Spiritual Friendship as Spiritual Formation: Part III
We’re continuing to work through a paper I wrote on how spiritual friendship is a means of spiritual formation. Or, put simply: how friendships make us more Christ-like.
Before we get started, let’s review what we’ve covered so far: In Part I, I wrote an overview of the topic and introduced us to St. Aelred of Rievaulx (who I like to call The Friendship Monk). He’s the mastermind behind this whole thing.
In Part II, I introduced an ancient threefold way to spiritual formation called The Threefold Way of Spiritual Formation (original, right?) There are three ways (or vias in the original latin) that show “the way” how we grow in closeness to God:
- Via Purgativa (the way of purgation). This is marked by doing practices that form our physical habits.
- Via Illuminativa (the way of illumination). This way is when we begin to see God in all things.
- Via Unitiva (the way of union). This is when we truly draw near to God and our wills and spirits align with his.
In a very similar vein, Aelred depicts three stages of spiritual friendship that align with the Threefold Way of Spiritual Formation—except he uses a metaphor called the the Threefold Kiss of Spiritual Friendship.
Part III dives into the first stage of spiritual friendship: The carnal kiss. In this stage, Aelred talks a lot about the importance in whom we befriend. If we are to truly taste the greatness that lies within spiritual friendship, we have to make sure we don’t befriend jerks.
As a reminder, these posts are a bit more academic since it’s coming straight from a paper I wrote for school—but a little bit of fancier diction and syntax never hurts us occasionally. 😉 Happy reading!
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The Carnal Kiss: Via Purgativa
The Via Purgativa, or the way of purgation, encourages practices that purge sin from one’s life to see God’s light.The classical spiritual disciplines are implemented as physical activities that reorient one’s sinful life “beyond surface living into the depths” of the spiritual realm.When learning any new habit, discipline is required to practice an activity that draws from God’s grace instead of one that hinders formation.This is evidently true of friendship.
Aelred begins with the carnal (or corporeal) kiss, which “is made by the impression of the lips.”On one hand, a carnal kiss can be used for good, like reconciling friends, exchanging the kiss of peace, an expression of love between spouses, or an overdue welcome between long lost friends. On the other hand, a carnal kiss can be used for evil, like satisfying the pursuit of lust, rousing the passions, and bringing about shame. A physical kiss can be a delightful thing, but can also be abused and cause much strife.
The carnal kiss is a symbol for the the physical experience of friendships. Just as one experiences the warm embrace of a hug or soft lips on a cheek, so, too, does he or she experience the good—and the evil—that come from friendships. The majority of Aelred’s thought can be categorized under the carnal kiss and via purgativa, as this stage sets the ground rules for finding the right people to befriend. Just as the classical disciplines are specific actions that bring one nearer to God, so, too, are there specific friendships one should pursue (and avoid) if they are to bring him or her to the spiritual and intellectual kisses. Put simply, the carnal kiss stage pertains to selecting virtuous friendships and exercising the correct practices within them so they may lead to friendship with God.
To start, Aelred is very optimistic about the good of friendship.When one enters a friendship founded on the love of Christ, then the friendship becomes a laboratory to practice Christian love and virtue onto another, while also receiving it. Friendship is a safe place to confess feelings, entrust secrets, embrace and offer corrections without causing each other pain. Friendship elevates joy in the good times, eases the pain of difficult times, and all around functions as the “medicine of life.” Ultimately, it is a means to sanctification: “Friendship is a stage bordering upon that perfection which consists in the love and knowledge of God, so that man from being a friend of his fellowman becomes the friend of God.”This is why Aelred holds that friendship is the greatest good in humanity.
However, Aelred is not naive towards his idealism about friendship. He recognizes the danger that lurks behind friendship, thus encouraging his pupils to exercise discretion in whom they befriend. Since friendships are a major force of influence on one’s character and virtue, he discourages any friendships that would be “unbecoming to the good.”Aelred asserts they should still lovesuch people, as it is commanded by Christ to love their enemies. While those people are good for ministry, they are not to be admitted as friends, for they could hinder one’s formation.
Aelred lists several types of friendships that should be avoided: Carnal friendships (not to be confused with the carnal kiss) are solely for fulfilling one’s sinful pleasures and lustful desires; puerile friendships are childish, silly, unstable, emotional, and self-seeking; advantageous friendships merely use the friend for his or her own good, but will not reciprocate consolations when the friend is in need.Further, he lists five vices that should be avoided if present in any friendship: slander, which ruins one’s reputation; reproach, which brings false accusations; pride, which prevents one from ever admitting faults; the breaking of secrets when under confidence; and, lastly, “treacherous persecution” that derives from hatred.Obviously, these friendships are no good source of purgation. Aelred says, “For as long as anyone delights in an evil thing from a desire of evil, as long as sensuality is more gratifying than purity, indiscretion than moderation, flattery than correction, how can it be right for such a one even to aspire to friendship, when it [friendship] springs from an esteem for virtue?… Therefore, one ought to detest the opinion of those who think that one should act in behalf of a friend in a way detrimental to faith and uprightness. For it is not excuse for sin, that you sin for the sake of a friend.”
Conversely, Aelred urges his pupils to pursue friends with “positive attributes,” namely, that they are loyal, well intentioned, discrete, and patient.Aelred contrasts the five vices with four virtues of true friendship: love, which enacts on the good; affection, an “inward pleasure” made known “exteriorly;” security, where one feels safe with his or her friend; and happiness, where the friends can celebrate in all things.In choosing friends who practice virtue, “their friendship is the more enduring as their resistance to temptation is the more valiant.”Through purging vice and pursuing virtue, their friendships reach a point where their very own spirits intermingle with one another. They have experienced the spiritual kiss.