I recently reconnected with a good friend I had lost touch with. It had been more than fifteen years since we had seen each other, but as is so often the case with good friends, we were instantly together again. It was as if the last time we’d talked was only a day or two ago, but since that time he had lived abroad, his family had gone through many changes, he had worked several different kinds of jobs, and there had been deaths. And still there was that presence of the friend, something immediate. This instant reconnecting often happens with deep friendship (though not always, I have also learned). It happens less frequently with other relationships, probably including marriage and parenthood.

Too little has been written about friendship—friendship between male and male, male and female, female and female, children, adolescents, adults, gay and straight people, older and younger people.

There is something sacramental about friendship. It has mattered so much to all of us, unless we have been terribly deprived. We celebrate (even create theologies around) marriage and monasticism; but friendship, an often daily wonder, is comparatively neglected.

This may be true only of the last century or so. In the nineteenth century, deep affection was frequently expressed between men and other men and between women and other women. Many of these exchanges have been seen in our time as homoerotic—this has been said of the relationship between Ishmael and Queequeg, who share a bed in Moby-Dick, Huck and Jim in Huckleberry Finn (see Leslie Fiedler’s essay “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!”), and Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed, who shared a bed for a while and exchanged letters expressing their deep affection for each other. This reading is deeply ahistorical—beds were frequently shared by members of the same sex, and expressions of affection were much more openly ardent in the nineteenth century. And of course some of this ardent love was homosexual. Walt Whitman was gay and seemed not to care who knew it, and the passions described in Sheridan Le Fanu’s vampire tale Carmilla are plainly lesbian.

But so many warm expressions of friendship and love are found in the correspondence of earlier centuries that the deeper question is, why are we so cold, so uptight about affections that should come so naturally to all of us?

I don’t want a return to the soppiness found in some of that correspondence, but we seem to have gone to an opposite extreme. I come from a family where the relatives, male and female alike, kiss one another. I didn’t know how odd this was until a friend told me how uncomfortable he was when my father kissed me as I got on a train to go to college. Yearbooks from the turn of the twentieth century show men in looser, warmer positions, arms draped around each other; by the middle of the century, they’re lined up with their arms stiffly at their sides like Prussian soldiers.

I can think of few novels about the complications and binding natures of some male friendships. Raymond Chandler’s The Long Good-bye is the only one that comes to mind. It is not his best novel, but it tries to deal with that odd aspect of some friendships, where you find yourself liking and helping someone and not knowing why you remain loyal even when there is no clear reason you should. It’s a kind of unconditional love for the flawed other.

I wonder whether Freud may be part of what happened to us here—something apparently good and innocent must always have its hidden, darker side.

In the Orthodox Church there were, early on, rites of adelphopoiesis—brother-making—which were used to unite adopted brothers, or blood-brothers, or to reconcile families, and sometimes simply to celebrate friendship. I know a couple of women, married to men, whose profound friendship was noted by a Syrian monk who performed this blessing for them. John Boswell, in Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (1980), argued that these prayers amounted to the blessing of same-sex marriages. This isn’t the case—penitentiary manuals of the same period make it clear that homosexual relations weren’t blessed—but what these rites do show is that something holy and sacramental was recognized in friendship.

It could be that friendship is so little dealt with, compared to marriage or monasticism, because of its steadiness and reliability. You count on it; you take it for granted. Romantic love can lift you up or bring you down, and marriage can be profound and fruitful and transforming, or terrible. Friendship involves neither the passionate nature of romance nor the deep vowed life that takes us into parenthood and living with the other every day, for better or worse; but it abides, and is part of the air most of us breathe. And we should be as grateful for friendship as we are for the air, for any other form of love, for any other sign of God’s presence.

John Garvey was an Orthodox priest and columnist for Commonweal, and author of Seeds of the Word: Orthodox Thinking on Other Religions.

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Published in the 2010-03-26 issue: View Contents
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