"Everyone who belongs to the Truth hears my voice…" (John 18:37)

BFF: Unmasking the joy of spiritual friendship

“You’ve got a friend in me
You’ve got a friend in me
When the road looks rough ahead
And you’re miles and miles from your nice warm bed
You just remember what your old pal said
Boy, you’ve got a friend in me
Yeah, you’ve got a friend in me”
– from the movie, Toy Story

 I still remember the first big fallout I had with a friend. I was 6 years old, and I’d been mean to a neighbourhood cat who’d been digging up our flowerbed that day. My best friend, Marion, took a dim view of my behaviour. We had it out, and her parting shot was to tell me that I was mean and bossy, and she didn’t want to play with me anymore. I was shocked. I knew I’d been mean – but bossy?!!! Marion wouldn’t play with me for three whole days, and it felt like an eternity. Her older sister took pity on me and played with me once, but it just wasn’t the same. I know they say you learn everything you need to know in kindergarten, but I’d obviously missed an important lesson along the way. I don’t know how many times I said I was sorry before Marion finally forgave me. But I’m grateful for that experience, because it helped me to be a kinder person – and, I hope, a better friend.

Today, many people feel increasingly lonely and isolated, and deep and authentic friendships seem to be in short supply. We have thousands of ‘friends’ and followers on social media, yet we may be hard pressed to name a single person we would trust with our deepest and most intimate secrets. Even though we connect with others regularly on Twitter and Instagram, we have to go further if we want to develop more meaningful friendships. We need to spend quality time with people – face to face – if we are going to see past the ‘image’ and get to know the real person. We must listen to their words as well as observe their actions to see whether they really live out what they say they believe – to find out if they really are who they say they are.

It’s worth taking the time, because friendship is important. In the Book of Ecclesiastes, we read, “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow; but woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up. Again, if two lie together, they are warm; but how can one be warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him. A threefold cord is not quickly broken” (Eccles 4:9-12).

What kind of friends do you have?

In prosperity, our friends know us. In adversity we know our friends.” G.K. Chesterton

Most of our relationships fit into one of three types of friendship identified by the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle (384-322 B.C.). The first is known as friendship of utility. Dr. Edward Sri writes, “In a friendship of utility, the affection is based on the benefit or use the friends derive from the relationship. Each person gets something out of the friendship that is to his advantage, and the mutual benefit of the relationship is what unites the two people as friends.”1 Many of our business and professional relationships fit into this category. We may work with someone for years, and during that time we learn something about each other’s interests, families, and careers. But if we change jobs or retire, we no longer have a need to communicate with each other regularly, and the friendship will often fade away over time.

In a second type of friendship, “pleasant friendship, the basis of affection is the pleasure one gets out of the relationship. … This friendship is primarily about having fun together.”2 Perhaps we like the same music or play the same sport; maybe we live in the same apartment building or hang out at the same club. We may sincerely care about one another, but the foundation of the friendship is primarily about the good times we experience together. Unless the friendship is built on a more solid foundation, this kind of relationship is also likely to fall off if we move away and the person is no longer around. Dr. Sri writes, “This helps explain why friendships among young people shift so often. As they move from high school to college to the professional world, they mature, and their interests, values, moral convictions, and geographical locations change. If their friendships in these transitional years are not based on something more profound than the fact that they happened to live in the same dorm or play the same sport or have fun together, their friendships are likely to dissolve over time.”3

Aristotle regarded the third type of friendship – virtuous friendship – as “friendship in the fullest sense. It can be called virtuous friendship because the two friends are united not in self-interest but in the pursuit of a common goal: the good life, the moral life that is found in virtue. … In the virtuous friendship, the two friends are committed to pursuing something outside themselves, something that goes beyond each of their own self-interests. And it is this higher good that unites them in friendship. Striving side by side toward the good life and encouraging one another in the virtues, true friends are primarily concerned not with what they get out of the friendship but with what is best for the friend and with pursuing the virtuous life with that friend.”4

BFF: The Joy of Spiritual Friendship

“A faithful friend is a sturdy shelter: he that has found one has found a treasure. There is nothing so precious as a faithful friend, and no scales can measure his excellence. A faithful friend is an elixir of life; and those who fear the Lord will find him. Whoever fears the Lord directs his friendship aright, for as he is, so is his neighbor also.”Sir 6:14-17

