“Why can’t I make ‘real’ friends? I feel lonely all the time,” writes a 20 year old to Yahoo Answers. The advice in this case (join a sports club) struck me as a travesty. OK, the malaise might be temporary, a teenage angst, and joining a club might sort it. But surely the issue is more existential, reaching to the deepest parts of our conscious human need. As Mother Teresa of Calcutta wrote: Loneliness is the most terrible poverty.
Jesus Christ knew how vital friendship was. He became a friend to the friendless and unwanted (Luke 7:34). As he neared his death, he reserved the highest accolade for His inner circle: “I have called you my friends” (John 15:15). And most telling of all, in the horror of his own personal agony in Gethsemane, he wanted his closest friends near him – and opened his heart to them in the most open, vulnerable way (Mark 14:33-34).
With this in mind, it is certainly surprising that Christian writers down the ages have been remarkably silent on the subject of true friendship, heart-brotherhood and the like.
One who does address the matter is John Cassian (c.360-435). As a young man, he was exercised over how to live a godly life with true brotherhood. So he and his best friend, Germanus, travelled from his native Romania to visit the hermitages and monasteries of Palestine and Egypt. Here, Cassian documented the structures, lifestyle and teachings of the Desert Fathers. Years later, in 415, when he was abbot of a monastery near Marseille, he published these under the title Conferences. They are a seminal tool for the student of early monastic life.
In this post, what concerns us is Conference 16: The First Conference of Abbot Joseph, on Friendship. In conversation with Cassian, the abbot first looks at many kinds of friendship outside the Christian framework, which he says can be motivated by self-interest, nepotism, the longing for recognition, or selfish desires. True Christian friendship, on the other hand, he sees as founded on two things: like-mindedness and a common purpose.
“Love can only continue undisturbed in those in whom there is but one mind, to will and to refuse the same things. This is the sure and indissoluble union of friendship, where the tie consists only in being alike in goodness and having a union of character in God.”
For such friendship to come into being, “whatever things the world might offer cannot be regarded more highly than what is most valuable: love of a brother. Everything, even what one deems useful and necessary, must be subordinate to the blessing of love and peace. Realising that, all too soon, one must pass from this world, one cannot permit any vexation to linger in the heart.”
“For if one is walking along the the path outlined above, how can he ever differ from his friend, if he claims nothing as his own and entirely cuts off the first cause of any quarrel. He observes to the best of his power what we read in Acts 4, verse 32: The company of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common.”
Of all the Church Fathers, Augustine of Hippo (354-430) pondered the most on human relationships in general, and heart-friendships in particular. What makes him so readable on this – and on so much else – is the sheer humanity and honesty with which he wrote. His autobiographical Confessions make no attempt to cover his colourful pre-conversion life, where “the madness of lust” made him live “a life in which I was seduced and seducing, deceived and deceiving”.
His conversion experience at age 33 took place in the company of a friend, Alypius, and for the rest of his life he lived in various forms of Christian community, surrounded by others, sharing his life with them. Some of these were particularly close to his heart. With hindsight, Augustine reassesses some earlier relationships which had seemed to be ‘the real thing’, but which proved not to be, as they were founded on two close but wrong ‘cousins’. Let us consider two of these: sex and infatuation (or co-dependency).
In Books 3-6 of the Confessions we find a young woman, whom he does not name, who became the mother of his child. “I loved the idea of love”, he writes, “but I muddied the clear spring of friendship with the dirt of lustful desire.” The couple remained together for 13 years and the bond clearly went deep. When his commitment to his faith led to them parting, “my heart, which clung to her, was broken and wounded and dripping blood.” He adds that the woman never took another man. In a culture where the term “friend” was usually only applied to men, Augustine says a lot about this relationship by referring to his ex-partner as his “friend”.
So, sexual union is not the fulfilment of the heart’s desire for friendship. In our day, when sex is billed as everything and leaves hearts broken and empty when it turns out not to be so, such a voice needs to be heard. But what does it offer instead?
In Book 4 we read of a childhood friend in his native Tagaste (in modern Algeria). They were the same age and had played and gone to school together. The friendship with this lad continued into manhood. It was “sweeter to me than anything I had ever known. My soul could not be without him.” Augustine was devastated when his friend died of a fever. “Tears took the place of my friend in my heart’s love. I was in misery, for I felt that my soul and my friend’s had been one soul in two bodies.”
