If you think about it, being “extreme” is a very fluid concept, having a lot to do with local, cultural and temporal factors. As someone has said: “A fanatic is someone who loves Jesus more than you do.” So, for 21st century Western minds, the idea of hair shirts, heavy penances and dangerous levels of self-denial seems weird and wholly unnecessary. Yet in a more Eastern context, and in the 5th century, such ‘extreme holiness‘ was not only accepted, but praised.
One who took it to new heights (literally, see below) was Simeon Stylites (sty-ly-tees). Born c. 388 in what is now Kozan, Turkey, he showed great hunger for God as a child, and at 16 entered a monastery. However, his superiors found his asceticism so intense and exaggerated that they asked him to leave. So Simeon found a hut and lived there as a hermit, fasting for weeks at a time. Then he moved to a rocky outcrop on a mountain. Local people, seeing him as a holy man, brought him food. As his fame spread, people came from further afield seeking counsel and prayer.
This led Simeon to the decision for which he is remembered today (and for which he qualifies as one of God’s oddballs). In order to get away from distraction and celebrity, he found a pillar in an old ruin, about 9 feet (3m) high and constructed a platform on top of it. This became his home, but also a powerful visual symbol: unable to be separate from the world horizontally, he was doing so vertically!
As crowds and sightseers increased, Simeon simply found a higher pillar, his final dwelling being one c. 50 feet (16m) high at Afrin, 60 miles from Aleppo in Syria. His living-platform had a baluster around it and Simeon wore a chain, partly for self-abnegation, partly for health and safety! Wellwishers used a ladder to bring him food and milk. Some climbed up for a word of wisdom or prophecy from the holy man. The bishop of Antioch came and celebrated Communion with Simeon on the platform. Theodosius II, emperor of Byzantium, came to consult with Simeon. And certain clerics, jealous of his fame, challenged him to come down from his pillar as proof of his humility. As he began to climb down, they relented and let him stay.
Simeon’s platform being only 3 feet (1m) or so in diameter, he developed an unusual way of praying. He bowed until his head almost touched his knees, then straightened again. One onlooker records counting Simeon doing this 1,244 times in one session, at which point the counter gave up, exhausted. And when Simeon died, in September 459, after 37 years on his pillar, his body was found bent double in this posture of prayer. Simeon was buried at Antioch with great ceremony, while back in the wilderness, his disciples continued pillar-dwelling for another generation. In time, a great cathedral was built around the pillar itself, the ruins of which can be seen today.
In my reading of Church history, I regularly find colourful characters who didn’t fit the usual pattern but whom God used in surprising ways. Perhaps it was always so? As early as Genesis 20, King Abimelech of Gerar talks with God and behaves uprightly, yet the patriarch Abraham cannot see the possibility of good in anyone in Gerar.
One of these “oddballs” – outsiders who were, in God’s view, very much “in” – was an unnamed woman from Cornwall, England, in the 1850s. We meet her in William Haslam’s autobiographical From Death Into Life (download free here). Haslam was greatly used by God in a revival in Cornwall, with many conversions and amendment of life. Yet it almost never happened, because Haslam nearly died – but for the pipe-smoking prophetess. We read:
[There was] ‘a tall, gaunt, gipsy kind of woman, whom they called “the wise woman.” She had a marvellous gift of healing and other knowledge, which made people quite afraid of her. This woman took a great interest in me and my work, and often came to church and house meetings.
‘One day she visited the parsonage and said “Have you a lemon in the house?” I inquired and found that we had not. “Well then,” she said, “get one, and some honey and vinegar, and mix them all together. You will need it. Mind you do, now.” Then she put the bowl of her pipe into the kitchen fire and, having ignited the tobacco, went away smoking. The servants were much frightened by her manner.’
[Later that day, Haslam was caught in a thunderstorm and held house meetings in wet clothes all evening.]