The 12th century Cistercian monk, Aelred of Rievaulx, thought Aristotle’s definitions of friendship were just a starting point. In his view, true friendship finds its deepest meaning and ultimate purpose in the divine. “For Aelred, to grow in friendship is to enter more deeply in love and friendship of Christ. Such relationships,” he taught, “are a primary means through which God’s love comes into the world. They have a sacred, almost sacramental, quality to them that draws people closer to each other and to God.”5

“[Spiritual friendship],” wrote Aelred, “seeks not earthly pleasure or worldly gain, but its own dignity and perfection. It lives by reason and the cardinal virtues. Such a friendship is its own reward. Directed by prudence, ruled by justice, guarded by fortitude, and moderated by temperance, spiritual friends resemble each other in the way they live, in the values they hold, and in the goals they pursue.”6 In a spiritual friendship, there are more than two people in the equation. It is a friendship that begins in Christ, continues with Christ, and is perfected by Christ.7

St. Clare and St. Francis

St. Clare and St. Francis

The relationship between St. Clare (1194-1253) and St. Francis (1181/1182-1226) is a beautiful example of spiritual friendship. Some have wondered whether Francis experienced a physical attraction to Clare, for though Francis was a saint, he was also a man. “Sources tell us that in order to overcome a temptation of this kind the saint once rolled around in the snow in the depths of winter,” writes Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa O.F.M. Cap. “But it was not Clare who was the object of his temptation! When a man and woman are united in God, this bond, if it is authentic, excludes all attraction of an erotic kind, without even a struggle. He or she is, as it were, sheltered. It is another kind of relationship. Between Clare and Francis there was certainly a very strong human bond, but it was paternal or fraternal in kind, not spousal. They were like two trees joined by their foliage, not by their roots. The extraordinarily profound understanding between Francis and Clare … does not come from ‘flesh and blood,’ like that between Eloise and Abelard, or Dante and Beatrice. … If it had done so, it might have left some trace in the literature, but not in the history of sanctity.”8

Clare and Francis didn’t spend their lives gazing into each other’s eyes and enjoying each other’s company. Instead, “[they] looked at the same God, the same Lord Jesus, the same crucified one, the same Eucharist, but from different ‘angles’, each with their own gifts and the sensitivity proper to a man and a woman: masculine and feminine. Together, they understood more than two Francises or two Clares could have done.”9

Diversity of spiritual friendship

Spiritual friendships may develop between like-minded men and women, as well as between male and female counterparts – regardless of age or state in life, whether single, married, or religious. These kinds of friendships have a special significance for those who live alone, for as Mother Mary Francis P.C.C. once observed, “You can build up a whole fantasy about yourself because you’ve never had the occasion to let other people help you discover who you are.”10

Even Jesus needed friends during His time on earth, wrote Mother Mary Clare Vincent, OSB. “We know from the New Testament that Christ had many friends,” she wrote, “the apostles, Lazarus, the holy women…. From this we can conclude that human friendships are not only important in our journey to God, they are necessary. Whoever has had no friends will have a warped view of life, of God and neighbor. Encounter with others is the way we realize ourselves and can fulfill our destiny as human beings called to union with God and peace with one another. Even Christ himself needed friends to satisfy his human need for existential communion with others.”11

Duccio (1308-11) – “On The Road to Emmaus”

Cultivating Spiritual Friendship

“The right kind of friendship … should begin in Christ, be maintained according to Christ, and have its end and value referred to Christ.” – Aelred of Rievaulx

In Aelred’s view, there is nothing we can strive for in life that is more sacred – more difficult, sweet, rare, or profitable – than spiritual friendship. For, he explains, this kind of a relationship “bears fruit in this life and in the next.”12 The foundation of spiritual friendship is the love of God; it is a means to help people grow in holiness and travel along the road to perfection. It is a stage that borders on that perfection which consists in the love and knowledge of God; in being a friend to another man (or woman), we become the friend of God.13

It’s important to note that charity – the duty to love everyone (even those who might be a burden to us or a source of grief) – is not the same as friendship. Although love is a necessary ingredient in friendship, not everyone we meet – or, for that matter, everyone we love – is worthy of being a friend. It is natural to feel great affection for many people, but we should only invite those with who we share a special affinity into true friendship.

What kind of qualities should we look for in friends?

