Beyond religious life and marriage: A look at friendship as vocation

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Tim Otto found the Church of the Sojourners in San Francisco almost by accident. When he was a lonely little kid, one of their members, an artist, tried to teach him to paint. (“I was an utter failure,” he remembers.) When he grew up, he began to see in Sojourners, a Christian intentional community, a form of discipleship and an “art of love” that he admired and needed.

Sojourners is part of a movement sometimes called “the new monasticism,” which Mr. Otto describes as “trying to take the model of the monastics and live it as laypeople.” Members of these movements live communally, often in poor areas, bringing together people from different walks of life in service to God. Mr. Otto cites the Benedictine vows of “conversion, stability and obedience” as a major inspiration—and the covenant Sojourners members profess emphasizes obedience to a degree that is startling in a hyper-individualistic culture. Conversion, Mr. Otto explains, comes through “disciplines like daily morning prayer, simplicity, worship and study and service.”

Members make real sacrifices to stay with the community, even turning down higher-paying jobs that would require them to move away. They share finances to a great extent and limit their personal spending, creating equality even when some members make large salaries and others are not able to work. But Mr. Otto notes that “the deepest integration of rich and poor” comes because so many people drawn to this way of life are going through severe struggles: with addiction, with mental health, with loneliness or confusion. “We're all rich and poor in certain ways, so [we] share whatever we have.”

Mr. Otto, who is now a co-pastor at Sojourners and the author of Inhabiting the Church: Biblical Wisdom for a New Monasticism, suggests that married, parenting and single people benefit from living together. “Both sides are tempted to romanticize the other,” he said. “Married couples think, 'Oh, when I was single I had so much freedom, and it was so nice to just make my own decisions.' But then they see the single people who really have a deep longing for marriage, and that's kind of a reality check.”

He added that for single people, seeing married life up close can be a revelation. “My sister is married with three kids and lives in suburbia, and I feel for her,” he commented. “She has so little support and her life ends up being so insanely busy. If she were more connected and had committed single people in her life, or even more robust relationships with other families, then some of that would be alleviated and life would be more human.”

Despite the challenges of marriage, it remains a haven for love and care—and, to many, it seems like the only haven. A passsage in Justice Anthony Kennedy's majority opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges, which in 2014 made same-sex marriage the law of the land, offers one look at why this might be so:

Marriage responds to the universal fear that a lonely person might call out only to find no one there. It offers the hope of companionship and understanding and assurance that while both still live there will be someone to care for the other....
No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were.

These words resonated with many people. Couples have even used Justice Kennedy's words in their wedding vows.

On the day the Obergefell decision was handed down, I happened to see a short Pixar film about a lonesome, cartoon volcano who sings every day about how he longs for “someone to lava.” He is surrounded by happy, coupled gulls, turtles and fish, but he has no mate of his own. In despair he sinks to the bottom of the sea—before he is rescued by a lady volcano who can love and be loved by him.

Obergefell violates the traditional Christian sexual ethic—we have all heard this. But perhaps Pixar's “Lava” does too. Whatever the other merits of either, the Supreme Court decision and the cartoon highlight the popular belief that marriage is the only form of truly committed love between adults and therefore the universal human calling and sole alternative to desolate loneliness. Yet this worldview lacks two elements that any fully Christian sexual ethic must contain.

The first of these haunting absences is the honor given to celibacy. Virginity and vowed celibacy, the making of one's body a secret garden for God, have been honored states in the church since Jesus himself died a virgin. Solitude—the absence of human union—can free us for a profounder union with God. Lack of family obligations can free us to serve an entire community. In a fully Christian vision (though an admittedly less marketable one), that volcano might have sung his canticles to his Lord and rejoiced.

But also absent from the view of marriage as the singularly worthy adult relationship are the nonmarital familial bonds between adults. What we might call the Christian ecosystem relies on monastics (think of how much great Christian literature takes place in the shadow of the monastery, from Kristin Lavransdatter to Brideshead Revisited) and also on kinship bonds of friendship and godparenthood. This has been true from the moment Jesus on the cross gave Mary into the care of John, the beloved disciple. Jesus' devoted friendship with John made him a part of the Holy Family, so to speak. Yet today marriage is the only way to make another adult your kin—in the eyes of the state, your parents, your employer or even your church.