At this point, a 21st century reader may already be thinking “gay”, even as the archetypal male heart-bond of David and Jonathan in the Bible is interpreted as “gay” in some circles today [1 Samuel 20:17; 2 Samuel 1:26]. But we should remember that such a branding of all same-sex attraction is an invention of the 19th century; it was not thought about that way in previous times and we must avoid crude retro-projections of modern interpretations.
More useful to us is Augustine’s own judgement with the benefit of hindsight: “We depended too much on each other… He was not a friend in the true meaning of friendship.” Here, then, is the second ‘near miss’ on the road to deep heart-friendship: the persuasive but largely mythical idea of the “bosom buddy” who will meet all your emotional needs and where the relationship seems to require little real work.
In his autobiographical masterpiece, Confessions, Augustine of Hippo (†430) has much to say about human relationships. I have been gleaning some of his insights on heart-friendship.
Broken-hearted at the death of a childhood friend, Augustine relocated to Carthage in 376 as a tutor in rhetoric. Here, with students who in some cases were not much younger than he, he found solace from his grief.
[It was a joy to him] to talk and jest together, to do kindness to each other; to read pleasant books together; to play the fool or be earnest together; to dissent at times without discontent, as a man might with his own self. These and other similar expressions, proceeding out of the hearts of those who love and are loved in return, [which are expressed] in the countenance, the tongue, the eyes, and a thousand pleasing gestures, were like fuel to melt our souls together, and out of many make us one.
Project this description forward sixteen centuries and you have today’s “soap opera” model of friendship. To anyone fed a diet of these programs, Augustine’s circle at Carthage was pretty high on the scale. Fun, arguments, horseplay, kindness – surely this is as good as it gets? And this is precisely where we see the alarming erosion of personal relationships today: people have to be guided by the media, and don’t even realise when they’re being sold short!
Augustine, however, was still not satisfied. Looking back later, he saw that his Carthage circle were chums, mates, buddies, but not friends of the heart. They were, if you like, the outer circle of relationships that everyone needs.
It was in Milan that things changed. He found a wise mentor in the bishop, Ambrose, and set his heart on becoming a Christian. He lodged with several young men, two of whom became lifelong friends: Alypius and Nebridius. Book 6 of the Confessions tells us more about them.
“Alypius was very fond of me because he saw me as good and learned, and I was very fond of him because of his natural tendency towards virtue which was remarkable in one so young.” The relationship went deeper because they opened up to each other their weaknesses, struggles and confusion. In later years Augustine called Alypius “the brother of my heart” and wrote to Jerome: Anyone who knows us both would say that he and I are distinct individuals but one in mind, in harmony and trusty friendship.
Nebridius, “a really good and pure young man, had come to Milan for no other reason than that he might live with me in a most ardent search after truth and wisdom.” Here too the relationship deepened through vulnerability and honesty: “Together we sighed and together we wavered.” Nebridius also watched over Augustine, reining in his intellectual curiosity and protecting him from heresies. “He set me before myself, forcing me to look into my own face.”
Here, then, is the inner circle of friendship – the relative few within our circle with whom we can drop our guard and let our true self be known. It is this that turns ‘chums’ into true heart-friends.
John Piper, in a perceptive article on Spurgeon and adversity, sees several contributing factors to Spurgeon’s depression.
Overwork. His friend, missionary David Livingstone, said he did the work of two men every day: running his orphanage (Spurgeons, still a leading charity today) and a church of 4,000 members (the Metropolitan Tabernacle, London); editing a magazine, writing books, answering several hundred letters a week – the list goes on. Spurgeon saw this as a virtue (“If we die early because of excessive labour, there is more of heaven“). Today, many would seriously question his ‘work – life balance’.
Pain and sorrow. He married Susannah in 1856. Their twin sons were born the day after the horrific stampede at a service where he was preaching in 1856, where seven people were trampled to death. So for Spurgeon, even the gift of fatherhood was a mixed blessing. They had no more children. When Susannah was 33, she became an invalid and remained so until she died, 27 years later. Spurgeon himself suffered so badly from gout that he felt he was being bitten by snakes. He was known to say that the pain would be the end of him.
