“What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and grief to bear …”1
Aelred of Rievaulx, from his twelfth-century monastery, wrote the book on spiritual friendship. (More than one, in fact.) Drawing on Greek wisdom, the traditions of the Church Fathers, and scripture itself, he wrote,
“… the best medicine for life is a friend. According to the pagan proverb, we do not need fire and water on more occasions than we need a friend. In every action and every effort, in certainty and doubt, in any event or fortune, in private and in public, in every deliberation, at home or abroad—everywhere friendship is delightful, a friend is closer than kin, and the friend’s charm is priceless. Hence Cicero says of friends, “the absent are present, the poor are rich, the weak are strong, and—even more difficult—the dead are alive.” … One truth surpasses all these: close to perfection is that level of friendship that consists in the love and knowledge of God, when one who is the friend of another becomes the friend of God, according to the verse of our Savior in the Gospel: “I shall no longer call you servants but friends.”2
Towards the end of his mortal life, Jesus addressed his disciples once more. Before their meal together he had washed their feet, explaining as he did so the prophetic action in which the master becomes the servant of many. Yet now, he tells them, “I no longer call you servants, but friends.” (John 15:15)
But what does it mean, for Jesus to call us, “friend”? For Jesus still commands his disciples – but only to love one another. Jesus’ radical reordering of the relationship between himself and his disciples is part of his final teaching, the pinnacle of his incarnation as a human being, a friend among friends.
Friendship is a fundamental of creation, according to Aelred. It exists from the beginning. It is God’s design for the lowest to the highest creatures:
"Although in all other respects animals are proven to be irrational, surely in this respect alone they so imitate the human spirit that they are almost thought to be moved by reason. They so follow the leader, so frolic together, so express and display their attachment in actions and sounds together, and so enjoy one another’s company with eagerness and pleasure that they seem to relish nothing more than what resembles friendship. Among angels, too, divine wisdom so provided that not one but several classes should be created. Among these classes, pleasant companionship and the most tender love created a like will and attachment, so as to allow no entry to envy, for one might seem greater and another less had not charity countered this danger with friendship. ... Finally, when God fashioned the man, to recommend society as a higher blessing, he said, “it is not good that the man should be alone; let us make him a helper like himself.” Indeed divine power fashioned this helper not from similar or even from the same material. But as a more specific motivation for charity and friendship, this power created a woman from the very substance of the man. In a beautiful way, then, from the side of the first human a second was produced, so that nature might teach that all are equal or, as it were, collateral, and that among human beings—and this is a property of friendship—there exists neither superior nor inferior. So from the very beginning nature impressed on human minds this attachment of charity and friendship, which an inner experience of love soon increased with a delightful sweetness."3
Only because of the Fall did friendship become fragmented and fractured, like so much else in creation. Only after the Fall did we acquire the term “enemies,” whom we are to love and for whom we are told to pray, but who are not our friends.
But Christ, in calling his disciples friends, begins to restore that design of nature and creation by which all are equal, and equally beloved, and no difference or division of status is recognized between the substance of one human, made in the image of God, and another. There is no hierarchy in friendship, no exploited profit, no gain that is not mutual, no care that is not shared.
Julian of Norwich has called Christ our mother, who feeds us with his body as some mothers may suckle a child,4 and whose love, wisdom, and mercy are the model we hope for motherhood – and so he is, because God is all in all to us, mother, father, creator, sustainer, and life; but in these final hours with his friends, according to Aelred’s interpretation, Jesus affirms that the most godly relationships among us (whether between colleagues or spouses, parents and their children, or mere acquaintances) abide in friendship: in mutual self-offering, trust, collaboration, and love, and that this friendship is the model and shape of the kingdom of God and the foundation of creation.
"This is that great and wonderful happiness we await. God himself acts to channel so much friendship and charity between himself and the creatures he sustains, and between the classes and orders he distinguishes, and between each and every one he elects, that in this way each one may love another as himself. By this means each may rejoice over his own happiness as he rejoices over his neighbor’s. Thus the bliss of all individually is the bliss of all collectively, and the sum of all individual beatitudes is the beatitude of all together. ..."5
"…When the fear is dispelled that now fills us with dread and anxiety for one another, when the hardship is removed that we must now endure for one another, when, moreover, along with death the sting of death is removed—the sting that so often pierces and distresses us and makes us grieve for one another—then with the beginning of relief from care we shall rejoice in the supreme and eternal good, when the friendship to which on earth we admit but few will pour out over all and flow back to God from all, for God will be all in all."6
This process of renewal and restoration Jesus has begun when he called his disciples, those present and those, like us, who were yet to come, his friends, and commanded them in the name of that friendship, “Love one another.” This love and friendship is the work of the kingdom of God. This, to become a friend of Christ in this incarnate world, is the highest form of worship.
1 “What a friend we have in Jesus,” Author: Joseph Medlicott Scriven (1855)
2 Aelred of Rievaulx, Spiritual Friendship: Book 2. 14-16, 18. Cistercian Fathers, Volume 5, pp. 92-93. Liturgical Press. Kindle Edition.
3 Aelred of Rievaulx, Spiritual Friendship: Book 1. 55-58. Cistercian Fathers, Volume 5, pp. 81-82. Liturgical Press. Kindle Edition.
4 “The mother may give her child suck of her milk, but our precious Mother, Jesus, He may feed us with Himself, and doeth it, full courteously and full tenderly, with the Blessed Sacrament that is precious food of my life; and with all the sweet Sacraments He sustaineth us full mercifully and graciously.” Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love: Chapter LX. Digireads.com. Kindle Edition.
5 Aelred of Rievaulx. Spiritual Friendship: Book 3. 79. Cistercian Fathers, Volume 5, pp. 135-136. Liturgical Press. Kindle Edition.
6 Aelred of Rievaulx. Spiritual Friendship: Book 3. 134. Cistercian Fathers, Volume 5, pp. 157-158. Liturgical Press. Kindle Edition.