A society in which marriage is the only way for adults to pledge lasting love and care to one another is a society in which marriages themselves are weaker.

A society in which marriage is the only way for adults to pledge lasting love and care to one another is a society in which marriages themselves are weaker. It is a society in which parents have less help, children fewer havens. It is a society in which many adults feel themselves isolated, drifting and useless. It can also be especially challenging environment for single people hoping to marry eventually, or for individuals who remain unmarried, including gay and lesbian Christians trying to live out church teaching on sexuality. The Sojourners intentional community is one example of people working to find new solutions and new connections. In the margins of our society, Christians are trying to renew old forms of love and forge new ones, exploring what alternative forms kinship can offer our churches, what obstacles they face and what they need in order to flourish.

Covenant Friendship

Friendships sealed by covenant have an ancient, complex history. King David made just such a covenant with Jonathan, using familiar rituals like exchanging armor. For most of Christian history pairs of friends would pledge to care for each other and each other's families. The bonds forged in this way varied widely across time and culture and were sometimes solely practical. Two men might have their households share a common purse and a common table. But often these friendships were based in genuine love and had spiritual consequences that might persist even after death. Alan Bray's historical study The Friend found friends pledging to care for one another's children and to have Masses said for the soul of the friend who dies first. Friends might be buried together or take vows of friendship on the church steps before going inside to exchange the Kiss of Peace and receive the Eucharist together. Friendship's bonds were so deep and binding that ballads and stories depicted the violent clash between obligations to friend and to spouse.

Wesley Hill's book Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian includes the story of having an Anglican minister bless his friendship with a married couple. Unlike ancient covenant friendships and medieval “wedded brotherhood,” which impose obligations lasting even after death, this blessing acknowledged that the friends might part.

Mr. Hill, who is in his 30s, said, “The formal blessing we received made the friendship feel like more of a given. In Dana Spiotta's novel, Innocents and Others, the narrator says, 'Unlike a marriage, a friendship could be twisted and one-sided and make no sense at all, but if it had years and years behind it, the friendship could not be discarded.' I think that idea of friendship being non-discardable is what the blessing says to me.”

Adrian and Mel Smith, the couple, both in their 30s, who had their friendship blessed with Mr. Hill, notes that they are all still unsure what level of commitment the arrangement requires, especially since they may end up living and working in different cities. This uncertainty is understandable, as the trio has few modern models to follow. Although covenant friendship is one of the most historically and scripturally grounded forms of nonmarital kinship, it may be the least traveled path today. But the story of Mel, Aidan and Hill suggests that the bonds of friendship can create wider familial and communal ties across generations.

Godparenting

When I spoke with the three friends at their home near Pittsburgh, I was surprised that the relationship they wanted to talk about most was not their blessed friendship, but godparenting, since Mr. Hill had recently become the godfather of the Smiths' firstborn. “The significance of godparenthood for us is that that's something that the church recognizes, it's sacramentally recognized,” Aidan said. “There's a greater significance to that. Of course Wes is our friend, but we're also looking for further ways to bind us together.”

Mr. Hill added that becoming a godparent “doesn't solve the question of long-term living situations,” but acknowledges it means that “we will always be connected,” whatever the future holds. “For me as a single guy [the friendship] still raises the question of, 'What does my day-to-day life look like?' I'd like to keep living with them, and I'd like to share a life with people,” he says, but he also wants “Aidan and Mel to feel like they have the freedom to follow their calling.”

Godparenting may be one of the alternative forms of kinship that is most often underestimated, but as Mel, Aidan and Hill pointed out, it can be among the most powerful. I first noticed the practical side of godparenting in my volunteer work at a crisis pregnancy center. Now and then a client would talk about her deep relationship with her godmother, or her obligations to support and help her godsister (someone with whom she shared a godparent). Godsisters can be a kind of spiritual cousin: When you need them, it is all hands on deck.

Claire Gilligan, godmother to two children, said: “My godparents growing up were close friends of my parents. They had a daughter one year older than me, and my parents were her godparents and her parents were my godparents.” (The Friend notes how common this arrangement once was during the middle and early modern ages for interweaving families.) Ms. Gilligan, 30, says it is “akin to being an aunt or uncle. I have extra responsibilities to these kids; as much as I love my friends' other children, these are the ones I have the reason to take the time and spend the money for.”

