A few weeks ago I had the privilege of hearing Author Thomas Moore address the Convocation of UU Ministers in Canada. He was talking about how we tend and feed the soul, and suggested that the most important way we can sustain our souls is friendship. I was, I have to admit, feeling kind of lonely at that moment, kind of empty. I felt suddenly as if someone had mentioned water to a thirsty person. I mean, sure I was surrounded by 400 amazing colleagues, but as I had been wearing your “I am a professional” shoes for 4 days, and trying to weigh everything I said so it wouldn’t be taken wrong in a professional context, I was starting to long for my pink fleece thermal slippers and an equally comfortable companion. In his book Soul Mates (out in book exchange right now) Moore writes “We may believe that friendship, like so many things of the soul, is tangential to life, an added boon, or an accessory… Friendship makes a major contribution to the process of soul-making, and without it we feel a painful lack and a debilitating weakness of heart. (p. 93)
Think of a close friend from childhood. You could play together for hours and hours and still be disappointed when your parent came to take you home. In his poem called “Childhood friends” the 13th century Persian poet Rumi writes:
“A close childhood friend once came to visit Joseph.
They had shared those secrets children tell each other
when they’re lying on the pillows at night
before they go to sleep.
These two were completely truthful with each other.”
["Rumi and the Celts", by Coleman Barks. Parabola, Winter 2004 p. 28].
As I heard Thomas Moore talk I realized how the soul hungers for such a friendship. Yet somehow as an adult I had kind of gotten the idea that responsible grown ups didn’t crave that kind of friendship, that it wouldn’t have the centrality it did when we were children. It was so affirming to hear Moore talk about the importance of Friendship not just to our “networks” or to our social life, but to our SOUL.
Moore went on to talk about Jesus’ relationship with his disciples, how he called them friend, and how he often ate and cooked and even drank wine with them. Friendship was in the fabric of Jesus’ ministry. Ivone Gebara, Latin American Eco-Feminist Theologian, has written extensively about the importance of “relatedness” in theology- She writes “God is relationship. And it is by means of relationships and of relational behaviors that we speak of God... Long ago Saint John said that those who do not love their brothers and sisters do not love God!” [Ivone Gebara, Longing for Running Water. p. 104-5]
In both theology and friendship, there is a dance between separateness and unity, a dance where two become one. This dance echoes our relationship with God, reflects something of the nature of the universe, and is present in our relationships with one another. This dance has been explored by theologians and poets, school children and mystics for as long as anyone can say.
It should come as no surprise, then, that all the spiritual traditions I know lift up friendship as an important spiritual practice. The Sufi’s say there are 3 ways to relate to mystery: Prayer, meditation, and “Sohbet” (which can be translated as exchange or conversation.) Buddhism in particular lifts up the importance of a “Dharma Buddy”, someone who will be a companion to you on your spiritual path. And when a community of friends comes together with the shared purpose of spiritual growth, this is a “Sangha”
So why is friendship so important, and what makes a good friendship?
What moves me in that Rumi poem about Joseph’s childhood friend is the intimacy there. When someone has heard your secrets and you can trust them, this is very precious. The soul craves a friend who has seen your kitchen messy and still wants to be your friend. How precious is a friend who can see you as a real person, not some ideal, not a front, and who shows you their own true self. And as a related quality, friends are those who forgive one another again and again. A friend is not necessarily someone who likes your weaknesses, but one who does not let those weaknesses come between you. Because we can’t be truly intimate with one another, we can’t get really close unless we are willing to be seen in our whole self, both for our strength and our weaknesses. Says Moore “Without intimacy, soul goes starving, for the closeness provided by intimate relationships fulfills the soul’s very nature.” [p. 93]
We’ve all heard the saying “A sorrow shared is a sorrow divided,” I hope everyone in this room who has ever grieved or been in pain has felt the flood of relief when a friend is able to enter your solitude, and just be present with you in a hard moment. Sometimes we don’t even realize how deep our pain is until the companionship of a friend makes us feel safe enough to bring those emotions to the surface. It continues “a joy shared is a joy multiplied.” During my Clinical Pastoral Education the other minister’s-in-training and I met for lunch every day. As we studied pastoral care in a hospital setting, we had the privilege of being with patients in their most scary moments, and in times of grief . It was a challenge for all of us, and it was such a relief to have companionship on that journey. One day after a powerful morning of work, we had to cut lunch short and so found ourselves at Burger King, where there was a row of cardboard crowns set out for customers. After the kind of morning we had all had, we felt compelled to put them on and in so doing just cracked ourselves up. One of my colleagues said conspiratorially “I think the other customers are looking at us.” Another replied “They are wishing they had friends like this.” It is much less funny to wear a crown when dining alone, but downright hilarious when in the company of 3 friends who have your back no matter how foolish you look.
