The Gift of Friendship, by Wesley Hill
AUGUST 15, 2015
Several years ago, during a time in my life when I was feeling especially lonely, I read a blog post by the gay Catholic writer Eve Tushnet on the theme of friendship. It was a short post, and it made one simple point. Its main idea was contained in one sentence, even. “My actual experience of friendship,” Tushnet wrote, “very strongly suggests a need and desire for friendships to become, over time, understood as given.”
What did she mean?
Well, there is a popular conception about friendship that goes back hundreds of years. Friendship, we have often been told, is the least “given,” the least constrained and committed and biologically driven, of all human loves. By contrast with our siblings, we get to choose our friends. Unlike our parents, our friends are connected to us by sheer liking. And in a way that differs from our spouses, to whom we’ve made vows for life, whether we go on liking them or not, our friends are simply our preferred ones. We aren’t bound to them, promised to them, “stuck” with them. And that, it is usually said, is what makes friendship so unique—and so precious.
But Tushnet’s post cuts against that conception. In her experience, she wrote, if a friendship lasts long enough and goes deep enough, it starts to edge away from the “free and unconstrained” territory and starts to move into the realm of “bound for life.” Friendship, in other words, starts to look more familial, more permanent, more “wedded.” As the Russian Orthodox writer Pavel Florensky once put it, oftentimes friendship strives to merge into the concept of brotherhood or sisterhood. It wants to become more constant.
When I read Tushnet’s post, I immediately resonated with it. I think the reason it struck me so powerfully had a lot to do with the fact that I’m gay. Because I’m a Christian of a pretty traditional sort and I accept the classic Christian teaching that marriage is a covenant between male and female and is ordered toward the bearing and rearing of children, I’m also celibate.
Being gay and celibate can leave you wondering whether you’re left out in the cold when it comes to committed, stable, intimate relationships. Watching many of your friends pair up and get married, you wonder if you have to settle for something less than that—for relationships that always end with separation or distance. And sometimes friendship, which is all too fleeting in our mobile society, comes to seem like a consolation prize. As blogger Casey Pick has written, “No community is quite so sensitive to the reality that, for all its virtues, friendship isn’t family.”
But what if Christian friendships, or at least some of them, were able to become more committed, more bound by promises, and more recognized as integral, lasting parts of gay Christians’ lives? What if friendship were able to look more familial?
If I were to describe the hope and joy I’ve found in my own gay, celibate life, I would point to moments where that shift has happened in my friendships. I talk about some of those moments in my new book Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian.
For instance, there was the time when my friend Jono called me and asked me to be a godfather to his and his wife Megan’s daughter Callie. Jono and Megan wanted to seal, with the sacrament of baptism, my relationship to Callie and to themselves. In an email I wrote to him afterward, I said, “I take comfort from this—that, in Jesus’ economy, leaving the prospect of being a husband and father myself does not mean being without a family.”
Or there was the time when my married friends Aidan and Melanie and I, recognizing how much we’d come to mean to each other, asked our minister friend Amy to come and pray a blessing over our friendship, solemnizing it and reminding us of the sort of commitment we’d embraced. In our living room, Amy set up an icon of Aelred of Rievaulx, the unofficial patron saint of friendship. She preached a brief homily from Psalm 121 on the theme of pilgrimage. “You three are companions on a pilgrimage to the heavenly city,” she said. And then she consecrated bread and wine on our coffee table, pointing us to the ultimate Friend who gave his body and blood to make our love for each other possible.
In those moments, among others, I’ve remembered those words I read several years ago from Tushnet’s blog: there is “a need and desire for friendships to become, over time, understood as given.” Thankfully, in Christ, they can be.
Originally published on the Brazos Press blog.
This material is owned by Brazos Press. Used by permission of the author.
Wesley Hill is author of Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian.