diverse forms

Friendship manifests itself in funny ways.  Today:

  • a dripping jogger, determined not to run through another week with out pinning me down to a time we could see each other
  • someone who asked a difficult question and listened unflinchingly to a difficult answer (the opposite of the answer hoped for, I suspect)
  • (most extraordinarily) someone who saw Mandelbrot’s obituary, and immediately sent word —  having not yet seen my blog.  There are few people in this world who know me well enough for that.

I sometimes get myself in trouble for saying that I don’t think priests should be friends with members of  their congregation.  When I am really brave, I also say that most relationships in church should not be friendship.  Friendship is far too precious a thing to think that we can sustain it across hundreds of relationships, all at once.

Friendship demands time and commitment and a willingness to be ignored, hurt, and forgiven time and time again when one of you gets it wrong.  It demands laughter, and perseverance, and trust at levels of our being that we’re not even sure we want to traverse, but learn face together.  It demands holding on, even when you profoundly disagree.

And of course, a lot of those things are also a part of the relationships we build in churches.  I hope that there will be real friendships in church — that everyone in a congregation will find someone, or hopefully several people, with whom they can build deep friendships.   But there are other sorts of relationships too.

I may have said this before.  (I have a feeling I have said this before.)  When I think of some of the relationships I have most valued in church, I have valued them precisely because they were other-than-friendship.  We didn’t try to share all of our lives, get to know each other’s significant people, or expect that the other would always be there.  We just focused on something shared:  a ten year conversation about prayer; a six month exploration of the enneagram; a vision for the church that we were both figuring out, that we could shape and sustain together; the experience of someone we loved coming out; the conflicts between our growing sense of what God was calling us to and what others might have expected of us.

By not aiming for breadth, some of these church relationships reach a remarkable depth.  There is genuine love and affection, care and concern.  Companionship and conviviality too.

But for me friendship is other; and that may make my definition of friendship somewhat odd.

And I will even concede that we all make exceptions.  When both understand the need for boundaries and are willing to keep switching hats, there can be a fair deal of creativity in defining the nature of a relationship.

But today, I wish to keep the distinction:  for the sake of the wet jogger, the brave questioner, the kind minder of my strange idiosyncrasies.  Friends indeed.

13 thoughts on “diverse forms

  1. I think I would call those things friendship too. I think I would not want to limit friendship to length and breadth both. I think, I rather think, I call it friendship where I give of myself and sometimes get something back. But perhaps it is just love.

  2. Thank you for writing this post; it’s lovely.

    I’m not sure what my definition of friendship is – I do understand what you’re saying about the difference between breadth and depth although I think I might define both as friendship. But I think there needs to be reciprocity – that to me separates friendships from some other kinds of affectionate/loving relations.

  3. I didn’t mean that friendship was breadth rather than depth — but rather that depth comes in other things too.

    yes, reciprocity.

    Rosemary, I wonder if having lived in one (smallish) place for a long time leads to different definitions. Does a relatively fixed number of people make it easier to not worry about the sort of distinctions I was making?

  4. Part of the issue here, I think, is a lack of available words for different kinds of friendship. Between friend and acquaintance there is a world of difference. Other words have to be sought – and so don’t come readily to mind. I would agree that the word “friend” is overused – e.g. Facebook Friend – but there’s not much choice in English.

    Friendship that includes any kind of intimacy to me counts as real friendship. And then there are those also who are faithful friends, whose constant friendship through the years I value greatly, but with whom I share very little. There are those who are there when trouble hits. There are others who make me laugh and whose company I enjoy. I think of a few people I knew in school and lost track of for years – and yet when we reconnected, we could and did still talk about everything, and in depth. And there are others whose friendship I thought I shared, and yet when they moved away, that was that, completely – but does that mean we weren’t really friends or does that simply mean that some things are not forever?

    It’s an interesting question. And I am glad you are around to ask it and share your response.

  5. I think there can be real friendship that is time-bound by circumstance — but that the test of it is often what you describe: if you do cross paths again, it’s easy to pick up.

    I’m willing to admit I have a strange take on this because my friends are so scattered, I move so often, and I am in a role where boundary issues arise.

    Sarah: how does it work at St Margaret’s? I know religious communities have taken very different lines on friendship and boundaries over the years. I also remember my joy and amazement when Sr C encouraged you to keep in touch with your friends ‘outside’ when you joined the convent. Are there distinctions between friend/ sister, or degrees of friendship, or do you have to keep it all very balanced?

  6. I think it may be more temperament than place. Like yours, my friends are scattered. And also there are old friends and new friends and some of the latter are rather like newly frozen ice – one questions where the stresses and strains are and whether the whole thing might show fundamental flaws. New friendships are however an especial kind of joy.

