Friendship: “sweet beyond the sweetness of life.”
Friendship. Friendliness. Friend.
It can be lovely just to think about and say these words, but it is loveliest of all to experience them.
Augustine wrote that friendship is “sweet beyond the sweetness of life.”
For Aristotle, friendship is an expansive phenomenon that stretches: from a simple wave of appreciation to your bus driver, to the slow meal prep for someone unknown, to holding a beloved’s hand as she readies her soul for that distant shore, to first glances that begin a beguiling romance. Friendship is also, Aristotle wrote, is an essential part of the happiness that our hearts all long for.
Aelred of Rievaulx, the 12th century Cistercian monk, called friendship “the guardian of the spirit.”
For the Lebanese artist-philosopher Kahlil Gibran, friendship is like a field in which you sow love, reap thanksgiving, and, in the dew of little things, find your heart refreshed in a morning light.
What I really need, my neighbor told me the day before she died in her bathtub, is a friend. Will you be my friend, she asked.
In Jesus’ life, we learn how friendship is lived: with fierce tenderness; with an inclusive love; with a peace that calms the storm; for joy abundant; that gives one’s life in service to the other, even onto death.
Let’s slow down for a moment. If you feel comfortable, I invite you to open a book of sacred scripture: not the Christian Bible, but, rather, the sacred scripture of your own personal experience in the world.
Take a deep breath from your belly. Exhale from your belly. Breathe in the morning happiness at the market down the street if you’d like. Breath out the stress of the day, whatever you might need relief from.
Further down the road from St. Luke’s, at Golden Gardens, children are laughing, splashing in the Sound. Let their laughter and playful splashes splash into you, pastor you into the presence of your interior landscape, where you are always, in good times and bad, held in the merciful gaze of the Beloved.
With gentleness, see if the vast scripture of your experience in this world might become open.
See if a tender wind might turn a few pages of your life. See if, in this gentle turning, an intimate moment of friendship might become present to your awareness. A moment when you felt the sweetness beyond sweetness, this guardian of your spirit, the refreshing warmth of a true friend.
For just a minute, for just 60 slow seconds or so, I invite you to simply let this sweetness be sweet to you.
Sharing what I’ve learned.
For the past three months, I have had the joy of working at St. Luke’s. You may remember that I was hired to spend time with our housed and unhoused neighbors in Ballard, some who have long been a part of Edible Hope and St. Luke’s, some who develop hives when they step near a church. The purpose of this time has been to listen to people’s spiritual needs and witness people’s gifts with the hope of extending the spiritual support that Edible Hope and St. Luke’s offers for people don’t feel comfortable at a traditional Sunday church service. Like many anthropologists and psychologists and theologians, we recognize that spirituality, which we each define and experience somewhat differently, is an important part of health, happiness, and well-being. That spirituality is a path to joy.
To neglect the spiritual side of humanity is to neglect something of who we really are; it is like thinking we can breathe without oxygen or swim without water.
In these three months I learned some beautiful and good and true things.
- First. We deeply yearn for each other, to be in the presence of one another. Despite the hurtful, relational challenges we have been through—which Covid may have exacerbated, the streets can make woundingly worse for our unhoused neighbors, and the church often causes—most people still desire to be in spiritual community. This is kind of miraculous.
- Second. The kind of spiritual community people long for is characterized by openness, expansiveness, and freedom: folks yearn for a community where they can be let be: let their hair down, feel however, share what’s on their hearts and minds without being judged or fixed. A community where people can show up as their vulnerable, authentic, courageous, true selves … and still feel the warmth of a compassionate presence on their skin.
- Third. People yearn to practice being themselves in a caring, responsible way. Our world is often forceful, unkind, and disempowering. It is heartbreaking to see people suffering under the weight of alterable oppression, afraid to speak their truth, ashamed to dance their own wild joy dance. The kind of spiritual community people long for, I hear, is one that encourages spiritual freedom: a supportive space where people can lament if they need to, cry if they need to, dance, break out in joyful song if they need to, create a poem or spoken word, share a song if they feel like it, paint on a cardboard box, draw a prayer on a pad of paper.
- Fourth. People yearn for a spiritual community that is characterized by reciprocity. A community where one can serve and be served on the same night. I have been living and spending time with people who are unhoused since I was a young child. Among the many hurtful and untrue stereotypes of unhoused folks is that they are lazy and just want to take from the “working person.” These people are obviously unaware of how profoundly difficult it is to be homeless. So, one of the greatest needs I hear from our unhoused neighbors is the need to serve and give back, not just be the one who is served and given to.
It is a beautiful thing of our innate personhood that caring for each other is as important as being cared for. Whether it’s putting napkins on the table or pulling out a chair or picking a flower or saying a prayer or sharing the gift that makes one unique, people desire a community that is characterized by caring reciprocity.
- Fifth. People yearn for a spiritual community that welcomes and cherishes difference, a community of Christians and Buddhists and Muslims and Mormons and Jews and Wiccans. Of atheists and agnostics. People living in the sunrise of their life, people living the sunset of their life. Housed and unhoused folks. Church-lovers and the church-allergic. A spiritual community where different people gather to grow in love and wisdom for the healing and happiness of their hearts and other hearts, human and even nonhuman.
- There is also a deep hunger for the simple pleasures that, though we may not always think of them as spiritual, power and nurture the soul: the pleasure of good food and good song and good art. On Thursday, as I took the bus to St. Luke’s, I saw a woman with a black guitar backpack on, in downtown Seattle, dancing as she waited for the bus. Life really is always this beautiful, I think—sometimes we just need someone to remind us of the music and teach us … how to shake it.
The heart of what I think I heard during these months is a yearning for the presence of Christ and the taste of the bread of life.
In her book Journey by Heart: A Christology of Erotic Power, the feminist theologian Rita Nakashima Brock, who is has been doing brilliant work around on “moral injury,” describes Christ as the creative, erotic power that becomes present in communities that heal broken hearts, liberate human and nonhuman creatures from material oppression, and sow seeds of joy in the heart.
The bread of life, we know, does not reside in just one place.
It is wild love for everyone seeking wild lovers everywhere to love everything wildly.
The bread of life that people in our community yearn for is in the sweet taste of, the real experience of, spiritual friends creating gathered to create loving space for one another to be who they are and feel the joy of being alive—through heartbreak and happiness, through covid and climate change, through summer and fall and winter and spring.
Some of are going to begin gathering soon to see what happens when we come together to create this creative kind of space. If the taste for this bread of life is on your tongue, please consider joining us.