Beyond the parties and the presents, though, there is an undeniable spiritual bond. At her godson's baptism in the Melkite Church, “The whole thing was [about] two hours long,” Ms. Gilligan, who lives in New York, said. “I held him for the first third of the whole service, including when he was baptized. Father dunked him in the baptismal water and put him directly into my arms.... Then mom took him away and fed him, and the godfather held him for the last third, including for his Communion.”

These physical transfers of the child between parents and godparents helped her see this as a “spiritual family.” But bonds made by faith may not last if the faith does not last. One of the godfathers of Ms. Gilligan's godchildren “fell away from his faith,” she said, leaving her feeling “almost like a single parent.”

Celibate Partnership

For some men and women, whose closest relationships do not follow their churches' model for marriage, celibate partnership offers a solution. Most celibate partnerships I know of are between two men or two women who share financial and familial obligations, support each other emotionally and view one another as family. All the people I know in this way of life identify as part of the L.G.B.T. community, and several—though definitely not all—of the partnerships started as a sexually active gay relationship.

And yet under the surface, celibate partnerships are deeply countercultural and widely varied. Partners draw freely on other kinds of relationship as models. Jimmy (not his real name), 55, notes that he will refer to his partner of 13 years as his “partner” sometimes, other times his “friend,” but both terms can be misinterpreted.

“It's a very special friendship,” he said, “a deep and committed friendship.” His love for his partner is “romantic”—and it is deeply practical. “We support each other's families. We also own things in common. We have wills that leave our property to each other. We have medical power of attorney,” he said. He told me the story of the rings he and his partner wear, and described hearing a talk on marriage at his men's fellowship and thinking, “I can use this in my relationship.” But he also notes that he seeks always to relate to his partner out of agape rather than eros.

Jimmy did not plan any of this: “We didn't have any rules. Everything sort of fell into place—it just seemed natural.” There was no formal moment or vow of commitment, and he said that unlike with a marriage, “If we grew into different people and it no longer made sense to live together, we'd stop.” But he quickly clarified, “That hasn't happened and we don't expect it to.” (He noted that they have interwoven their finances and extended families to a degree that would make parting difficult.) I asked if he had any experiences—at his Catholic parish in Hong Kong, at work, with the families—where being in an unusual kind of relationship was difficult for him, and he said, “I can't think of anything, really.”

“I'm happier than I've ever been,” he said. And then quietly and emotionally added, “Very happy.”

Mark (not his real name), 47, has had a harder experience with celibate partnership, which illustrates some of the difficulties of trying to live a new, almost-unknown form of love. His partnership broke up, after he had moved to South Carolina and switched jobs in order for them to stay together, in part because he and his partner had different understandings of the relationship. Disputes over how they should describe themselves to others—Are we a couple, are we partners?—were the outward sign of deeper divisions.

They had started with some romantic feelings for each other, which Mark's partner was especially uncomfortable about. At first they were praying together regularly. Mark noted wryly, “Towards the end, it eventually fell away, which is probably part of the reason why everything went to hell!”

Mark also mentioned that he is working on “not being so concerned about what other people think.” The pressure to keep others from thinking he was part of a gay couple was one of the things that drove the two apart. His partner's family “didn't want to entertain the idea” of their son living with a man he loved, even if it was not a sexual relationship; his own family was “more open to [it as a] crazy thing that you're doing, but okay.”

Mark still sees celibate partnership and covenanted friendship as good ways of life. Like many celibate partners, he looks to religious orders for inspiration. While still in his relationship, he and his partner had discussed creating a small community, but it never happened. He said, “One of the things about these kinds of relationships is that while there may not be physical intimacy, it's learning to lower your psychological and emotional guards with a person. In a certain sense it's having that emotional, psychological nakedness with a person that you may not be able to have with everybody else.” On a deeper level, he said that he and his partner should have engaged in “some kind of ministry, something that's outward-focusing.” Directing their attentions to others could help their relationship from becoming “navel-gazing, for lack of a better word.”

