God Is Friendship

The twelfth-century Cistercian abbot Aelred of Rievaulx is best known for his treatise on Spiritual Friendship, which makes a unique argument in the history of Christian theology. Since God himself is a community of persons, human friendship is an act whereby we especially imitate God, a relationship in which we are conformed to his likeness by learning to love as he loves. Through our friendships with other people, we can become friends with the God who is friendship itself. Aelred’s treatise is worth our study for the insights it offers about friendship and the Christian life. It also serves as a case study of the role experience plays in theology in relation to Scripture, Tradition, and sources outside the Christian tradition.

We see in the prologue to the Spiritual Friendship that the question of spiritual friendship is not abstract for Aelred, but one of personal import. It has roots deep in his childhood, from the time when boys begin to learn how and how not to love. We also see that Aelred conceives of this period of his life in—quite literally—Augustinian terms. No doubt he recounts his own biography accurately, but he has come to remember it along the outline of the Confessions, especially Books 2 and 3. Like Augustine, Aelred sought to love and be loved, though he was not mature enough, spiritually or emotionally, to succeed. And like Augustine, he came upon a work of Cicero’s that struck a chord deep within. For Augustine it was the Hortensius and for Aelred it was On Friendship, but in both cases Cicero captured their interests and, in the course of time, directed their hearts toward God.

Augustine eventually abandoned Cicero in his spiritual journey, having lost a taste for the beautiful but Christ-less works of classical literature. Aelred, by contrast, continued to meditate on On Friendship even as he fell more in love with Scripture, and he searched for a way to take the truths he had learned from Cicero and to support them with Scripture. He considered On Friendship an important source for theological reflection, no doubt both because of Cicero’s wisdom, beauty, and classical authority, and also his (Aelred’s) own experience of being changed by it. But Aelred was hesitant to use it without a fully scriptural foundation. That did not mean that he gave up, but rather that he contemplated Cicero and Scripture together, seeing how Scripture could correct and flesh out the truths of Cicero.

In fact, it could and it did, as one can see by the way in which On Friendship forms the backbone of Spiritual Friendship in structure and content. The titles alone illustrate this: Aelred called his work De spirituali amicitia, an explicit Christianization of Cicero’s De amicitia. Both works are dialogues between three parties and, Douglass Roby writes, “fully one third of Cicero’s work is contained in Aelred’s.” As part of his appropriation, Aelred consistently replaced Cicero’s examples of friendship from classical history and mythology with material from Scripture. This not only fit his methodology, but also provided examples more familiar to his readers, examples with a warmer appeal than the lofty heroes and gods of classical antiquity. Aelred felt free to modify the aspects of tradition that he appropriated as well, albeit to a lesser extent. These modifications were, to some degree guided by his experience, as was the whole project. But that experience, in turn, was formed by an immersion in and joyful reception of Scripture and Tradition through which Aelred had come to know God’s love as he never had before. Augustine and Cicero are tools that help him make sense of how the truths of Scripture have been realized in his own life, and how they might be realized in the lives of those under his spiritual care.

Four elements of Cicero’s theory of friendship stand out as especially important for Aelred’s Spiritual Friendship. First, friendship is natural. It is part of how human beings are made. We are not solitary creatures. We always strive “for some sort of support, and man's best support is a very dear friend” (On Friendship, XXIII.88). Second, friendship is a concord of wills and minds. It engages the whole person and inclines him toward another. A friendship is the birthplace of the deepest kind of love we can have for another human being. Third, friendship is founded on virtue. The basis of agreement between friends is not mutual advantage or similarity of taste, but a love of what is good. Friends pursue the good together. They thereby become more virtuous, see more to love in each other, and grow closer together in friendship. Fourth, friendship is eternal. In Cicero’s mind, people who are virtuous by nature will not stop being virtuous. This means that a real friendship between two people may be difficult or suffer strains and tensions, but, because it is founded on unchanging good, it will never break.

Cicero led Aelred to friendship, but Augustine led him to the cloister, where he would experience the deepest friendships he knew. As we saw in the prologue of Spiritual Friendship, Aelred agrees with Augustine about the perils of youthful friendship. Both men had close friendships at a young age, and both say that they resulted in sin. Augustine believes that true friendship is not only centered on the good, but on the One who is the Good itself. Christian friends are bound together by the infused love of the Holy Spirit. They love each other not as substitutes for God, but for the sake of God. Their particular love for each other helps them love God better. Friendship with others may be good, but its ultimate use comes by pointing us to heaven. There lies the true home that our hearts seek. There is the friend whose love we can never lose, whom death cannot steal from us. And if we love our friends in God, we need never fear to lose them, for with or without their love, our love is grounded on God. Hence Augustine, his love now more rightly ordered, could look back on the death of his friend and write: “Blessed is he who loves you, and loves his friend in you and his enemy for your sake. He alone loses no one dear to him, to whom all are dear in the One who is never lost” (Confessions, IV.9, 14).