Hostile criticism. Perhaps because he was a larger than life figure and popular, Spurgeon was attacked from all quarters of the Church. In 1857 he wrote: “Down on my knees have I often fallen, with the hot sweat rising from my brow under some fresh slander poured upon me; in an agony of grief my heart has been well-nigh broken.”
Yet it was the trauma of the seven people trampled to death in the Royal Surrey Gardens that broke something in him, at only 22 and newly wed. In his first book, The Saint and His Saviour, he described his agony:
When the storm was over, a kind of stupor of grief ministered a mournful medicine to me. I sought solitude, where I could tell my griefs to flowers and the dew could weep with me. Here my mind lay, like a wreck upon the sand, incapable of its usual motion. I was in a strange land, and a stranger in it. My thoughts, which had been to me a cup of delights, were like pieces of broken glass, the piercing and cutting miseries of my pilgrimage.
In time, Spurgeon learned to rise from this deep pit of ‘shapeless, undefinable, yet all-beclouding hopelessness‘ and make his mark on church and nation. Eventually, he could even see divine providence behind it.
By nature a fighter, Spurgeon initially refused to accept depression. He called it his “worst feature.” “Despondency is not a virtue; I believe it is a vice. I am heartily ashamed of myself for falling into it, but I am sure there is no remedy for it like a holy faith in God.” With the passing years, as bouts of depression continued to lay him low, he came through to various conclusions, which may be of help to anyone who struggles with the ‘all-beclouding hopelessness.’
In an early (1859) sermon, ‘The Sweet Uses of Adversity‘, he writes: Perhaps in your own person you are the continual subject of a sad depression of spirit? and offers some thoughts. These could be seen as the standard Christian answers, even a little pat.
- It may be that God is contending with you that he may show his own power in upholding you (much as the parent of a gifted child delights to see it put through hard questions, because he knows the child can answer them all).
- Perhaps, O tried soul, the Lord is doing this to develop graces in you. Afflictions are often the black mounts in which God sets the jewels of his children’s graces, to make them shine the better.
- God is chiselling you, making you into the image of Christ. None can be like the Man of Sorrow unless they have sorrows too.
We sense two things emerging. First, an undefensive acceptance that bad and painful things happen, and we may never know why. The great preacher who could analyse most things in life and present them in a 3-heading sermon, could not analyse pain and depression.
Second, a more mature response to the issue of depression, born of his experience. In a later sermon, ‘When a Preacher is Downcast‘, he stresses the need for wisdom, recreation, for time spent enjoying nature, and for vacations to maintain a healthy soul. He also brings in the positives of his experience in the dark valleys of depression.
- This depression comes over me whenever the Lord is preparing a larger blessing for my ministry. The cloud is black before it breaks and overshadows before it yields its deluge of mercy.
- Depression has now become to me as a prophet in rough clothing, a John the Baptist heralding the nearer coming of my Lord’s richer blessing. So have far better men than I found it. The scouring of the vessel has fitted it for the Master’s use. Immersion in suffering has preceded the filling of the Holy Ghost. The wilderness is the way to Canaan. The low valley leads to the towering mountain. Defeat prepares for victory. The raven is sent forth before the dove. The darkest hour of the night precedes the day-dawn.
I recently posted a couple of pieces on ‘masculine Christianity’. One name that deserves to be better known in this regard is Peter Orseolo (928-927) – little known today but a role model in many ways.
His life reads rather like a novel. Adventure, intrigue, unusual twists in the plot, it’s all there. He was a nobleman from Venice and even as a youth had a reputation for strength. So, when Venice needed a commander to lead a fleet against the pirates who terrorised the Adriatic, they chose Orseolo – aged only 20. What’s more, he won a great victory, sweeping the marauders from Venetian shores.
In 976 there were riots in Venice. The Doge (the chief magistrate and ruler) was murdered and a large part of the city destroyed by fire. A strong and competent leader was needed, so whom did they choose? Peter Orseolo was made the new Doge and set about the huge task of reconstruction.
