C3 Talk: Friendship as a Spiritual and Revolutionary Practice

On March 18, when I was back in Michigan over spring break, I got to visit C3: West Michigan’s Inclusive Spiritual Connection and give a talk on the good life. This was my fourth time speaking at C3, and my first since leaving the Kaufman Interfaith Institute and starting at Harvard Divinity School, so it was a treat to be back with a community that has seen me, my work, and my ideas evolve over the last few years. Plus, the conversation we are able to have before and after the service itself always deepens and expands my understandings of the topics I share with the community.

Below is the text of the “secular sermon” that I gave, and the video can be watched online soon, or found on their Facebook page.

The first time I considered the question of the good life was my first year in college, when I took a class on happiness and the good life. One of the books we read was Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer, a true story about Chris McCandless, a young man who refused the wealth of his family, gave away all his savings, got rid of his possessions, and set out on a journey into the Alaskan wilderness.

In the wild, living off the land, one day Chris accidently ate a poisonous plant and ended up facing his imminent death. In the last moments of his life – moments spent alone, isolated from society and family – he scribbles notes in the margins of a book he was reading. The words he wrote in these last moments of his life were: “Happiness is only real when shared.”

“Happiness is only real when shared.”

Whether intentionally or not, this has shaped much of my own approach to attempting a good life over the years. Looking back, I see that relationships are at the core of all work I engage in. In Model United Nations during my college years, relationships created coalitions and shaped policy proposals. In my interfaith work, relationships transcended differences in theology and tradition. And in my media and radio work, relationships enriched and deepened interviews.

Then… as you may know, this past summer I left Grand Rapids and moved to Boston to study at Harvard Divinity School. Alongside my classes, I now work with the How We Gather team, Casper ter Kuile, Angie Thurston, and Sue Phillips, who are the Ministry Innovation Fellows at Harvard Divinity School.

Their work began with the initial report entitled How We Gather, looking at where non-religious and unaffiliated millennials find community when they leave behind religious institutions. The communities they studied in this report were places like the Sanctuaries, a multi-racial, multi-religious arts and social change community in Washington DC, The Dinner Party, a monthly dinner held at people’s homes for those experiencing the loss of a parent, and even Soul Cycle and Cross Fit, organizations with an evangelical zeal that focus on personal and communal transformation through fitness.

Over these past four years, they have convened the leaders of these communities, and learned much about this world of spiritual community building today. The newest report they published – just this past week – explores that new, yet actually very old, work of caring for souls. Thus, the Care of Souls report names the emerging religious landscape we see today, and names the roles that are required for the work.

In Care of Souls, Casper, Angie and Sue suggest that the task now is to bridge the ancient and the emergent, and to discover how to apply wisdom to new generations. Their central question, and the thrust of my work alongside them, is: “How do we care for souls in the 21st century and beyond?”

I share all of this to introduce the context from which I now enter into this question of the good life. Beginning as a college freshman, hearing the words that “happiness is only real when shared,” to now in a calling centered on community and care, there seems to be a thread that suggests what my own good life has been rooted in: friendship as a spiritual and revolutionary practice.

WHY WE SHOULD TAKE FRIENDSHIP SERIOUSLY

 It’s only in this last year I started to take friendship as a spiritual and political practice seriously. After first noticing it as a powerful presence in my own community-building, I started noticing it explicitly discussed in theological and philosophical practices of spirituality and movement-building.

And none of this is new or radical, I think it’s something we all feel in our bones. But to speak for myself at least – I often forget. I forget the transformation possible through deep friendship. In this hyper-individualized society, we’re all taught, conditioned, and expected to make our own selves our own bottom line.

So the reason I chose to share about friendship today is because I think friendship tends to be something that we don’t take seriously enough, or something that we sell short, lacking an appreciation of its power. After all, while we’re more connected digitally than ever – we have thousands of Facebook friends and twitter followers at our fingertips – we’re actually more isolated than ever before.

In recent decades, researchers have discovered that loneliness left untreated is not just psychically painful; it also can have serious medical consequences. Studies have linked loneliness and social isolation to heart disease, cancer, depression, diabetes and suicide. Isolation has become a public health epidemic in the modern world.

So, responding to this epidemic of loneliness and crisis of isolation, and looking to a vision of the good life based in authentic and transformative relationships, what I want to share is several teachings on the role of friendship. Through these insights from various communities, texts, theologies and philosophies, I hope to begin to uncover the tradition of friendship as something to embrace as a spiritual and even revolutionary practice.

TEACHINGS ON FRIENDSHIP

 There are six short examples of what this looks like.

 About one year ago, along with the Dominican Sisters of Grand Rapids, we started gatherings called “Nuns & Nones” a meeting of Catholic women religious and non-religious millennials. Many unexpected friendships immediately flourished from that space, and the inter-generational nature of these friendships made them even more special. These friendships between 20-somethings and 70-somethings rooted the group in a larger sense of time and a deeper sense of hope; they swapped strategies for change and tools for resilience; they shared histories of oppression and stories of liberation. After gathering about twice a month from last year April until now, one Sister even said that the highlight of her year was building friendships through this unlikely community. Nuns and Nones taught me that friendship has the ability to cross social barriers and transform us at any age.