We can now turn to Spiritual Friendship to see how Aelred has synthesized Cicero and Augustine in his own thought. Aelred divides the work into three parts: the source and cause of friendship, its fruition and excellence, and whom we should choose as friends. The whole work takes place as a conversation between intimate friends who have managed to escape from the crowd and enjoy silence and rest together. Aelred’s opening words capture the essence of this kind of friendship: “Here we are, you and I, and I hope a third, Christ, is in our midst” (1.1). Not only an echo of Christ’s promise that he will be present wherever two or more are gathered together (Matt 18:20), these words express the heart of a spiritual friendship in which Christ is the center, the commonly held good of the two friends, the third friend with whom the other friends become more intimate as they grow closer together.

Given the central role that Christ plays in a friendship, Aelred’s interlocutor Ivo wonders, how could a pagan such as Cicero have known friendship? If spiritual friendship’s beginning, preservation, and perfection lie in Christ, was Cicero ignorant of true friendship? Aelred does not directly answer the question, but uses it as a path to explore Cicero’s definition of friendship, which was “mutual harmony in affairs human and divine coupled with benevolence and charity” (1.11). For Cicero, Aelred thinks, charity meant the affection of the heart and benevolence the actions that proceed from that affection (1.15). He finds the definition adequate, but, of course, charity for the Christian carries more weight than it would have for Cicero. It does mean love and the exclusion of vices, but also that love which is God’s love and, indeed, which is God himself. Cicero’s definition suffices, therefore, if we understand that charity is a person, another member of the friendship who—in an almost Trinitarian fashion—binds together and perfects the two friends. Though Cicero did not know this fullness of spiritual friendship, he gives the Christian a good beginning from which to understand it.

In other respects, Aelred fully agrees with Cicero on the nature of friendship, supplementing his arguments with citations from Scripture and the Fathers. Friendship, Aelred teaches, is part of our nature and, like other natural goods, should be pursued for its own sake (1.61). It is part of our being created in the image of God, created for rest, peace, and society with others (1.53). Since the Fall, this desire for society can become perverted into carnal friendship, which seeks lust and physical pleasure, or worldly friendship, which seeks some kind of temporal advantage. Spiritual friendship, by contrast, loves for the good that another has. At the end of Book 1, Aelred agrees with Cicero that true friendship is eternal, citing Proverbs and Jerome as additional support. In friendship, he writes, “eternity blossoms, truth shines forth, and charity grows sweet” (1.68).

This great praise moves Ivo to ask whether we can say that God is friendship, as we can say that God is love (1 John 4:16). Aelred responds that, while it is an unusual phrasing and one not found in Scripture, “what is true of charity, I surely do not hesitate to grant to friendship, since ‘he that abides in friendship, abides in God, and God in him’” (1.70). Therefore, God is friendship. This argument makes Christian friendship a serious challenge, if a joyful one. It tells us that in such a friendship, we can love another person as the members of the Trinity love each other. Furthermore, by abiding in our friendship, we can abide in God. In friendship, we can live as we were created to live. We can begin to attain our final end, experiencing a glimpse of the perfect love we will know in the beatific vision.

In Book 3, Aelred lays out a practical plan for how to form this kind of friendship. Of all the parts of Spiritual Friendship, this most resembles Cicero, for Aelred directly imports most of Cicero’s advice on making and maintaining friendships. Like Cicero, he believes that friendships are eternal but recognizes that a friend that one had chosen and tested might do wrong and cause hurt. In this case, as Cicero advised, the friendship should be dissolved slowly, and one should not return offense or betrayal. Even if you withdraw your friendship, Aelred counsels, never withdraw your love; as Proverbs 17:17 says, “He is a friend that loves at all times” (3.44).

The goal, of course, is to choose friends well and therefore avoid such situations. Accordingly, Aelred notes that the first two stages of friendship are selection and probation, before one moves on to admission and harmony in matters human and divine with charity and benevolence (3.8). In terms of selection, those who are unwilling or unable to restrain the passions are not suitable as friends. Friendship’s four elements are love, affection, security, and happiness, and those who will act against these should not be admitted to one’s trust (3.51). Avoid the quarrelsome, irascible, fickle, suspicious, loquacious, base, avaricious, ambitious, and slanderous, Aelred advises (3.55, 59). But when a person has selected someone whose life is founded on the love of God, someone in whom virtue is clear and visible, he can begin to test that person for the qualities necessary in a friend: loyalty, right intention, discretion, and patience (3.61). This person should make sure that both are entering the friendship out of love, not for any worldly advantage. At this point, Cicero counsels, begin to share counsels and common concerns. Examine your prospective friend to make sure he would ask nothing unbecoming of you, that he looks on friendship as a virtue, that he hates flattery and loves frank (but discrete) speech, that he bears correction well, and that he is steady in affection—then begin to enter into the intimacy of real friendship (3.130–131).