‘At three o’clock in the morning I awoke, choking with a severe fit of bronchitis. I had to struggle for breath and life. After an hour or more of the most acute suffering, my dear wife remembered the lemon mixture, and called the servant to get up and bring it. It was just in time. I was black in the face with suffocation, but this compound relieved, and, in fact, restored me. I was greatly exhausted with the effort and struggle for life, and after two hours I fell asleep. I was able to rise in the morning, and breathe freely, though my chest was very sore.
‘After breakfast, the “wise woman” appeared outside the window of the drawing-room, where I was lying on the sofa. “Ah, my dear,” she said, “you were nearly gone at three o’clock this morning. I had a hard wrestle for you, sure enough. If you had not had that lemon, you know, you would have been a dead man by this time!”
‘That mysterious creature, what with her healing art, together with the prayer of faith and the marvellous foresight she had, was quite a terror to the people. One day she came, and bade me go to a man who was very worldly and careless, and tell him that he would die before Sunday. I said, “You go, if you have received the message.” She looked sternly at me, and said, “You go! That’s the message!” So I went. The man laughed at me, and said, “That old hag ought to be hanged.” I urged him to give his heart to God, and prayed with him, but to no effect. The following Saturday, coming home from market, he was thrown from his cart and killed.
‘She was not always a bird of evil omen, for sometimes she brought me good news as well as bad. One day she said, “There is a clergyman coming to see you, who used to be a great friend of yours, but since your conversion he has been afraid of you. He is coming; you must allow him to preach; he will be converted before long!” Sure enough, my old friend W. B. came as she predicted. He preached, and in due time was converted, and his wife also.’
‘Her sayings and doings would fill a book; but who would believe these things?‘
Please feel free to take up this final question and use the COMMENTS option. What can we learn from such unconventional figures and behaviour – and of God who uses them?
Lorenzo Dow (1777-1834), from Connecticut, USA, took eccentricity to a new level. From childhood he knew sweeps of emotion beyond his fellows, higher highs and deeper lows. His conversion experience was unusually dramatic too: in a dream, he was carried off to hell by a demon, and cried to God that he deserved it – but begged for mercy. He knew amazing peace and joy and woke up loving God.
At 21, he was accepted as a circuit preacher by the Methodists. Later he was an independent evangelist. He quickly gained a reputation, both for his appearance and his methods. He and his wife Peggy embraced poverty for the gospel’s sake. They would often sleep rough in the woods. Lorenzo usually had just the clothes he stood up in, which he wore until they were so unsightly that some person in the audience would donate a replacement – which might not be the right size. He had a beard down to his chest and never combed it. He didn’t always wash.
After his death, one obituary said: Who will forget his orang-utan features, his outlandish clothes, the beard that swept his aged breast, or the piping treble voice in which he preached the Gospel of the Kingdom.
Dow’s preaching mannerisms were a revelation. A generation before, the great open-air preacher George Whitefield was passionate but serious and measured. Lorenzo Dow shouted, screamed, wept, begged, insulted, and challenged people’s complacent beliefs. He told stories and jokes. It is recorded that he could hold an audience of 10,000 spellbound. He gained the nickname “Crazy Dow” and happily accepted it.
He had a keen eye for the theatrical. He loved to turn up at a public event, go to the centre or on to the stage (uninvited) and announce loudly that he would preach on that spot in one year’s time.
One famous episode took place in Westminster, Maryland, and he repeated it elsewhere. Seeing a boy with a trumpet, he enlisted his help: after the start of a service in a meeting hall, the lad was to climb an adjoining tree and wait for a signal. Inside, Dow preached a “fire and brimstone” message. In a great crescendo he cried: ‘If Gabriel were to blow his trumpet announcing the day of Judgment is at hand, would you be ready?’ It was the signal. The boy blew the trumpet! People screamed and rushed to the front to seek mercy and make peace with God. The boy made a quick getaway!
His engagement to Peggy was suitably unusual. He would marry her, he said, but “if you should stand in my way in the service of the gospel, I will pray to God to remove you!” Stout-hearted Peggy said yes nevertheless and they married in 1804. She accompanied him on many of his travels, which were long and arduous. They would camp in the woods without a tent, hearing wolves but trusting God. This they did out of love for the hundreds of settlers, born and bred in the wilderness, and now adult, who had never seen a preacher.
One record exists of Dow arriving at a village in Alabama: his pantaloons were worn through, and for several hundred miles he had ridden without a cloak, for he had sold it. He was barefoot and his umbrella was held by just three spokes. Small wonder that Peggy entitled her autobiography Vicissitudes in the Wilderness. When Peggy died, Lorenzo married Lucy, who was every bit as feisty as he: at their wedding she promised “to be a thorn in his flesh and a sword in his side”!
Despite their grinding poverty, however, Dow made a point of refusing lavish gifts from well-wishers, accepting only the bare essentials. Such a lifestyle took a toll on his health. He had asthma and malaria and, like the great Methodist circuit preacher Francis Asbury, could not stand for a whole preaching but had to lean on something.
Dow was a phenomenon, a source of entertainment as well as awe. Many a child was christened Lorenzo in his honour. But he also provoked opposition, especially in southern states, where he opposed slavery. He was sometimes pelted with stones, eggs, and rotten vegetables. That never stopped him; he simply walked to the next town and gave the same sermon again! At Jacksonborough, Georgia, he was abused and attacked so badly that, on leaving, he “shook off the dust from his feet” [Matthew 10:14] and cursed the place. Within a few years, all that was left of Jacksonborough was the home of his hosts – the rest had been abandoned and fallen into ruin.
In all, Dow made three trips to Britain, where he longed to preach the gospel to Roman Catholics. He was received as something of a curiosity but his preaching was respected everywhere. He introduced a group of Methodists to the American-style “camp meeting“, where revivalist preachers spoke to crowds in giant open-air congregations, which might last 3 days. As a result, Hugh Bourne and the Primitive Methodists began holding them in England.
The editor of his journal continued: “His eccentric dress and style of preaching attracted great attention, while his shrewdness, and quick discernment of character gave him no considerable influence over the multitudes that attended his ministry. Who has not heard of Lorenzo Dow? He was one of the most remarkable men of his age for his zeal and labor in the cause of religion. It is probable that more persons have heard the Gospel from his lips, than any other individual since the days of Whitefield.”
I am putting on the love of the Lord…
I have been united to Him, because the lover has found the Beloved.
Because I love Him that is the Son, I shall become a son.
Indeed, whoever is joined to Him who is immortal, shall truly be immortal.
These striking words come from what has been hailed as the earliest Christian hymn book. Prior to 1909, nothing was known of the Odes of Solomon except one quotation by Lactantius (died 320). Then a Syriac manuscript was found containing, among other writings, 40 odes. Subsequent finds have shown that there were originally 42, though because of the fragmentary nature of the papyri, Ode 2 and part of Ode 3 have not survived.
An ode is simply a piece of lyrical poetry written for a particular occasion, which in Greek at least had a fixed form. Scholars quickly established, however, that the Odes of Solomon are not from a Greek stable but a Jewish one. Dating evidence suggests late 1st – early 2nd century, at any event before the Bar-Kokhba Revolt of 132-135, when Christian Jews were evicted from synagogues.
These verses are not odes other than in a general sense, then, and there is nothing to link them to Solomon except by analogy of phrasing with the Song of Solomon in the Bible. For these Odes are clearly Christian (at one time scholars thought Gnostic, but the consensus today is that they are orthodox) and praise the person and attributes of Jesus Christ. Perhaps the titular use of Solomon’s name was a way of safeguarding the documents in a volatile political time when radical Jews were highly suspicious of Jewish followers of Christ.
