It was a most wonderful weekend. My great friend Jim visited on his way back to the Lutheran seminary in Columbus, Ohio, after completing his year of vicarage (or internship, in most Lutherans’ vocabulary) in Portland, Oregon.
Jim is an amazing fellow – a gifted young theologian, a pastor-to-be who demonstrates in word, deed, and demeanor that he is both dedicated to and well-equipped for work in the Church for the well-being of the Body of Christ (and not for any self-serving or misguided motive), a man of gentility and warmth who connects with people he meets in warm and positive ways, and a loyal friend who came 7 hours (one way) out of his way to spend a couple of days with me so that we might confirm, face-to-face, a friendship that has been nourished solely this past year by frequent e-mails. We talked non-stop for hours on end (with some sacrifice of sleep habits) and constantly realized how similar and complementary our insights, questions, and convictions are.
It was the flowering of a most precious friendship-in-the-faith. But I do not want to suggest that it was one of those seminar-agreement kind of friendships – one of those relationships where the parties realize how much they think alike and find that they rather enjoy each other’s company as a bonus. It is a heart-to-heart, cheek-to-cheek, commending and rebuking kind of thing, We shared ideas and experiences, and also the stories of our lives and loves, of our confusions and misadventures. For me, anyhow, it is similar in nature to the fullness of the relationships I have with my wife and child, with the added bonus that he enjoys discussing theology more than they do (well, at least my child). I love Jim dearly for all the gifts he shares with me, and he has won a place in my heart that feels empty since he left. I am also encouraged for the Church that God’s call to ministry to the Church is still heard by people such as he is with obvious gifts for service.
I became most keenly aware of how close I felt to Jim and of how valuable his friendship is to me during the Sunday mass he attended with my family and me. As a result, this post will mostly be a most personal reflection on holy friendship and the Eucharist in my life. (I admit it is self-serving and self-important so to focus my reflections. But perhaps there will be something to spark some commentary. And besides, I started this blog in order to get help in sorting out some of my vaguer thoughts about the life of faith, so even if I don't want to treat it as a kind of therapeutic exercise, I'm going to use it to raise some concerns.)
I begin with a side-trip: I have always (literally: from the time I began to realize that people date and form significant personal relationships) wondered about “mixed-faith” relationships. My mother and father were of different branches of the Christian faith, but he eventually "joined" the Lutheran Church, so I didn't really face the issue in my childhood, except to the extent that my Catholic relatives from my father's side would't go to church with us. But I remember thinking that it would prove to be difficult to date a person from "a different church," because it would result in certain conflicts.
Today, I know a few people serving the Church who are married to people who do not share their faith or their “branch” of the faith. For example, Rusty (R.R.) Reno, a brilliant and passionate Episcopalian teacher of Christian theology and a very stern critic of those who would veer from utter fidelity to the historic faith, is married to an Orthodox Jew and my understanding is that they are raising their children as Jews. A friend of mine, a Lutheran pastor-in-training (not Jim), is married to a Roman Catholic, who to my eyes doesn’t seem particularly interested in becoming a Lutheran. Other friends include a Catholic married to a Baptist, a Catholic seeker married to an agnostic – you get the picture. I raise these illustrations because the people I know are keenly dedicated to their professions of faith; they are not culture Christians who go to church for the good music or the good influence on the children or whatever. They are believers, convicted believers, and yet their partners do not share that conviction – and in some cases forthrightly reject the truth (or importance) of that conviction.
I honestly don’t understand how they do it. How does one share the most intimate relationship outside the "gates" of one’s sincere religious fortress? I know that I’m limited by my own experience, but my relationships with my wife and child are so bound up with our participation in the Eucharist, that I am unable to “think outside the box” on this matter. My wife and I quite literally were brought together by the Eucharist: We met in church and our only contact for a long time (during some of which we didn't much care for each other) was at mass. Our marriage was in the context of a regularly scheduled Sunday mass of our congregation (no special time or costumes [except new suits for both of us and a hat for my wife]; everyone in the congregation thus invited). And we continue to include participation in the Eucharist in our self-descriptioni of our life together.
I don’t mean to suggest a kind of sanctimony or piety that gives us claims to greatness; I don’t mean, either, that our friendship enjoys some kind of insulation from sin and sins. But I do mean to suggest that there is a kind of friendship – in a typology of friendships – that one may call “holy.” Holiness, at root, implies a rootedness in God and his Way, a coming-to-being in his call. That may exist in one's solitary life, or in family life, or in religious vocation, or in friendship. And I celebrate that Jim and I enjoy such holy friendship.