He showed himself a remarkable statesman and one of the greatest rulers of Venice. He made peace between enemies. He built hospitals and set up social programs to care for widows, orphans and pilgrims. He began rebuilding St Mark’s Cathedral, icon of the city.
Then, in September 978, at the height of his powers, Orseolo disappeared! Not even his wife and son knew where he was. An extensive search finally traced him to a Benedictine monastery in the mountains between France and Spain. Had he felt crushed by responsibilities? Perhaps, but he revealed later that God had been troubling his heart for ten years over the call to renounce everything to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Orseolo cut himself off from all his past life and achievements and put himself under the guidance of the abbot of Cuxa, dedicating himself to prayer. The fighter who had defeated pirates and political enemies now took on the harder conflict of dethroning self. The man who had ruled a city state now took a vow of obedience! It sounds ironic, but did not Jesus himself teach that true greatness lay not in lording it over others but in humbling oneself and becoming a servant? (Matthew 20:25-27)
But the lion did not altogether become a lamb! He brought to the monastery his fighting spirit, attracting spiritual brothers and sons by his steely determination and innate leadership charisma.
Prince Kaboo was born in 1873, son of a chief of the Kru tribe in Liberia, Africa. When only in his teens, he was captured in a skirmish with the Grebo tribe, who used him as a pawn in extracting tribute. He was regularly whipped and tortured, and the Kru had to deliver a present every month to keep him alive. If they defaulted, Kaboo would be buried up to the neck, his face smeared with honey, and the ants would eat him alive.
One night, there was a blinding flash of light, the ropes fell off him and a voice said: “Kaboo, flee!” He ran into the jungle, travelling by night and hiding in hollow trees by day, until he reached the capital, Monrovia. Here he found work and was invited to church. Hearing how Saul of Tarsus was converted through a blinding flash of light [the Bible, Acts 9:3-19], Kaboo was astonished at the similarity to his own story, and gave his life to Christ. At his baptism he was given the name Samuel Morris.
After two years, hungry to receive training and to be empowered to preach the gospel, Kaboo was sent to America. He worked his passage, being badly treated by the ship’s crew, but a number turned to the Lord through his witness. Samuel Logan Brengle, an early leader in the Salvation Army, recounts what happened next in his book When the Holy Ghost is Come:
“The brother in New York to whom he came, took him to a meeting the first night he was in the city, and left him there, while he went to fulfil another engagement. When he returned at a late hour, he found a crowd of men at the penitent-form, led there by the simple words of this poor black fellow. He took him to his Sunday-school, and put him up to speak, while he attended to some other matters. When he turned from these affairs that had occupied his attention for only a little while, he found the penitent-form full of teachers and scholars, weeping before the Lord. What the black boy had said he did not know; but he was bowed with wonder and filled with joy, for it was the power of the Holy Spirit.”
He arrived in America aged 18 and was referred to Taylor University, a Christian foundation in Indiana. When the principal asked him what room he would like, Kaboo replied: “Give me the one that no one else wants.”
Kaboo’s simple godliness affected everyone he met. They often heard him calling on God in his room (he called it “talking to my Father”). He took every opportunity to witness to others, but his heart still yearned to return to Liberia with the message of salvation.
It never happened. In 1893, aged 20, he contracted an infection and died. The President of the university made this statement: Samuel Morris was a divinely sent messenger of God to Taylor University. He thought he was coming over here to prepare himself for his mission to his own people; but his coming was to prepare Taylor University for her mission to the whole world. Many of his student contemporaries volunteered for missionary service, to keep alive Kaboo’s vision and to work towards his dream.
A life’s work accomplished in just four years as a Christian! Behind this we can see the meeting of two crucial elements: a clear and powerful divine call and what the university President called Kaboo’s sublime yet simple faith in God.
My reading gives me the impression that sustainability is being taken more seriously by Christians, particularly the ‘millennial’ generation. Sustainable living is a Christian calling, declares Calvin College. Tearfund and the Jubilee Centre have produced five Bible studies on Christianity, Climate Change and Sustainable Living. There is even a network of Christian leaders advocating sustainability: check out their webpage.
Basically put, sustainability is the belief that there are enough resources on earth to provide for its population, if only these resources could be used wisely and equally. This clip from the Breathe Network will give you a flavour – read the comments too.
