Spiritual Friendship by Wesley Hill

Here’s a larger portion of the quote. A friend of Hill’s wrote him the following:

“What I cannot imagine, what causes me to wince in terror, is the thought of being celibate in my 40s, 50s, 60s, and beyond. Perhaps I lack your strength or contentment for celibacy. Perhaps I have not experienced the relational support to joyfully pursue a vocation of celibacy. Whatever the case, I’m profoundly restless in my celibacy, so restless that at times I feel like I’m suffocating under the burden of it. Call it weakness, I just need to be needed, and not needed by a friend who closes the distance with a phone call, drive, or flight. I need to be needed by a companion who is there when I return from work, there when I walk in the park, there when I prepare a meal for dinner, there when I read from a book out loud, there when I go to bed, there when I wake up, there when I cry or laugh, there when I am sick. In short, I desire a covenantal relationship where my helper and I witness each other’s “moments of being” (Virginia Woolf’s lovely expression), otherwise I dread the thought of having those moments forever unwitnessed. Sure, God witnesses my moments of being, but that is not enough. I need the face of God in a watchful and loving human face.”

In my studies concerning relationships within the church, I have appreciated coming across Hill’s book. He offers an interesting and insightful historical overview of friendship. He as well offers a helpful perspective as someone with same-sex attraction desiring friendship within the church.

I desire to better understand the following question. What is the church’s role in the building or establishing of personal relationships? What are relationships within the church supposed to look like? Would they be characterized by friendship or familial relationships? If they are friendships, what kind or level of friendships are to be expected or the goal? If familial, do these familial relationships usurp biological relationships?

Regardless, whatever relationships the church should be producing or facilitating, the church cannot manufacture the above relationship. This kind of intimate relationship may flow out of relationships that are developed within the church, but the church can’t manufacture this kind of intimacy. We can bear one another’s burdens. We can relate as spiritual siblings. We can facilitate opportunities to deepen relationships, but we can’t manufacture or even facilitate the kind of relationships that result in daily intimate (not necessarily sexual) interaction.

With that said, Hill does go on to offer some guidelines by which the church can develop more intimate relationships.

First, following Aelred, we might learn simply to admit—with specificity and unabashed honesty—our need for friendship.
Second, we might begin to renew the practice of friendship in the church by starting small—with the friendships in which we’re already involved.
Third, we could look for ways to remind ourselves that friendship (like many other loves) flourishes best when it’s consciously practiced in community with others.
Fourth, we might also learn to embrace the converse of the last point: that our friendships may strengthen our communities.
Fifth, and along the same lines, we might begin to imagine some specific ways for our friendships to become doorways to hospitality and welcoming of strangers.
Sixth, we might begin to look for ways to resist the allure of mobility and choose to stay—either literally, by remaining physically in the same place, or else spiritually and emotionally, even when love requires costly sacrifices—with our friends.

Hill comes from a different perspective than I. He is an Anglican that considers himself a “gay Christian.” I hold different theological positions and I would personally prefer the term “same-sex attraction” to the term “gay” in the context of those who choose not to act on their sexual disposition. However, I appreciate both his decision to remain celibate and his clear and thoughtful insight into intimate friendships within the church context.

From Hill’s narrative, I was able to better empathize with the many in our churches who find themselves without the intimate and daily relationships many of us are able to experience and cherish. I hurt for them. I believe this desire for companionship is a reflection of our relational trinitarian God. We all yearn for deep and meaningful relationships because we were created in the image of a God who has deep and meaningful relationships.

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