Thursday, 26 January 2012

Friendships Across the Generations

Before leaving Augustine of Hippo, we do well to look at a different but equally deep heart-friendship which meant the world to him: the bond with his mother, Monica.

She was a committed Christian when Augustine was growing up; she counselled him as a youth to avoid adultery; suffered in secret, "her tears watering the ground" [Augustine's retrospective words] as he indulged his sinful passions; and sought to enlist a bishop's help when her son got involved with a heretical sect. When finally Augustine turned to Christ in Milan, Monica was there at his baptism. Then, at 56, Monica died. Augustine recalls one of their last meetings, at Ostia, the port of Rome.

We were alone and talked together, and very sweet it was. We discussed what the eternal life of the saints could be like... With the mouth of our hearts we thirsted for the heavenly streams of His fountain, the fountain of life. Then, as our affections burned still more strongly towards [God], we rose higher and transcended our souls. As we talked, yearning towards this heavenly Wisdom, we did just lightly come into contact with it.

Here we have, encapsulated, the meaning of true Christian friendship as Augustine viewed it: two hearts united in one heavenly vision, helping one another on to discover more of God's infinite love. When Monica died, Augutine's life was, 'as it were, torn apart, since it had been a life made up of hers and mine together'.

Church historian Henry Chadwick believes that Monica was Augustine's "supreme friend". From her he developed his great capacity for intimate friendships with both men and women. The 19th century father of psychoanalysis, Carl Jung, had a field day with this and attributed Augustine's friendship emphasis to an over-developed feminine side to his nature. This, however, is 19th century thinking and in no way the ethos of the late 4th century. It also misses the fact that Augustine had a full-blooded male libido throughout his twenties and prior to his conversion.

We do better to see in the Augustine-Monica relationship the enriching power of friendship across the generations. This is, sadly, the exception rather than the norm today. Many people will have positive memories of grandparents, but this will probably have been at a level of kindness and generosity, not a cultivated, honest mentorship. And we are poorer for it!

Here, Joshua Harris, a young pastor, writes about the preciousness of the mentoring relationship he had with an older 'father in the Lord'. "Looking back, I’ve become even more aware of what a rare gift God gave me in my relationship with [name]. Sadly, my experience is unique. There are many young adults who desire to sit at the feet of mature Christians. But how many older Christians are willing to let them sit there?" And here, John Piper offers advice to younger friends on how to encourage and not idolise a father-friend figure of an older generation.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Friends Forever?

In Book 9 of his Confessions we learn that Augustine's heart-friend Nebridius died young, not long after his baptism. In a touching eulogy, Augustine pictures his friend at the fountain of life and all wisdom, completely fulfilled. Would he there forget his earthly friend? I do not think he is so inebriated with wisdom as to forget me, since it is of you, Lord, that he drinks, and You are mindful of us. To Augustine, heart-brotherhood is eternal.

God's love, and the depth of true brother-friends, brought healing to Augustine from his fears of death and his grief at close relationships that came to an end (see the last two posts). This, after all, is Jesus' own summary of what matters in human existence: to love God with all you have, and to love your brother/sister as yourself.

It was this settled assurance of the blessing of heart-friendships that led Augustine to spend the rest of his life sharing that life with others. He founded a monastery and wrote its rule. He became a bishop and opened the bishop's lodgings to friends and brethren to live together in community.

Edward C Sellner writes:
"What is true friendship, according to Augustine? Nothing else but the welding together of two souls who seek the same goal; nothing more than two hearts united by the Holy Spirit who is God. This is the understanding that emerges in Augustine's Confessions and other writings, including his letters. It is similar to that of Plato, Cicero, Plotinus, Horace, and classical writers who rated friendship and dialogue with friends as the highest calling of humankind. We see traces of this love -- in all its wandering, pilgrim ways -- in the life of Augustine and in those friendships, which, he says, "like a kindling fire melted our souls together and out of many made us one"."

Thursday, 5 January 2012

The Outer and Inner Circles of Friendship

We continue to look at what Augustine of Hippo (†430) expresses about human relationships, expecially heart-friendship, in his autobiographical masterpiece, Confessions.

Broken-hearted at the death of his childhood friend, Augustine relocated to Carthage in 376 as a tutor in rhetoric. Here, with students who in some cases were not much younger than he, he found solace from his grief.

[It was a joy to him] to talk and jest together, to do kindness to each other; to read pleasant books together; to play the fool or be earnest together; to dissent at times without discontent, as a man might with his own self. These and other similar expressions, proceeding out of the hearts of those who love and are loved in return, [which are expressed] in the countenance, the tongue, the eyes, and a thousand pleasing gestures, were like fuel to melt our souls together, and out of many make us one.