A good friendship is reciprocal. Each listens and each talks. Each helps and each is helped. There is a balance in the relationship that makes it sustainable. Each brings a gift to the friendship. I have to admit I get a little too carried away with the seriousness of things sometimes, and with my passion for my work. I surely am grateful for a friend who can make me laugh or distract me from my e-mail. What a blessing is a friend who can help you be a better person, a more well-rounded person. I have heard it said that on your spiritual journey it is good to always have a friend who you admire who can teach you something, and a friend whom you, in turn, teach. But I think the best friendships are those where each admires and learns from the other.
Another way that friendship becomes a spiritual practice, is that friends act as a mirror for one another. When we are in relationship we see ourselves better, or in a new way. Says Joseph’s childhood friend as that Rumi Poem continues
“I have brought you a mirror.
Look at yourself and remember me.”
["Rumi and the Celts", by Coleman Barks. Parabola, Winter 2004 p. 28].
The friend reflects back to you your good qualities, but also those parts of yourself that need strengthening. When your friend is driving you nuts, there is probably something you need to work on in yourself. This is when friendship gets hard- when we have to keep looking in that mirror where we see ourselves in our places that need to grow.
The shadow side of friendship is loneliness. I bet everyone in this room has experienced periods of your life when you were lonely. Periods when you were a stranger in a strange land, or had lost a really close friend. Or maybe you were so deeply in grief or depression you just could not reach out to connect with others, or couldn’t participate in the genial social conversation that stays above deep pain. Loneliness is real, and the reality of that pain, that emptiness gives more power to Thomas Moore’s words about how the soul needs connection. But the spiritual traditions speak to this as well. The Sufi tradition holds that the spiritual path of conversation can be practiced without another person. In that lonely time we cry out into the emptiness we feel, perhaps we cry out to God if that is part of our theology. Moore says that the emptying that life brings us unbidden is an important part of our spiritual growth. The emptying makes space for us to know ourselves it may bring us closer to mystery or to the divine. Loneliness brings with it the mandate that we come to know our own darkest selves. It asks us to search for whatever it is in this living universe that is present with us even when we are alone. If you are willing to follow Gebara’s logic, that God is Relationship, or that the fabric of the universe is fundamentally relational, we can never be truly alone, even in our deepest loneliness.
Sometimes that loneliness makes room for new friendships. What a delightful surprise it is when you and this one person of the many people you interact with each day are both free for coffee tomorrow. You both have a friend-sized whole in your lives, and this other interesting, friendly person seems to enjoy your company. Becoming close friends with a new person is a tremendous and delightful gift that does not happen often. It is both ordinary and extraordinary.
But not all friendships have the same depth of intimacy. Each friendship brings with it a different gift. Someone who is very fun to watch football with, might not interested in the issues of hydro-fracking, or the implications of process theology. Not everyone wants to hear the minutia of your yoga practice, or stand in a loud club for 3 hours listening to your favorite band. Looking to that Minister’s convocation in Canada, though I missed the flannel slipper intimacy of my home life, I did certainly have friends there. I mean, who knows better about the strange life of a UU Minster than another UU minister? I re-connected with friends I had known since all the way back in my seminary days, friends from my years serving on the West Coast, and new just-sprouting friendships with the ministers here in my new District. There were folks there I knew I could call on if I had a crisis in ministry, and folks who could make me laugh. Together our friendships weave a web that supports and sustains us as no one person could. But all are a gift, and need to be nurtured and cared for.
There’s a lovely story from the Hasidic tradition, about two Rabbis who were reunited after being apart for over a year and greeted each other with the words ‘Blessed art thou, Oh Lord our God, King of the Universe, who raises the dead. ” One of the younger students asked why the prayer for greeting a friend one hasn’t seen in over a year is a blessing to God for reviving the dead. The teachers explained that each person on earth has a unique light “burning for them in the world above” and when two friends meet their light is united, and out of that light an angel is born. But when the friends are apart for more than a year, the angel weakens and wastes away. So on reuniting they bless the dead to revive the angel. And just as the Rabbi finished speaking all heard the sound of rustling wings, and knew the angel had been reborn. ["The Angel of Friendship." Parabola, Winter 2004 p. 76].
Our friendships need tending or they will languish and waste away. Our friendships are not tangential, they feed us and challenge us and help us grow. This is why we are here together this morning. To cherish and honor our friendships, to eat and laugh and restore our souls.