What makes the Odes particularly exciting is that they clearly emanate from a community of Jewish disciples of Jesus, almost certainly from Syria. Church history from earliest times has majored on Gentile Christianity to the extent that the average reader can forget that Jewish believers continued at all beyond the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70.
It becomes clear that the writer was familiar with the biblical book of Psalms. It is nowhere exactly quoted, but in many places there are direct parallels. To give just one example, Psalm 84:10 reads: For a day in Thy courts is better than a thousand elsewhere, and in Ode 4:5 we find: For one hour of Your faith is more excellent than all the days and all the years.
What is also clear is that the writer, almost certainly a Jewish Christian in Syria, was very familiar with the writings of the Apostle John. If, as is generally agreed, the Odes date from the very end of the 1st century, it is well possible that the writer was a disciple of John. The link is noteworthy, because other (fragmentary) Jewish Christian texts, like the ‘Gospel of the Nazarenes‘ and the ‘Gospel of the Ebionites‘ lean heavily towards the more obviously Jewish slant of Matthew’s gospel (follow this link for a scholarly overview of early Jewish Christian writings).
Some of the odes are meditative expansions of Johannine themes like light and dark. John 1:1-18 presents Jesus Christ as “the light of the world”: In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it [v.3-4]. Ode 15:2 says: He is my Sun and His rays have lifted me up; His light has dismissed all darkness from my face.
The general tenor of the Odes is similar to John’s gospel in its meditative, worshipful response to the truths of Jesus. See, for example, the writer’s treatment of the incarnation [Odes 7,19], death [Ode 28], resurrection and ascension [Ode 42].
A fine example is Ode 27, which is only three verses long and which clearly grew out of worshipful contemplation of the Cross:
I extended my hands and hallowed my Lord,
For the stretching out of my hands is His sign,
And my stretching upward is the upright cross. Hallelujah.
I have long valued the writings of Victorian clergyman and author George MacDonald (1824-1905). I’m not alone! C S Lewis openly acknowledged: I have never concealed the fact that I regarded him as my master; indeed I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him. J R R Tolkien cited him as an influence. W H Auden valued him highly and wrote an Afterword to Macdonald’s fantasy novel ‘The Golden Key’.
MacDonald was friend and mentor to the young Lewis Carroll, who tried out sample chapters of Alice on MacDonald’s children. It was largely on the strength of their enthusiastic response that Carroll submitted his manuscript for publication, and the rest is history!
It is chiefly MacDonald’s fantasy novels and fairy tales that are still read today. As Lewis and Tolkien were to do after him, he found that by removing moral and spiritual truths from their usual context and relocating them in a different world altogether, they can be brought to life and shine with fresh revelation. “I write, not for children,” he wrote, “but for the child-like, whether they be of five, or fifty, or seventy-five.” This essay by Robert Trexler explores further MacDonald’s use of myth. See also Catherine Barnett’s perceptive piece, ‘Tolkien, MacDonald and the Cauldron of Story’.
But it is a very different work that I want to flag up here. At an uncertain date, following the deaths of two of his adult children, MacDonald produced A Book of Strife, in the Form of the Diary of an Old Soul. It is available for download in various places, like here and here. So personal is it that he published it privately for his circle of friends, printed only on right-hand pages, so that the reader could make comments or notes on the other. It was made public only after his death.
MacDonald muses and wrestles with God in imagined conversations, set in 7-line stanzas, one for each day of the year. Stripped of easy answers by deep pain, he reflects upon God, crises of faith, the human condition, sickness, suffering and loss. The whole collection is intensely personal and rooted in the here and now, all myth laid aside.
Can anything go wrong with me?, I ask,
And the same moment, at a sudden pain,
Stand trembling. Up from the great river’s brim
Comes a cold breath; the farther bank is dim;
The heaven is black with clouds and coming rain;
High-soaring faith is grown a heavy task,
And all is wrong with weary heart and brain. [September 12]
This stands in the tradition of Christian mystical verse, and it is clear that MacDonald was a poet (esteemed, indeed, by Tennyson, Longfellow and Walt Whitman). The mystics sought to raise the profile of intuition, experience and desire in the process of faith. ‘Consolations’ and ‘desertions’ were their bread and butter. For MacDonald, trust and hope are never far away, however, and end up strengthened.
