It is quite a while since I wrote Aelred of Rievaulx and Friendship on the basis of the famous dialogue by Aelred of Rievaulx. Fr Hunwicke has just written two articles in this vein with the problem of homosexual “marriage” in mind – Newman’s sexuality and The demise of Friendship. I am at the same time surprised and not surprised to find others reflecting a subject that has long fascinated me in this adventure of life.
My own experience of marriage has shown me the limits of “romantic” love – and I have always been attracted to the Romantic outlook on life, the reaction from the excessively rational in favour of the heart and emotions, the love of nature and a mystical view of spirituality and religion. In any relationship, the “in love” aspect withers away, as usually does the desire for sex. After this stage, either the relationship dies for want of a deeper basis, or transforms into what amounts to a friendship. I find myself in this watershed, waiting to know what the best things is.
My own relationship with a woman in marriage has shown that it does not have the quality of friendships between two men without sexual activity. Fr Hunwicke’s knowledge of the Classics shows that love was not understood in the same way by the Greeks as by post-Romantic moderns. One thing that often mars marriage is jealousy, and I talk generally, when the spouse is not totally absorbed in the relationship to the exclusion of all friendship or love for things that are not shared by both. Relationships are also harmed by the feeling of being imprisoned in some kind of cooking pot with the heat turned all the way up, in such a way as defects of both persons grow out of all proportion. At least in a monastery, a monk can have his moments of solitude. That is also true in my marriage, when my wife goes to town to work, and I sometimes get out to sea in my boat or I go for a bike ride in the country. A relationship cannot live unless there are these times of solitude. My wife also feels the same way, describing the way she would sometimes spend time alone in her grandparents’ country house near Blois. Perhaps a new phase is on the horizon.
Outside this peculiarly modern concept of the relationship in marriage and the demeaning of friendships (its ultimate extent expressed by the notion of the Facebook “friendship”), earlier periods had other notions. Marriage was essentially something pragmatic and geared towards procreation and the nuclear family within a tightly-knit local society. That didn’t happen with my wife and I, because we were unable to have children. We have a reasonable degree of social life outside home and work, particularly in singing and music. I have my contacts with people who love boats and the sea. Friendship, whether with a person of the same or the opposite sex, is entirely at another level – often triggered by a common interest or hobby.
We do well to return to St Aelred’s book to revise our understanding of friendship and its character that goes much deeper than our marriages and nuclear families. Friends are more than just “mates” or “buddies”, and we make but few of them in the course of our lives. Losing a friend to some ideology or change is a cause of great suffering as I have found in my life.
Perhaps it is a dimension that might convince us that humanity is, after all, not a failed experiment!
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Update: Please see Romantic Friendships.
I am far from convinced that we live in any sort of renaissance of traditional relationships between persons—far from it. Yet, as the functional view of friendship and the hyper-sexual love relationships pervades, it will become a bore for a concentrate minority that includes myself and many of the people dearest to me, and perhaps even you!
Indeed, we live in an absurd world to which only love can give meaning. That sounds thoroughly banal until the meaning of ἀγάπη / ἔρως is thought out in the light of the Christian tradition and Greek philosophy. Love would have no place in an Orwellian dystopia. We of a certain “aristocracy of the spirit” still have hope that something good will come out of the woodwork… That essentially was the mission of Christ.