To illuminate by contrast: I have friends who are vitally important to me in ways much different from the importance Jim holds. Some of those friends are not believers; some are too religious – but of a different “piety” from mine; some are members of other (Christian) traditions. Those relationships do not suffer from the fact that the friends are not “religious” or Christian or in communing fellowship with the ELCA or completely uninterested in anything smacking of “theology.” I love those friends probably no less than I love Jim. (And let me clarify: I have a few – though only a few – other friends with whom I share a similar relationship to the one I celebrate here, one that is a blending of personal, intellectual, and “soul” or spiritual aspects of life; here I use Jim’s name to personalize my musings primarily because I am still celebrating his visit and, thus, his visage is still fresh on my memory’s optic nerve).
But the friendships are of a different nature: Prayer (usually limited to dinner times, if at all) is less important; we do not seek each other’s opinions on matters of great spiritual concern (other than politics or music – other of my passions); we may worship together, but it is with a sense that it’s good that we can extend our friendship to the nave of the Church, but it lacks a kind of existential awareness that the friendship is not quite complete until we have communed together. (Somewhere I have, and I must locate it, a quote from Tertullian, given me by the late Blessed Godfrey Diekmann, OSB, which celebrates Christian marriage. Tertullian speaks in some of the same terms I use here to rejoice in the fulfillment of his marriage in the life of the Church and specifically at the Eucharist. I acknowledge that the kind of friendship I here celebrate is akin to a marriage. As another aside: I wonder whether Boswell, in his claims to have discovered liturgies for the sacralization of homoerotic unions, was misperceiving this kind of spiritual friendship for a sexual relationship. It’s easy to see how that misinterpretation might come about. But I haven’t looked at his book in decades, so I’d best drop that line of thought!)
Now understand what I am not saying. I am not someone who appreciates using the Eucharist to “sacralize” gatherings, to cement fellowships at retreats, to add a measure of holiness to social gatherings. So, for example, I found it beyond the pale when, a few years ago, the pastor celebrated Eucharist on Saturday night at a retreat of the parish council (“vestry” in our anglophilic congregation), when there was the community Eucharist the next morning. Neither do I think much of having a Eucharist at a wedding simply on a beliefe that to do so renders the marriage more likely to succeed. That is pure superstition and, as such, anathema to me. But those are different from finding in the Eucharist the appropriate “place” for the fulfillment of a relationship -- as was also true for my wife and me in our marriage. (Does that make any sense?)
Life in Christ, it seems to me, drives one to the Eucharist. (I’m sorry if that betrays a certain insensitivity to some branches of the Christian family. I lament that I am still pretty tone-deaf to those branches for whom the Eucharist is not the sine qua non of Christian life. I’m working on understanding, but I have a long way to go.) To be in Christ is to be overcome with gratitude, which compels one to prayer and praise – and, given God’s unfathomable and ironic grace, as one prays and praises (as one is brought to do by the work of the Holy Spirit), one is met by the Gift (Christ himself) for whom one has been praying and praising, who gives of himself again, resulting in the need to pray and praise more. (“How Can I Keep from Singing?” is simply a phenomenological expression of this fact.) In the Eucharist, one meets and feasts on Christ and sees, tastes, smells, and swallows the Gospel. One integrates into one’s physical structure the promises of God of fulfillment and meaning and of transformation into godlikeness. (Augustine, somewhere: We eat ordinary bread and it takes on our nature. But in the Eucharist, we eat the Bread of Life, and we take on His nature.)
In Christ, there is a special place for the friendships that center on that life in Christ. Remember Jesus’ sentiment to his disciples on the eve of Passover, How I have longed to share this meal with you? It’s like that. A meal at Palomino, a bottle of fine wine, conversation lasting hours, and a late night stroll with no other particular point than to extend the time together are but the preparation for joining at the Eucharist at 9:30 the next morning. That is, for me, holy friendship.
I do not mean here to set out norms for gauging friendship. I mean only to reflect on and to rejoice in those special circumstances when the whole structure of Christian life seems to come together in some fabulous gestalt – where one’s “faith commitments and convictions” and one’s emotional ties and one’s human nature converge with someone else in splendid moments of holy coherence. Jim, by his forcing me to think self-consciously about these experiences, has enabled me to see this. For that I give God thanks for this most special friend.
And I give God thanks, too, for opening my eyes to this reality. I am able now to focus some of my thinking about church life. The Ecclesia Project, here, sets as its goal the revitalizing of the Christian Church through the development of congregations sites of “subversive friendships.” You’ll have to see what they mean by it, but my new perspective (i.e., new to me) gives me a context for understanding that.
But here I’ll end. I have been told that I plant in long rows. Likely that is so. In North Dakota, whence I hail, we have big farms. (My godfather-uncle farms something over 8,000 acres right now.) This has been another long stretch. But for that I can only seek your prayers for concision and keener insight.