When I no more can stir my soul to move,
And life is but the ashes of a fire;
When I can but remember that my heart
Once used to live and love, long and aspire;
Oh be Thou then the first, the one Thou art.
Be Thou the calling, before all answering love,
And in me wake hope, fear and boundless desire. [January 10]
In AD635, two men were sent out on apostolic missions and, in the face of great dangers, broke through with the gospel in unreached lands. Aidan was a fiery Irishman, Alopen a refined Persian. Both were monks, both gifted communicators. Entirely independently, both were commissioned and sent to start churches: one at the North-West frontier of civilisation, the other in the far East. Aidan became the Apostle of northern England, Alopen the Apostle to China. Despite their extraordinary linked destiny, they never met or even knew of each other.
Britain at the turn of the 600s was a battleground of warring tribal kingdoms, most of them pagan. A Christian prince named Oswald was sent to the Celtic monastery on the Scottish island of Iona for his own safety. In 634 he felt ready to deliver his kingdom, Northumbria, in the north of England. He defeated the invaders and was crowned king.
One of his first acts was to ask Iona to send someone to convert his pagan subjects. An envoy was sent but returned saying that the Northumbrians were obstinate barbarians, beyond redemption! At this, an Irish monk named Aidan spoke up: it was foolish to expect pagans to accept the strict rules of a Celtic monastery – they must be met on their own level, with grace and humility. For this, Aidan himself was appointed for the apostolic mission to re-evangelise the north of England. It was AD 635.
He established his base on Lindisfarne, an island off the east coast, which became known as Holy Island. Why an island? Because road travel was dangerous because of robbers, and much of the business of life was done by sea. From here teams went out with the gospel, planting churches and establishing centres at Melrose, Jarrow and Whitby. By the time he died in 651, Northumbria was almost wholly evangelised.
Aidan succeeded by developing key relationships with those who helped to expand the work, and by wise and creative planning. He didn’t do all the work himself – at first, he couldn’t even speak the language but needed interpreters. He appointed and trusted many workers. Other noted Celtic saints, Hild (or Hilda), Chad and Cuthbert, built up important ministries under his covering.
But Aidan was a communicator. He could empathise. Any gifts he received from the wealthy, he gave to the poor. This included a fine stallion given to him by the king. The king was furious, but Aidan replied: “Is the son of a mare more important to you than a son of God?” The humbled king knelt and asked forgiveness.
Aidan’s primary witness was through the genuineness of his life. He refused personal gain, showed no partiality (rebuking kings when they needed it), and practised rigorous self-denial. If the king came to Lindisfarne, he had to eat the same food as the monks and beggars. Aidan’s approach was “Do as I do”, not “Do as I say”, and because his life was open to all, people gladly followed and the Church was built.
ALOPEN: APOSTLE OF THE EAST
In ancient times, China was better known in the West than you might suppose. For centuries a trade route called the Silk Road had linked China with Persia and the West. Arab and Persian merchants settled in China, and Chinese envoys reached ancient Rome. But by the 5th and 6th centuries, tribal wars had shut the Silk Road and made China a closed empire.
The arrival of the T’ang Dynasty (AD 618-877) changed all this. The Chinese army crushed the rebels and a golden age of Chinese culture began. The capital, Chang-an (modern Xi-an), was the largest walled city ever built, with two million inhabitants. The reopening of the Silk Road in 632 brought a new cosmopolitan flavour. The Emperor, T’ai Tsung (known today as Taizong), tolerated all religions and encouraged the discussion of foreign ideas.
The Church saw its opportunity and took it. In 635, the Assyrian archbishop Yeshuyab sent an apostolic team, led by a learned and wise monk named Alopen. They accompanied a traders’ camel train and arrived at Chang-an.
