On friendship

I have sometimes played the game of thinking who I would choose as a patron saint. St. Andrew (namesake) is obvious. St. Cuthbert and St. Aidan of Lindisfarne, both close to my heart. St. Hilda of Whitby, North Yorkshire (my mum shared her name, and the saint has always been dear to me, more so now that mum has passed). St. Bega of Bassenthwaite, Cumbria also makes the list. It's a close call. In the end I always return to St. Aelred, born in Hexham, Northumberland and later Abbot of Rievaulx, Yorkshire. His Feast Day is January 12, and as that fell yesterday, I have been thinking about Aelred.
I am drawn to Aelred because of his delightful little book, On Spiritual Friendship. 
Friendship is extraordinarily important, but quite elusive. Philosophers, thinkers, theologians who have written about friendship include: Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, Cicero, On Friendship, C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves, and more recently Andrew Sullivan, Love Undetectable. When we are used to having scores, if not hundreds, of "friends" on Facebook, all these writers suggest that true friendship is rare. Aristotle thought that, in a lifetime, most of us would have just a handful of true friends, if we are lucky. These are friendships formed not on the basis of what we can get out of our friends, but friendships formed on a common love for the good. 
In my 2012 book, Love as a Guide to Morals, I considered friendship of one of the four facets of love. I wrote the book in dialogue form, and the book is a conversation about love by a small group of philosophers, who are friends. Here's a sample from the book where the friends talk about Aelred:


Scene 1

Sitting in the Faculty Club, a five-minute walk from the Philosophy Department across the Arts Quad. Barry brings a tray with three small cups of espresso, and a small plate of cookies. The three philosophers settle into old, overstuffed leather armchairs.

Barry: I like this place. [looking around as if seeing it for the first time] It’s so much better than my first appointment after graduate school. No faculty club at all. This is a good place to relax and the food’s not bad!
Adam: A good place for friends to be together.
Barry: Which brings us to your next way of loving: friendship.
Adam: Yes, it is the next most intimate and exclusive way of loving after erosic love.
Molly: You must be thinking of friendship in a particular way. With social networking websites such as Facebook, many people claim to have hundreds of “friends.” Most of these will not be known in any intimate or exclusive way at all.
Adam: You are correct. Most of those sorts of “friends” are mere acquaintances or even strangers—acquaintances of other acquaintances. 
Barry: But, surely, people who use Facebook know that many if not most of the contacts they have are not truly friends. Aren’t you setting up a “straw man” here Adam?
Adam: [taking a cookie] Yes, I am pushing it a little. But, the fact that the designers of Facebook would call participants friends, and that people accept it, indicates that our culture generally has a low view of friendship. I will be using a long tradition of friendship that begins with the ancient Greeks, that sees friendship as a particularly strong bond between a very few people. It has a noble history and I will explain it for my readers.
Barry: I suspect many of your readers will be surprised that you include friendship as a way of loving. Many will have heard it said, or said themselves, something like, “I’m just his good friend. We are not in love.” In popular understanding, friendship is distinguished from love. 
Adam: You’re right. That’s because we have reduced love to the romantic kind and have lost much in the process. In many respects, we have impoverished love by making it so particular. Whenever love is mentioned, we assume it to mean a romantic kind. Of course, in popular usage, we do think of other kinds of love—say, in a family context, or for our animal companions—but the language of love is largely missing from friendship.

Barry: I am with you so far. I think this all makes sense about friendship, but in what sense is friendship love?
Adam: My next step in the historical timeline is helpful here.
Barry: And which time is that?
Adam: The twelfth century. Aelred of Rievaulx was a monk and abbot of Rievaulx in Yorkshire. He based his work on Cicero and “Christianized” it.
Molly: You mean he used the same basic approach but made allusions to God in the way Christians understand God?
Adam: That’s about it. But, I think his conclusions are relevant whatever your religious convictions are. For instance, he asserts that human beings are fundamentally relational.
Barry: An allusion to Aristotle again.
Adam: We have deep desires to be with other people. For Aelred, those desires are the desires of love. He suggests that the friendship love begins with desire (attraction), moves to intuition (the will inclines toward the other), and comes to fruition (an action of will for the benefit of the other). Further, friendship is beyond the kind of love we have for all people. It is more exclusive and reflects the very highest form of relationship. This mirrors the life of heaven—where all is perfect—and Aelred sees the Holy Trinity as a model of friendship. There is a lot more in Aelred, and I will explain his views in more detail in my book.
Molly: I have heard of Aelred in connection with gay love. I read that his friendship for monks in his charge was homosexual love, particularly for one young man. What would you say to that?7
Adam: I have read that interpretation. I think it has proved helpful for my religious gay friends to have a historical church figure whom they believe was gay. However, I am not sure we have any clear historical evidence either way about his sexual orientation. I fear, too, that to sexualize all love is a mistake.
Molly: How do you mean?
Adam: It is part of the problem I see in Freud. He reduces all of life to libido and every human action becomes sexualized. For Freud, Plato’s eros is simply sexuality. I believe that this is an inadequate reading of Plato.
Molly: I agree. Eros is a far more complex idea in Plato. Sex is a function of the larger human search for the perfect.
Adam: It is also the reduction of love to romance that I find problematic with love as spoken of in our popular culture. If we are to broaden our understanding of love, then to reduce all love to sex is unhelpful. I suspect that part of the reason why some have difficulty making friends—men particularly—is that they are afraid their friendship will be perceived as sexual
Barry: [laughing nervously] Well, then they are probably insecure in their sexuality and need to get over it!
Barry: But, seriously, Adam. How is friendship love a guide to morals?
Adam: Two ways. First, the depth of friendship love becomes a model for what human relationships can be. It’s Aelred’s “glimpse of heaven.” Human relationships can be this good. Second, if we are all connected to others in friendship love, then our world becomes a network of small groups of friends who all seek the good of the Other. That would be a better world.

A glimpse of heaven. Human relationship that mirror the prefect.The impossible dream, perhaps. But it's a dream worth pursuing, if you listen to some of the best thinkers through the ages. It's for that reason—Aelred's life and writing on love and friendship—that bring him to the top of my list of contenders for my personal patron saint. What's not to love about someone who wrote so thoughtfully about the love of friendship? Not to sound like a professor setting an exam question, but it's interesting to think who you would pick for a personal patron saint, and why.

In friendship,
+Ab. Andy

Here's links on amazon to my book, Aelred's and Sullivan's.