Particularly among women, friendship can transform ourselves individually and in community. In Sister Joan Chittister’s book “Friendship of Women: The Hidden Tradition of the Bible”, the feminist Benedictine Nun reclaims a history of feminine friendships that have been lost to the patriarchal storytellers through the ages. What I learned from Joan is that Friendship is a spiritual resource to tap into for strength, support, and empowerment, particularly for women who have been shut out of traditional forms of political power. Joan claims friendship not just as public “alliances of the court and castle,” but as a “personal tradition of spiritual friendship.” She follows in the tradition of St. Augustine and believes that “human relationships are the ground of growth.”

 However, this transformative, vulnerable friendship shows up not just in women’s lives. One of my favorite examples of deep friendship is between two Irish poets, David Whyte and the late John O’Donahue, who have frequently talked about their friendship and dedicated poems to one another. John O’Donahue, who died in 2008, wrote a book based on the Celtic idea of Anam Cara – translating to SOUL FRIEND. As he writes: “In the early Celtic church, a person who acted as a teacher, companion, or spiritual guide was called an anam cara. It originally referred to someone to whom you confessed, revealing the hidden intimacies of your life. With the anam cara you could share your inner-most self, your mind and your heart. This friendship was an act of recognition and belonging. When you had an anam cara, your friendship cut across all convention, morality, and category. You were joined in an ancient and eternal way with the ‘friend of your soul.’” Friendship, for these poets, then, is a purposeful presence, an intentional integrity toward one another. In o’Donahue’s words, “A friend is a loved one who awakens your life in order to free the wild possibilities within you.” Again, “A friend is a loved one who awakens your life in order to free the wild possibilities within you.”

It is also the nature of friendship across category, across difference that has a transformative power on people – not just personally, but in their political lives. Whether it is across differences in religious conviction or come from different generations, the practice of building friendship can lead to what Hannah Arendt called “thinking without bannisters.” Arendt, a 20th century philosopher, believed that friendship had political relevance and importance. And the essence of friendship existed in discourse, a discourse that through its practice the world is “rendered humane.” Friendship then, for Arendt, has the power to rehumanize us to one another and those unlike us, liberating us to think without bannisters which too often divide us.

In a new book, entitled “Joyful Militancy: Building Thriving Resistance in Toxic Times,” writers Nick Montgomery and carla bergman view friendship as the root of freedom. They remind us that “Friend’ and ‘free’ in English come from the same Indo-European root, which conveys the idea of a shared power that grows. Being free and having ties was one and the same thing. I am free because I have ties; I am free because I am linked to a reality greater than me.” Embracing the relational interdependency of friendship, then, is a revolutionary method of freedom; it is a freedom that releases us from the capitalistic profit-driven world and thus re-centers us on one another and the ways in which we can mutually support each other. In Joyful Militancy, friendship is a way to resist, a path for freedom, and a tool for collective liberation.

Friendship is a powerful element in many faith communities as well. One community in particular centers their entire theology on friendship. The Community of Sant’Egidio is a lay Catholic community founded in Rome exactly 50 years ago, and today holds a global presence in prayer, dialogue, and peace work in 73 countries with over 60,000 members. This global movement all started with a group of high schoolers in 1968 inspired by their faith to live into the gospel in radical, counter-cultural ways. Living out the gospel to them meant building friendships with the poor and marginalized, and letting all ministries and actions to follow from those friendships. In each community and each country now, Sant’Egidio members build friendships with the marginalized in their context, and let that friendship determine what accompaniment and advocacy looks like. Sant’Egidio sees the practice of faith as a call to friendship, a friendship that Jesus modeled as a transformational path of peace. They believe that a “glimpse of the Kingdom can be born through prayer and friendship with the poor.”

Through these examples, we can see the personal, communal, and political transformation possible through friendship.

The intergenerational friendships in Nuns & Nones. The spiritual friendship of women named by Sr. Joan Chittister. The “soul friend” connection beautifully articulated by poet John O’Donahue. The practice of friendship rehumanizing us to one another, taught by Hannah Arendt. The interdependency of friendship as a path to freedom for the authors of Joyful Militancy. And the Sant’Egidio model offers friendship as the foundation for living into peace and justice work.

In each of these cases, Friendship leads to resilience and sustenance… resistance and freedom… and faith and advocacy. Friendship is the process and the end, the method and the goals. From faith leaders and philosophers to poets and activists, friendship plays a central role in their personal and public lives. Friendship is not only what sustains us, but it liberates us; friendship not only inspires us, but it transforms us.

As we today – and this month – ask what the good life looks like, what caring for souls in the 21st century means to our communities – what answer does friendship provide? How can the wisdom of friendship from both ancient and emergent sources respond to today’s needs?

The poet John O’Donahue, in one of his last interviews before his death, reminded us that friendship is vital to our whole spirit – to our being, our character, our mind, and our health. But so many of us, he says, forget and don’t spend enough time with the friendships in our lives.