Project this description forward sixteen centuries and you have today's "soap opera" model of friendship (e.g. Friends). To anyone fed a diet of these programs, Augustine's circle at Carthage was pretty high on the scale. Fun, arguments, horseplay, kindness - surely this is as good as it gets? And this is precisely where we see the alarming erosion of personal relationships today: people have to be guided by the media, and don't even realise when they're being sold short!

Augustine, however, was still not satisfied. Looking back later, he saw that his Carthage circle were chums, mates, buddies, but not friends of the heart. They were, if you like, the outer circle of relationships that everyone needs.

It was in Milan that things changed. He found a wise mentor in the bishop, Ambrose, and set his heart on becoming a Christian. He lodged with several young men, two of whom became lifelong friends: Alypius and Nebridius. Book 6 of the Confessions tells us more about them.

"Alypius was very fond of me because he saw me as good and learned, and I was very fond of him because of his natural tendency towards virtue which was remarkable in one so young." The relationship went deeper because they opened up to each other their weaknesses, struggles and confusion. In later years Augustine called Alypius "the brother of my heart" and wrote to Jerome: Anyone who knows us both would say that he and I are distinct individuals but one in mind, in harmony and trusty friendship.

Nebridius, "a really good and pure young man, had come to Milan for no other reason than that he might live with me in a most ardent search after truth and wisdom." Here too the relationship deepened through vulnerability and honesty: "Together we sighed and together we wavered." Nebridius also watched over Augustine, reining in his intellectual curiosity and protecting him from heresies. "He set me before myself, forcing me to look into my own face."

Here, then, is the inner circle of friendship - the relative few within our circle with whom we can drop our guard and let our true self be known. It is this that turns 'chums' into true heart-friends.

Monday, 2 January 2012

"Near Misses" On The Road To True Friendship

We continue to look at what Christian leaders in history have written on the vital subject of friendship, and especially the deep, pure heart bond that can be between Christians who have gone below the surface together.

Where better to start a new year, then, than with a real giant on the subject: Augustine of Hippo (354-430). Of all the Church Fathers, Augustine pondered the most on the matter of human relationships in general, and heart-friendships in particular. What makes him so readable on this - and on so much else - is the sheer humanity and honesty with which he wrote. His autobiographical Confessions make no attempt to cover his colourful pre-conversion life ("the madness of lust" made him live "a life in which I was seduced and seducing, deceived and deceiving").

His conversion experience at age 33 took place in the company of a friend, Alypius, and for the rest of his life he lived in various degrees of Christian community, surrounded by others, sharing his life with them. Some of these were particularly close to his heart. With hindsight, Augustine reassesses some earlier relationships which had seemed to be 'the real thing', but which proved not to be, as they were founded on two close but wrong 'cousins'. Let us consider two of these: sex and infatuation (or co-dependency).

In Books 3-6 of the Confessions we find a young woman, whom he does not name, who became the mother of his child. "I loved the idea of love", he writes, "but I muddied the clear spring of friendship with the dirt of lustful desire." The couple remained together for 13 years and the bond clearly went deep. When his faith led to a parting, "my heart, which clung to her, was broken and wounded and dripping blood." He adds that the woman never took another man. In a culture where the term "friend" was usually only applied to men, Augustine says a lot about this relationship by referring to his ex-partner as his "friend".

So sexual union is not the fulfilment of the heart's desire for friendship. In our day, when sex is billed as everything and leaves hearts broken and empty when it turns out not to be so, many may be wishing they could peep over the fence at what might be missing.

In Book 4 we read of a childhood friend in his native Tagaste (in modern Algeria). They were the same age and had played and gone to school together. The friendship with this lad continued into manhood. It was "sweeter to me than anything I had ever known. My soul could not be without him." Augustine was devastated when his friend died of a fever. "Tears took the place of my friend in my heart's love. I was in misery, for I felt that my soul and my friend's had been one soul in two bodies."

At this point, a 21st century reader may already be thinking "gay", even as the archetypal male heart-bond of David and Jonathan in the Bible is interpreted as "gay" in some circles today [1 Samuel 20:17; 2 Samuel 1:26]. But remember, such a branding of all same-sex attraction is an invention of the 19th century; it was not thought about that way in previous centuries and we must avoid crude retro-projections of modern interpretations.

More useful to us is Augustine's own judgement with the benefit of hindsight: "We depended too much on each other... He was not a friend in the true meaning of friendship." Here, then, is the second 'near miss' on the road to deep heart-friendship: the persuasive but largely mythical idea of the "bosom buddy" who will meet all your emotional needs and where the relationship seems almost instant, requiring no real hard work.

In the next few posts we'll look at what Augustine has to say about true heart-friendship.