    No, honestly what has most limited my friendships is income. My dearest friends take on board that I have had periods of financial difficulty, and not minded that there places I could not go and things I could not do. But it made it hard to start things off with new people, who had not yet got to a state where they understood, or who did not yet know me well enough to guess, or care as yet enough me to preserver, or who I just never met in the first place because I could not get to where they were.

    But I think many friendships have boundaries, and like sonnets are the more interesting because of reservations and difficulties. Though it can be a relief to get to a place where these can fall away.

  7. Kimberly, in answer to your interesting question above about how things work in a religious community, or at least in mine:

    Sisters and friends are not the same. There is overlap, of course – and I wouldn’t say I am outright NOT friends with any of my sisters. There are a few who don’t live nearby whom I still don’t know well, while there are others with whom it is a definite both/and, the kind of people I know I can trust and with whom I choose to spend free time, the kind of people I am going to miss terribly when I move to Haiti and the kind of people with whom I feel safe to talk about very personal things. Clearly those sisters are friends by anyone’s definition.

    There are some – Sr. C, for example – who simply don’t fit into any category. When I think of her, I don’t think of her as friend – but there are things I tell her that are very personal indeed. And it’s not just that she is my sister – for I tell her things I don’t tell many other sisters. And it’s not just that she is currently the Superior, although many of our conversations grow out of that context – for when she is term-limited out of office, I will not automatically do exactly the same with the next one, whoever she is. I assume part of the reason I don’t fit her into the category of “friend” is that, while the sharing does go in both directions, it’s far from even, as she is the Superior and I am one of the younger sisters. Perhaps that is something to add to the definition of friend: a certain sense of equality and mutuality which is difficult when there is a power differential. It will be interesting to see what kind of relationship we develop once she is no longer in charge.

    There are some who are my sisters more than they are my friends in a different way – people with whom I can’t imagine sharing anything personal or with whom I don’t spend time other than in community activities. And yet I know that as my sisters they pray for me daily, no small thing over the years. When I had cancer, I learned what real support was, and not just from those who might be more clearly seen as friends in the more usual sense. I was upheld by prayer to the point of its almost being tangible, and I was surrounded by care, each sister in her own idiosyncratic way.

    So… keeping it very balanced? I don’t suppose so, if “it” means degrees of friendship or closeness. Not at all.

    But I know that we are also very aware of trying to avoid separating off into little groups. I know I try to sit with different people at meals and not with the same group all the time. I know I want to touch base with everyone to find out how they are and keep a relationship going. Sometimes that means asking someone I haven’t seen much if she wants to run an errand with me, just so we are doing something together. (Of course, lately I’ve been so busy I’ve had to work consciously to do that with anyone! – which is like any family or friendship, I guess.) In a mission house with only a few sisters, the dynamics are different, but I’ve spent too little time in one to make much educated comment.

    I’m not sure if this is helpful to the discussion or not, but it’s interesting for me to reflect on because, to some extent, all my sisters fit into my definition of friends when I define it in the usual broad sense, but when I consider the specifics, I realize there are some real differences. So thank you for the context in which to consider it!

  8. Very helpful for discussion. Thank you for describing it so well.

    When I think of Sr C, I think of words like: honour, revere, respect, admire, love, (hide-from!) — and that’s only having met her in passing over the years. I think of her exactly how I think of some of the priests and spiritual directors who have mattered most to me: they are hugely hugely important to me, and I care for them greatly, but I would never presume friendship.

    The wonder is, I suspect S. might be ‘friends’ with Sr C because of the music, and he would have a different take on this.

  9. What a fascinating series of blogs- I wonder how
    the jogger/ questioner/ kind minder might think if they thought their definition of their relationship amounted to that of “friend” in its unpacked customary sense, only to discover that there was
    no alignment as to meaning? Does a different understanding of meaning even matter, given that both parties derive an experience resulting in feelings, emotions, actions (hopefully kindly, although, as you mention in the originating blog, not necessarily welcome). If we act out of love, in its universal, trancsendental sense, is the
    word “friend” not then rendered redundant?

  10. Interesting addition, Rolf. I think it probably becomes relevant when there are relationships that include the sort of imbalance that Sr Sarah refers to, and yet are truly caring and significant in other ways.

    If one person fees that they are in a boundaried situation and that two-way friendship is not appropriate or possible, and the other person is looking for the more casual form of friendship the room for hurt is immense.

    Because I often find myself in that situation, I go through phases of wanting us to be specific about how we understand friendship, and creative in our recognition of the different forms of relationship that may be good and desirable.

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