In medieval England friends who had made covenants with each other were sometimes referred to as “wedded brothers,” drawing on two incompatible forms of kinship in order to suggest something of the depth of the their bond. In a similar way, celibate partners often use both marriage and monasticism as guides for a way of life as intense and challenging as both of those better-known vocations.

Intentional Community

That monastic inspiration continues to attract individuals to the Sojourners community. Zoe Mullery, 56, formally made her covenant with Sojourners in 1998. She found the community through a friend of the family. One of the most “beautiful” things about community life, she said, is also one of the hardest. “Whoever comes, whoever's in that church, that's who God is giving you to love,” she said. “Being in community has redefined the way I think about friendship, because it's not about finding these soulmate kind of friends. It's really about investing deeply in the people who you end up having in your household.”

When one of their founding members was suddenly dying of leukemia, the community was able to be at his hospital bedside around the clock. They sang together by the hospital bed. They built his casket and made a quilt from some of his clothes donated by his widow. “People were crying and telling stories, making food,” Ms. Mullery said. “There was this sense of, 'We know what to do. We know how to be together and how to honor him.'” The community also made it possible for Ms. Mullery to adopt a daughter after about a year of intense discussion. “I just can't imagine raising a kid outside of this kind of tight-knit supportive community,” she said.

Within the Catholic world there are many communities, like the Catholic Worker, that live and work and share their everyday together. But there are also groups that do not live in community but still share deep bonds. One young Catholic in the United Kingdom described finding this sense of belonging in her neocatechumenal community: “We don't have promises or vows, but...my parents have known many of the people in their community for nearly 30 years and they really are like extended family to us,” Phoebe Lim, 19, said. They are people with whom she can share everything, “without judgment from them, only love and support and offers of prayer and advice.” Her community has supported her through her own struggles as well as her parents’ depression.

She echoes Tim Otto: “It is quite like being in a family in a sense, mainly because you can't just avoid people if you really don't like them.” Community, she says, is “supposed to help you to see that there are some people you just really can't stand, but in trying to deepen your faith and trust more in Christ you can learn to deal with and love them anyway.”

• • •

Robert Louis Stevenson once called marriage “at its lowest...a sort of friendship recognized by the police.” The police (or human resources, or the hospital, or your mom) may not recognize your relationship with your Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor, or the veteran with whom you served, even though these relationships continue to save your life. Many people find that their closest kinship bonds go unrecognized when it comes to health insurance or caretaking. This is a place where parishes could do so much good simply by noticing “alternative” kinship bonds and supporting them: praying with and bringing food to a bereaved friend or someone caring for a disabled partner, for example.

As with marriage, these alternative bonds come with many challenges and questions. Bonds are more fragile in a society with high geographical and religious mobility. Who will go with you when you move? Some of these forms of love lack formal commitments; this can make it hard to be clear about exactly which obligations a person is taking on. That fuzziness allows friendship to flower naturally. But it can also lead to serious pain when one person thinks you are a devoted friend and you think you are an acquaintance. Vows are a way of assenting to one life and accepting that you will never have another, different life—so you can stop obsessing about it.

Several people I spoke with emphasized that they had not had any expectations for their way of life—or they had to lose the expectations they did have. They did not feel that they had successfully achieved friendship, partnership, community membership. These were things they received through luck or Providence. Love did not solve their problems; it was as likely to sharpen their loneliness as to relieve it. As Zoe Mullery said, “You'd think [community] would deal with your loneliness better—and it doesn't.” They are grateful, not satisfied.

The God who emerges in their words is a weird and unpredictable God. It is a God who wants you to love others, to make your life a gift, but who offers no guarantees that anybody but him will take you up on the offer. This God may call you to break societal norms but give you no guidance in how to do it well. This God will use your loneliness and insecurity to drive you to love others, but then make you see that no human being—and maybe nothing in this life—can satisfy your hunger to be loved. In the battle between solitude and community, community wins—even contemplatives rejoice in and suffer the intense relationships found in a monastery. Yet it might be said that our willingness to accept and sacrifice for our community obligations must rest on the bedrock of our solitude with God.

Beth Cioffoletti
1 month 3 weeks ago

loved this. the whole thing. thank you.

Derrick Weiller
1 month 3 weeks ago

I agree, Beth.
A totally uplifting vision.

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