In Book 2 and at the end of Book 3, Aelred describes the fruits of that intimacy. Time has passed since Book 1, and Ivo is now dead. But, because friendship is eternal—and friendship within the body of Christ all the more so—Aelred feels that he is still with him:

Though he has gone from this life in body, yet to my spirit he seems never to have died at all. For there he is ever with me, there his pious countenance inspires me, there his charming eyes smile upon me, there his happy words have such relish for me, that either I seem to have gone to a better land with him or he seems still to be dwelling with me here upon earth (2.5).

Because both friends are part of the body of Christ, their friendship can continue in this life and the next, even if they are separated in body.

Indeed, friendship bears both temporal and eternal fruit (3.9). It makes us more virtuous and helps to temper the highs and lows of life. It gives us the companionship of one who is like another self, one who is the best medicine in life (3.11, 13). Most of all, friendship allows us to give and receive the love of God. Commenting on Song of Songs 1:1, Aelred describes the union of spirits between friends as a spiritual kiss for which the soul longs. It is a kiss that friends give and receive, but also one that Christ gives through the friends:

Not by a meeting of lips but by a mingling of spirits, by the purification of all things in the Spirit of God, and, through his own participation, it emits a celestial savor. I would call this the kiss of Christ, yet he himself does not offer it from his own mouth, but from the mouth of another, breathing upon his lovers that most sacred affection so that there seems to them to be, as it were, one spirit in many bodies (3.26).

Notice how Aelred takes the Ciceronian metaphor of friendship as one spirit in two bodies and identifies Christ as that one spirit in which the two friends are united. Herein lies the core of Aelred’s Christianization of Cicero: Whereas Cicero placed virtue at the center of friendship, Aelred places Christ at the center as the one from whom all the virtues flow. Just as loving a friend’s virtue allowed one to grow in that virtue, so loving a friend with and in the love of Christ becomes a step to loving Christ himself as our friend:

Therefore, not too steep or unnatural does the ascent appear from Christ, as the inspiration of the love by which we love our friend, to Christ giving himself to us as our Friend for us to love, so that charm may follow upon charm, sweetness upon sweetness and affection upon affection. And this, friend cleaving to friend, in the spirit of Christ, is made with Christ but one heart and one soul, and so mounting along through degrees of love to friendship with Christ, he is made one spirit with him in one kiss (3.20–21).

Many monastic theologians have conceived of the spiritual life as ascending a ladder or progressing through degrees of loving God, and the consummation of that love as a kiss, drawing on the Song of Songs. Here Aelred claims this concept for friendship. Mortification and prayer are important for the spiritual life, but friendship also provides a path to deeper intimacy with God through the sweetness of human intimacy.

Aelred ends Spiritual Friendship with a description of how this works in the context of a friend praying on a friend’s behalf:

And this a friend praying to Christ on behalf of his friend, and for his friend’s sake desiring to be heard by Christ, directs his attention with love and longing to Christ; then it sometimes happens that quickly and imperceptibly the one love passes over into the other, and coming, as it were, into close contact with the sweetness of Christ himself, the friend begins to taste his sweetness and to experience his charm. Thus ascending from that holy love with which he embraces a friend to that with which he embraces Christ, he will joyfully partake in the abundance of the spiritual fruit of friendship, awaiting the fullness of all things in the life to come. Then . . . with salvation secured, we shall rejoice in the eternal possession of Supreme Goodness; and this friendship, to which here we admit but few, will be outpoured upon all and by all outpoured upon God, and God shall be all in all (3.133–134).

For Aelred, friendship is not only lasting in this life, but a foretaste and prefiguration of the sweetness of heaven. As in Augustine’s thought, it is a particular way in which God has ordained that we experience what will one day be a general reality.

We now see how Aelred has combined Augustinian theology and Ciceronian friendship to give a theological account of friendship. His own experience is formed by Scripture and Tradition, he lets that experience in turn guide his theology. In that theology, Aelred supplements Cicero’s virtuous friendship with the Christian understanding of Christ as the source of all virtues. As friends grow closer together, therefore, they not only become more virtuous, but become better friends with Christ. In keeping with Augustine, Aelred shows how particular Christian friendships can train us for a fuller experience of charity expressed toward all people, and how the healing of our love allows us to be what we were created to be.

In this synthesis, he offers a practical way for those inside and outside the monastery to grow in grace. With Spiritual Friendship, he shows us how the sweetest human love can lead to even sweeter divine love. Since God is friendship, spiritual friendship gives us the sweetness of human affection and conforms us to God’s likeness. In doing so, it prepares us for and offers a foretaste of the friendship that we hope to enjoy forever as coheirs with Christ, resting in the charity and repose of the Trinity.

Featured Image: Witold Pruszkowski, A Vision, 1890; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Nathaniel Peters

Nathaniel Peters is the executive director of the Morningside Institute and a lecturer at Columbia University.  

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