I know certainly for myself, I am guilty of this. Too often, I am caught up living a productive life, rather than a good life. I usually measure my days by how many things I cross off my to-do list, rather than how many conversations I had with friends.

“My friends are my estate,” wrote Emily Dickinson. In other words, friends are the wealth we will have at the end of our lives; they are the treasure we accrue.

What if we all measured our life this way, instead of by the hours worked, emails sent, or money earned? I think if we remember friendship at the beginnings and ends of our days, and the starts and closes of our weeks, we could all get a deeper sense of a good life. Or at least the good life that is possible through a shared life.

As Joan Chittister says, “It is surely, then, of the highest spiritual order to celebrate the Sacrament of Friendship.”

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A Question for the Church

“You know, this prayer thing has me stumped. I really do want to pray. But when I sit down, my mind seems to go blank. I talk to God, but God never seems to talk back. After doing this for a while, I get discouraged and quit. But pretty soon, the nagging is back: “You should be praying.” So I make a resolution, start again, and pretty soon, I stop. What I really like to do is walk in the wild, so on Sunday afternoon, I give myself a treat and go out to the headlands and hike. Sometimes there I really feel like I am praying. But it doesn’t seem to carry over to Monday through Saturday. Anyhow, when my friend told me about the Spiritual Exercises, my heart jumped a little. So here I am.”
–A Contemporary Woman
(The Spiritual Exercise Reclaimed, p 113)

“A practice of daily reflection such as that proposed in the reclaimed examination of consciousness both depends on and fosters the skills of noticing, naming and acting on one’s awareness of God’s presence in daily life.”
(The Spiritual Exercise Reclaimed, p 116)

In my view, these ideas embodied today feel most resonate through Mary Oliver’s poetry. As she wrote in the poem, The Moths:

If you notice anything, 
it leads you to notice
more
and more.

Is Mary Oliver an example of “A Contemporary Woman,” the mysteriously attributed author of the quote at the beginning of the reading? Is the Contemporary Woman bound to find spirituality outside of the institutions that have shut women out, or can women actually reclaim spiritual practices that were created intentionally without them in mind? How can something be reclaimed if it was never claimed by them originally?

Considering the way poets such as Mary Oliver embody Ignatian spirituality today, is this the arena in which women can truly live out such spirituality, outside of the patriarchal confines of religious/Catholic institutions? Or can women truly claim space within a tradition that has never really allowed for their full flourishing?

I appreciate the pushes for feminist reinterpretations of religious texts, but I wonder how much an interpretation counts when it is still not the dominant way of understanding and seeing a text. With this in mind, how can someone like Pope Francis, a spiritual visionary who is still confined to the traditional gender roles of the Catholic church, help shift culture toward a place that allows women’s spiritual gifts to be appreciated and used in broader applications within the church?

What we can learn from our non-religious neighbors

This originally appeared as an Interfaith Insight in the Grand Rapids Press on August 7, 2014.

For the past few years, America has been experiencing a trend dubbed “the rise of the Nones.” According to the Pew Research Center, one-fifth of the U.S. public, and one-third of adults under 30, are religiously unaffiliated, including agnostics, atheists and those who refuse any label at all.

Despite this rise in numbers, there remains a great deal of intolerance and distrust between religious and non-religious groups. However, in order to promote understanding across our community, interfaith dialogue needs to expand beyond the faith groups and include all worldviews that have a perspective to share. That is why Nones should be welcomed into our movement toward understanding and acceptance.

Why

As suggested by the statistics, Nones are becoming a larger part of our national religious and cultural makeup every year. In the last five years alone, the number of Nones rose from 15 percent to 20 percent of the U.S. population, Pew surveys show. We must embrace their perspectives into our conversations. If we do not, we risk furthering division between religious and non-religious communities in the future.

Furthermore, just like many a religious group, numerous negative stereotypes exist against the non-religious. Atheist authors such as Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris are assumed to represent the larger group, and being non-religious is wrongly equated with actively opposing religion. However, secular traditions have significant diversity within the identity group, and these stereotypes lead to misunderstanding and discrimination against all who identify that way.

In order to understand this growing community, and to prevent these harmful stereotypes, interfaith dialogues should welcome these perspectives. In doing so, we will discover the potential richness of non-religious traditions. But how do we make the first step?

How

In order to embrace our secular, atheist, agnostic, and non-religious neighbors into dialogue, we must begin to define the Nones not by the beliefs or identities that they lack, but instead define them by the fullness of what they do value and believe in.

In a new weekly column from On Being written by author Courtney E. Martin, “They Call Us the Nones, But We’re So Much More,” Martin writes that secular people offer new ways to view the “burden and joy of trying to understand how to be a good human.” By welcoming non-religious citizens into interfaith dialogue, we will discover how these traditions find values of compassion, humility, service, community, and ultimately, find meaning in life.

Interfaith work is all about using diversity in identity and context to teach us about the essential unity of humanity. It is about people coming together not to agree, but to respect, and hopefully learn from one another. The end goal is that this will permeate into all other aspects of society and culture. But in order for that to happen, all people – regardless of faith or non-faith background – must be included in the conversation.