Alopen had done his homework. He knew the very formal Chinese culture and the need to avoid open war with the Buddhists. So for three years, he and Chinese converts worked on the first Christian book in the Chinese language: The Sutra of Jesus Messiah. A sutra was the way Buddhists presented their teachings, as a series of discourses. Alopen was playing them at their own game.
Much reads strangely to Western ears: Jesus is “the Heaven-Honoured One”, the “Master of the Victorious Law”, who has sent “the Pure Breeze” (the Holy Spirit) from “our Three-One”. But the Emperor was pleased with what he read and in 638 made a decree: Alopen’s religion was “wonderful, spontaneous, producing perception and establishing essentials for the salvation of creatures and the benefit of man“. The Emperor commanded that a Christian religious centre be built from public funds in the Western merchants’ quarter of the city.
From this base, with a core of just 21 Christians, the gospel spread out into the land. Four regional centres were built and by the time of the next Emperor, Kuo Tsung, there were churches in ten provinces. Alopen was made bishop (or in the quaint Chinese, “Spiritual Lord, Protector of the Empire”) and the Church was able to put down firm roots in China – which it would need when persecution was unleashed by Empress Wu in 690.
The New Testament says that the Church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets – Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone (Ephesians 2:19-20). By their labours, endurance, anointing and above all love, they become fathers to the churches, as Paul, Peter and the others did in the Early Church. It may still be debated whether there are apostles today of the calibre and stamp of Jesus’ Twelve, but the apostolic heart should be something we long to see outpoured more and more, if the Church is regain (and retain) her radicality.
I continue to trawl through historical Christian writings on the subject of friendship. Next up is a fascinating piece with an obscure origin. It claims to be a letter to John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, from his mother, Anthusa, entitled On Ideal Friendship. It would date to the final quarter of the 4th century.
What complicates matters is that Anthusa is nowhere referred to by any other Early Church writers as an ancient authority. Meanwhile, the bulk of the text of the letter can be found, almost verbatim, in various of Chrysostom’s own works, especially his Homilies. So we are probably looking at “John Chrysostom on Ideal Friendship”.
The letter is not long and most of it is eminently quotable. In this post I’ll look at the introduction and opening section. It speaks for itself.
The letter opens with a verse from the Apocrypha: “A faithful friend is a sturdy shelter,” [Ecclesiasticus 6:14a], and the comment: Though you were to name a thousand treasures, there is nothing comparable to a real friend. The first section is then devoted to the pleasure that true friendship brings.
A friend overflows when he sees his friend. He is united to him in a union that affords indescribable pleasure of the soul. If he merely thinks of him, he rises and is carried upwards in his mind. I speak of genuine friends, who are of one accord, of those who would choose to die for their friends, of those who love warmly.
A true friend is such that places and times are loved on his account. For, as shining objects shed a lustre upon the adjoining places, even so friends impart their own grace to the places they have been. And oftentimes, when standing in those places without our friends, we have wept and groaned, remembering the days when we were there together.
The writer notes that those who have known the beauty of such a depth of heart-friendship will instinctively understand this, but that such people are relatively few. “When (such friends) make a request of us, we are grateful to them, but when they are slow to ask, then we are sad. We have nothing which is not theirs. It would be better to live in darkness than to be without friends. And how can I say this? Because many who see the sun are in darkness.”
I speak of the spiritual friends who set nothing above friendship. Such was Paul, who would willingly have given his own soul, without having been asked, and would have willingly fallen into Hell for his brethren [Romans 9:3]. With so burning an affection is it proper to love. Take this as an example of friendship. Friends surpass fathers and sons, that is, friends according to Christ.
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.
We continue to look at what Augustine of Hippo (†430) expresses about human relationships, especially heart-friendship, in his autobiographical masterpiece, Confessions.
Broken-hearted at the death of his 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.