“True friendship, in [Aelred’s] mind, does not simply happen. It comes about, in part, through God’s graceful movement in the hearts of those whom he calls and, in part, through those who strive to cooperate with that grace by doing their utmost to enter into friendships based on the love of God and neighbor.”14 In an intimate relationship of trust, friends share the deepest desires of their hearts: their hopes and plans, their triumphs and joys, their secret fears and difficulties. For this reason, we must select our friends with the utmost care and test them with extreme caution; it is a matter for serious thought and reflection.

True friends relate to one another as equals; they must be good people who lead virtuous lives and are free from evil habits. They must be loyal, well intentioned, discreet, and patient. “[Friends] know how to give and receive, how to listen and discern, how to support yet also challenge.”15 They should not be fickle, prone to anger, mistrustful, or given to gossip, and they should be “resolved neither to ask others to do wrong nor to do wrong [themselves] at another’s request.”16

Stages in the discernment of friendship

According to Aelred, there are four stages in the discernment of spiritual friendship: selection, probation (testing), admission, and finally, “perfect harmony in matters human and divine with charity and benevolence.”17 Growing a friendship takes time, and we must guard against entering into this kind of a relationship too impulsively. “Surely,” writes Aelred, “a certain impulse of love should be guarded against, which runs ahead of judgment and takes away the power of testing. Accordingly it is the part of the prudent man to pause, to hold in check this impulse, to moderate his good will, and to proceed gradually in affection until he may give himself up wholly and commit himself to his now proven friend.”18

Four qualities that must be tested

Before we can entrust ourselves to a friend with confidence, we must test four important qualities: loyalty, right intention, discretion, and patience. “Loyalty,” writes Aelred, “is the foundation of friendship and such qualities as stability, constancy, frankness, congeniality, and sympathy should be fostered among friends.”19 A friend must have the right intention, expecting nothing from the relationship except God and the natural good that flows from it. Friends must exercise discretion, understanding what it is to be a good friend as well as what they can expect from the friendship. They recognize that there can be no love without suffering, and they must be willing to bear every adversity for the sake of their friend. Although friends are always ready to rejoice in our successes, they also accept that there are times when we need to be corrected for our faults; they must discern which failings they should bring to our attention, as well as the best way, time, and place to speak of them. Finally, a friend must have patience. When we are rebuked by a friend, we shouldn’t get depressed, or despise or hate the friend who has brought some fault to our attention. Instead, we accept the reproach as a sign of love, and we are grateful that someone cares enough about us to tell us the truth.20

This may sound like a tall order, but we don’t expect our friends to be perfect. We are all human, and it is inevitable that in the process of testing a friend, some of their weaknesses and failings will become apparent. This doesn’t automatically disqualify someone from being in the running, particularly if the person humbly acknowledges their faults and is sincerely striving to do better. Still, if we find ourselves questioning whether it is prudent to admit someone into true friendship, Aelred recommends that we “do not withdraw immediately from [our] proposed love or choice, as long as any hope of correction appears.”21 In the process of choosing and testing friends, we should never get tired of eagerly pursuing friendship since, as Aelred notes, “the fruit of this labor is the medicine of life and the most solid foundation of immortality.”22

Vices that are deadly to friendship

Aelred cautions, however, that there are six vices that are deadly to friendship: slander, reproach (fault finding), pride, disclosing secrets, secret detraction (belittling the reputation or worth of a person), and doing harm to someone you are bound to love (if the friend persists in such behaviour even after being brought to task for it). Fr. Dennis Billy writes, “Even when it is not believed and done out of anger, slander ruins a person’s reputation and is a sign of a broken confidence. Even when false, reproach embarrasses and makes the innocent man blush. For its lack of humility and inability to admit guilt, pride prevents a broken friendship from being healed. Disclosing of secrets fills all concerned with resentment, hatred, and grief. Secret detraction attacks from behind and betrays the trust upon which friendship is based. We should avoid anyone who exhibits any of these vices and should not choose him for a friend until he repents.”23

Proverbs 17:17

BFF – spiritual friendship is eternal.

True friendship is characterized by stability; it manifests “a certain likeness to eternity and always persever[es] in affection.”24 Once we have passed the time of testing and entered into a friendship, observes Aelred, “[our friend] should be so borne with, so treated, so deferred to, that, as long as he does not withdraw irrevocably from the established foundation [i.e., love of God], he is yours, and you are his, in body as well as in spirit, so that there will be no divisions of minds, affections, wills or judgments.”25

When friendship fails …

But though we do our best to prudently select and test friends, it is inevitable that at times friendship will fail. This is simply part of being human; it will only be in heaven that our friendships will be perfected. When a relationship with a friend is severed, we may experience deep suffering and emotional pain. Our hearts are broken; we grieve the loss of the one we have come to love.