So, is this a new fad? Could it be that sustainability is in the New Testament mandate? It is certainly the thought behind 2 Corinthians 9:8. God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that you may always have enough of everything and may provide in abundance for every good work.
But there is a much stronger tie-up with the monastic community vision. Basil, bishop of Caesarea (c.330-379), wrote at some length on this issue. In his sermon “To the Rich”, he writes:
“But how do you make use of money? By dressing in expensive clothing? Won’t two yards of tunic suffice you, and the covering of one coat satisfy all your need of clothes? Is it for food’s sake that you have such a demand for wealth? One loaf is enough to fill a belly.”
If you have been blessed with more money and goods than others, it is so you can meet the needs of those others, he argues.
‘It takes wealth to care for the needy; a little paid out for the needs of each person, and all at once there is sharing. Whoever loves his neighbour as himself [as Christ taught], will not hold on to more than his neighbour has.’
Basil inveighs against those “who leave grain to rot but will not feed the starving”, who choose ivory sofas and silver tables when ordinary wood is just as suitable. This is more than cheap swipes at material wealth. For Basil, a man steeped in the Christian community vision of the Desert Fathers, the inherent sin of such behaviour is its refusal to accept simplicity for the sake of sustainability. It is as much a sin against the earth as it is against the poor.
This is the context in which Basil in his day, and concerned Christians today, saw the devious lie of consumerism and turned against it.
Some of God’s radicals operated in days when the Church was strong and advancing. Others lived in times of hardship, confusion and decline. Their (equally heroic) task was to lead the way to restoration; to ‘rebuild the walls’, like Nehemiah in his day. One such ‘rebuilder’ was Menno Simons (1496-1561).
Born in rural Friesland, son of a dairy farmer, he showed piety and intelligence and at the age of 28 he became a Roman Catholic priest. But he was nagged by inner doubts about some aspects of Catholic practice, so he read widely, including the (officially banned) Martin Luther. The burning of an Anabaptist believer as a heretic, not far from Menno’s home, threw him into mental turmoil. The Anabaptists were everywhere condemned, but their teachings resonated in his own heart. As he studied scripture, he became convinced that he was called to walk with these persecuted brethren.
At this very point, however, the Radical Reformers’ movement was in turmoil. One group, at Münster in Germany, had fallen into religious mania. Nearer to home, a group of Anabaptists had occupied the cathedral in Bolsward and proclaimed revolution. Both groups had been ruthlessly wiped out by the authorities. Even so, Menno sensed that the Anabaptists were at core ‘like sheep without a shepherd’ (the Bible, Mark 6:34). In this darkest hour, he felt an inner call from God.
I renounced my worldly reputation and my easy life, he wrote, and I willingly submitted myself to distress and poverty under the heavy cross of Christ. I surrendered my soul and body to the Lord … and commenced in due time … to teach and to baptize, to till the vineyard of the Lord,… to build up His holy city and temple and to repair the tumble-down walls.
For the next twenty years he and his family were fugitives. Always in danger, with a price on his head, Menno toured Holland and northern Germany, never staying in one place longer than a few months. He preached, baptised and reconciled brethren. He wrote letters and books setting out a balanced Anabaptist theology. One of his key themes was the ‘new creation’: people, the Church and society can be transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit, in the love of Christ. In this lies hope for mankind’s future, in any age.
Menno was never captured. Even so, his hardships left him crippled in later years. Only one of his children reached adulthood. And he bore the constant burden of care for the Church. If Almighty God had not preserved me, he wrote, I would have gone mad. For there is nothing on earth that my heart loves more than the Church, yet I must live to see her in this sad affliction.
So he pressed on. Through his labours, Anabaptism was not only saved from extinction but given new vigour. Mennonites gained a foothold in northern Europe, then in America, and they still exist in significant numbers today. Menno’s was an apostolic ministry, not in the out-front manner of a Paul but the more hidden manner of an Epaphras or a Titus. It was also truly radical in that Menno searched for the roots of New Testament Christianity, returned to those roots, and did all he could to protect, strengthen and publicise these roots. Menno offers today’s evangelical Christians an inspiring model of leadership that balances zeal and discipline, passion and theological depth, courage and wisdom.