Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Particular friendship

           One thing that “they” used to obsess about in seminaries was a phenomenon called a “particular friendship.” This refers to close friendships, not just your run-of-the-mill Facebook friend but more intimate connections. Originally the term had no sexual or romantic nuances. It merely referred to the very human experience of being best friends with one or two people among a larger circle of friends and acquaintances.
            Within monastic communities, where one was intentionally supposed to be a brother to all equally and closer friendships carried with them a certain danger of divisiveness within the larger group, the ideal was to strive to love all equally. Pretty much everyone who paid any attention to the way things actually work knew that this was not likely to be true, but it was held up as a goal.
            Among those who recognized reality was St. Aelred of Rievaulx, a medieval Cistercian abbot who wrote a famous book on Spiritual Friendship. In that book he discussed how it was possible for a monk to have special friendships within the community, friendships that strengthened both friends in their devotion to Christ and to the community. In Aelred’s day, it was not unusual for a monastery to have hundreds of members. It would be a challenge to know all their names, much less to know them all equally well. Aelred realized that under the circumstances, it was natural that some of the brothers would be closer than others, and he thought that this need not create a problem, although he was not ignorant of the possibility that not all the friendships were purely spiritual.
            When St. Teresa founded the Discalced Carmelites, she preferred for the communities to be small enough that everyone would have a chance to know every other member well. She restricted the nuns to 13 and then later 21 to a convent.  The friars had no such restriction, but the communities did tend to be smaller than the huge Benedictine monasteries of the Middle Ages.
Teresa also had a high opinion of friendship, speaking of prayer in terms of friendship with God, and she encouraged friendships among her followers. She did, however, recognize the dangers of cliques within the community. (Read the history of the reform and you will see that she had to deal with lots of that particular problem.) So she and John of the Cross both advised prudence in the matter of friendships, encouraging them insofar as they led both friends closer to God, discouraging them when they in any way led away from God. They each had very close friendships with men and women, as is evident from the correspondence they left behind.
            Over the next few centuries, however, fear of friendship, fear of any emotional attachment at all, grew, particularly in seminary communities. The specter of homosexuality hovered in the background, although the term as such did not exist until the nineteenth century. There was no idea of a person being homosexual by nature. Instead, attention focused on individual acts, which were always and everywhere condemned. That they happened, everyone knew. There were even scandals much like the pedophilia scandals that have rocked the Roman Catholic Church in the past few decades.
            The whole topic of what did and did not go on in seminaries during the last four hundred years would take several more volumes. I bring this topic up because the echoes of fear about “particular friendship” were still around when I entered the Order. I never saw any obsession about it in my own formation, and when it came up at all, the general topic had to do with appropriate levels of friendship within the community and avoiding divisive relationships or closed circles.
In Rumer Goden’s wonderful novel about a cloistered Benedictine Abbey, This House of Brede, the novice mistress told the young nuns that it was not important to have no particular friendships, to be close to no one. That would be inhuman and would not be faithful to the example of Jesus himself, who had a closer circle of three among the Twelve and whose particular love, if you will, for John led to that young disciple being nicknamed “the Beloved.” Instead, the nuns should strive to have lots of particular friendships. The thing to avoid was the exclusive friendship, one which shut others out and which was the only relationship in one’s life. The novel, which I highly recommend, demonstrates that friendship may cross over into romantic feelings, but that does not render friendship or feelings dangerous. It just shows that human affect is powerful.
As Carmelites, we were told to love all the brothers, to value all the brothers, to treat all the brothers as we would treat a best friend. It was a challenge, but that was the goal. Years later I expanded that notion when I spoke to the novices about the vow of chastity: By vowing chastity, we do not vow never to love anyone. We vow to try to love everyone. The chaste person does fall in love … he just keeps falling in love with more and more people, one by one, as long as there is love within him.
            I took all this seriously, and knowing that my attractions and infatuations could lead me where I did not choose to follow, I was careful. I had close friends in the community and outside the community. I had crushes on some of them, I was in love with some of them. I even talked about this with some of them, never coming on to them but because those were cases where our intimacy was such that I dared to tell. Some of these guys were gay, some were straight.
It was not until I was nearing solemn profession that I began to talk about being gay, however. And I am not yet to that point in the story. But keep this background in mind.


John Gray said...

Interesting and well written

Mitchell is Moving said...

This is a fascinating life you've led and I appreciate learning about it by someone so enlightened, honest, and self-aware. Thanks for opening my mind!