When faced with a broken friendship, writes Aelred, “all care must be taken that they may be made to amend their lives. But if this is impossible, I think friendship should not be broken off or dissolved, but, as someone has well said, ‘it should rather be unstitched little by little, unless perchance some insufferable offense flames out to full view, so that it is neither right nor honorable not to effect an immediate estrangement or separation.’”26

Even though our friend may have deeply offended us, we are still called to love him despite the hurt. Jesus taught, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn  13:35). A friend’s conduct may force us to withdraw our friendship, but it should never cause us to withdraw our love.27 “Be concerned as much as you can for his welfare,” advises Aelred, “safeguard his reputation, and never betray the secrets of his friendship, even though he should betray yours.”28

True friends rejoice in our successes and encourage us in times of failure; they are always ready to share both our joys and sorrows. They are people we can trust with our plans and our deepest secrets – people we can count on to give us sound advice. “Friendship,” wrote St. Ambrose, “is not tribute, but a thing full of beauty, full of grace. It is a virtue, not a trade, because it is bought with love, not money, because it is acquired by competition in generosity, not by a haggling over its prices.”29 Yet even if our friends fail us, we are not alone. We can turn to the Lord, our true “Best Friend Forever” – the One who alone is unchangeable and eternal. For He has not called us servants, but friends (Jn 15:15).

Sharon van der Sloot


1 Dr. Edward Sri, Men, Women, and the Mystery of Love, rev. (Cincinnati, Ohio: Servant, 2015), 5-6.

2 Ibid., 6.

3 Ibid., 7.

4 Ibid., 8.

5 Aelred of Rievaulx, Spiritual Friendship, trans. M. Eugenia Laker, commentary by Dennis Billy, C.Ss.R. (Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 2008); Overview, 21.

6 Ibid., Book 1, #37-38.

7 Cf. Ibid., Book 1, #10.

8 Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, O.F.M., Cap., “Francis and Clare: In Love, But With Whom?”; Zenit; available from https://zenit.org/articles/francis-and-clare-in-love-but-with-whom/; Internet; accessed 7 December 2018. Eloise (Héloïse d’Argenteuil – 1090 or 1100/1-1164) was a French nun and abbess best known for her love affair and correspondence with Peter Abélard (1079-1142), a French philosopher, theologian and logician. The Italian poet, Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) only met Beatrice Portinari (1265-1290) twice, but he was so taken by her that he carried his love for her throughout his life. Beatrice is commonly identified as one of his guides in the Divine Comedy.

9 Ibid.

10 Mother Mary Francis, P.C.C., But I Have Called You Friends: Reflections on the Art of Christian Friendship (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2006), 23.

11 Quote from The Benedictine Bulletin: St. Scholastica’s Priory Letter (Petersham, MA: St. Bede’s Publications, Spring, 1986). Available from Dr. Ronda Chervin, Spiritual Friendship: Darkness and Light (2006); http://www.rondachervin.com/pages/pdf/SpiritualFriendship.pdf; Internet; accessed 18 December 2018.

12 Aelred of Rievaulx, Spiritual Friendship, Book 2, #9.

13 Cf. Ibid., Book 2, #14.

14 Ibid., Book 3, “An Overview”; commentary by Fr. Dennis Billy, 78.

15 Ibid.

16 Ibid., Book 2, #43.

17 Ibid., Book 3, #8.

18 Ibid., Book 3, #75-76.

19 Ibid., Introduction to Book 3: 88-97 by Fr. Dennis Billy, 110.

20 Cf. Ibid., Book 3, #61.

21 Ibid., Book 3, #74.

22 Ibid.

23 Ibid., Introduction to Book 3:14-38 by Fr. Dennis Billy, 86.

24 Ibid., Book 3, #6.

25 Ibid., Book 3, #7.

26 Ibid., Book 3, #40-41.

27 Cf. Ibid., Book 3, #44.

28 Ibid.

29 St. Ambrose, Duties 3:133, p. 89. Quoted in Aelred of Rievaulx, Spiritual Friendship, 102.



Tagged as: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,