opinion. In many subtle ways, this will enrich our lives.
Secondly, spiritual friendship is a relationship with trust. This trust is about spiritual friends respecting each other’s confidentiality and privacy. It is in our psychological makeup that we need people we can trust so that we can open ourselves. This opening of ourselves is cathartic and results in our emotional well being. We need to be able to be free to verbalise our fears and desires. Confession is an important part of the process of repentance. Confession helps us to avoid the temptation of sidestepping our moral responsibilities. We cannot do all this if we do not trust our spiritual friends with our confidentiality.
Thirdly, spiritual friendship involves accountability. Spiritual friends are accountable to each other because they are brothers in Christ. Much of the problems of the world are the results of lack of accountability. Many Christian leaders fail because they do not allow themselves to be accountable to other Christians. Christian spiritual friends hold each other accountable in their spiritual life, thought fantasies, marital fidelity, fulfilling of promises, and management of finances. We need these check and balances because we are prone to self deception. The bible teaches that our hearts are very deceitful (Jeremiah 17:9).
Finally, spiritual friends make very good prayer partners. There is a certain joy in praying together with someone we know and loves. Praying together reminds us of our dependence on the Lord. One of the highlight of my working week is the weekly lunch-time prayer with a spiritual friend. Spiritual friends are able to discern the working of the Holy Spirit in the life of one another other and to offer spiritual direction. This is especially useful when major decisions need to be made.
How do we seek spiritual friends? We start by becoming friends with others. Gradually we will come to be aware that certain people may become our good spiritual friends. We are comfortable with these people because they offer us ‘sacred spaces.’ We know that we can trust them to keep our confidence (not a gossip), are willing to be accountable to each other, and willing to pray together with us. The friendship of David and Jonathan is one such example (Isaiah 18:1-4). In my spiritual journey I am grateful for the friendships of many spiritual friends who live in many countries all over the world. I thank God for all of them. When you have a spiritual friend, hang on to them because they are very precious and very rare. You may even have to travel thousands of miles for them.
Soli Deo Gloria