A faithful friend is a sturdy shelter; / he who finds one finds a treasure. / A faithful friend is beyond price, / no sum can balance his worth. / A faithful friend is a life-saving remedy, / such as he who fears God finds; / For he who fears God behaves accordingly, / and his friend will be like himself.
Sirach 6: 14-7
The author of The Cloud of Unknowing writes in Chapter Two: “Now, you have to live in desire all your life long.” This is at once a profound and foundational spiritual directive, and it is, on the other hand, a suspect one, especially in religious and moral circles. Desire and affection have always been somewhat tortured and contorted topics in our religious form tradition.
The mystical tradition out of which The Cloud of Unknowing comes recognizes that a fully human and inspirited life requires that we live out of the heart. It is our deepest longings and desires that are the prompting and the energy of our spiritual search and journey. As St. John of the Cross writes: “One dark night / fired by love’s urgent longings / I went out / My house being now all stilled.” The spiritual life is one of paradox, to be sure. John speaks of being, on the one hand, “fired by love’s urgent longings,” yet going out with his house (his body and mind) “being now all stilled.”
The life of desire is a tumultuous and even frightening one. Clearly our doctrinal and moral tradition is fearful of it, as its obsession with sexuality attests. Yet we personally experience the truth of the not only mercurial but also painful truth of our desires and longings. We need affection and love, and yet we are almost always disappointed in that need. Yet, master psychologist that he is, St. John seems to say that we must be “fired by,” and so obviously aware and in touch with, “love’s urgent longings” or our house will never really become stilled.
The difficulty with desire for us is that it moves at once in two apparently contradictory directions. It is our desire that moves us out and toward presence to and service of the others, that attracts us to others and makes them attractive to us, while at the same time our desire is also directed toward ourselves, toward its own need for love, gratification and fulfillment. This means that all of our movements toward others have of them both the desire for the other’s good and the desire for our own satisfaction and fulfillment by means of their affection for us. What we term the experience of desire becomes a problem for us because the tension inherent in our desire that draws us out into love and involvement in the world is very difficult to live with and to bear. So, at the pre-reflective level of our unconscious we are always attempting to dissolve the tension by discharging it. Desire becomes a problem in our lives precisely because we act out in ways whose very intention is to dissolve its tension by ending the desire.
All of which finally takes us to the topic of friendship. One of our deepest desires is for the mutual love, care, and affection of friendship. “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” (John 15:15) Throughout our philosophical and theological tradition, we have wrestled with the meaning and purpose of friendship. The desire for friendship is, as all desires, a painful one. The longing to know and to be known in the way Jesus describes is a most urgent one. On the other hand, the vulnerability and the pain to which this desire exposes us is a fearful, even dreadful, one. Who of us has not been hurt and disappointed in friendship? Who among us has not failed and hurt others in friendship? In the face of our struggles to be friend and to be befriended, it can seem impossible to keep alive that painful longing and desire for friendship in us.
When living from the heart becomes too difficult for us rational beings, we tend to live instead from the head. And so, we have worked very hard in the philosophical, religious, and moral spheres to create and define a “higher” form of friendship that is a cognitive “benevolence” toward others, a friendship that does not involve our own complex desires and longings. Such a “spiritualized” way of friendship, however, is merely an alternate way of dissolving the tension of desire, not by discharge but by repression. it is good and necessary to have this stance of willing the good for the other in respect to many of those whom we serve and to whom we are related in the world, but it is not friendship. Friendship will always have about it a desire and longing for mutuality of affection, with the dangers and complexities that attend such a desire.
It is in friendship above all that we grow and develop in personal and spiritual integration. As the desire to know and be known is at its heart, true friendship requires of us to be present not only to the other as she or he is, but to be honestly and fully present to all the dimensions of our own lives. The mutual affection for which we long is an affection toward each other for each of us as we are in our entirety, in all of our strengths, longings, and vulnerabilities. “For he who fears God behaves accordingly / and his (or her) friend will be like himself (herself).” In friendship we discover that we are like each other because we are the image and child of God, in all that we are. The closeness and affection we crave from another, as from God, is a craving to overcome the distance that we have from the denied and despised in ourselves. We long to be loved where we are unable to love ourselves. We long to experience closeness and intimacy in those places where we are distant from ourselves.
Ultimately, of course, no other person can fully do this. Only in God’s love can we become one again. This is why no friendship will ever fully satisfy us. As in prayer, we never get perfect, or perhaps in many ways even all that good, at friendship. We are always practicing and learning how to love. Yet, we are driven in our desire and longing for it because it is the way to life and to God. It requires a supreme act of courage and of faith to keep alive our desire and longing for friendship. To keep living out of the heart in the course of a life in which our hearts are often broken and we, in turn, break the hearts of others is a great risk for us. Yet, if we refuse this risk because we want to still our houses on our own terms, we shall only accomplish the opposite. If we attempt to live full lives while ignoring the longings and desires of our hearts, we shall become not stilled but lifeless. To live in desire all our life long is the only way for our house to become still. Unfulfilled and disappointed longing is painful, but it is also wonderful. It is life. It is the source and energy of our love for God and for the world. The pain of our vulnerability, need, and disappointment, and even of our own sinfulness can be a source of integrity and even peace and stillness for us when we accept it and offer it by our continuing willingness to connect with, engage, love and befriend others out of the little that we have.
We have, then, two elements in love: benevolence and the desire to enjoy the other person in a reciprocal union of the affections. Neither can be eliminated. Neither can be given pride of place over the other. The relationships between these elements are as complex as human interactions. Friendship with some people may begin to fashion us into the sort of persons who will feel and exercise benevolence toward many others. Friendship may also be the internal fruition — long awaited perhaps — of a love which began purely as benevolence. And there may be benevolent love which is never reciprocated, which never comes to such fruition, since the enemy may never become a friend. Both elements in love are integral to our humanity. We ought not to give up the desire for mutual love and try to be Stoics. Neither ought we permit our lives to be limited to the small circle of those who return it. And, while avoiding any premature reconciliation of these two loves within the brokenness of human history, we may rightfully hope that “the divine power which bears history can complete what even the highest human striving must leave incomplete.” (Reinhold Niebuhr, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness) We may, that is, hope for a day and community in which good will is regularly crowned in mutual love, its internal fruition.
Gilbert C. Meilaender, Friendship: A Study in Theological Ethics, pp. 49-50