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To build friendships, let Christ measure our affections.

Photo Credits: Illustration by Abigail Witte
Psalm 19 speaks of “the law of the Lord” in six ways. It’s odd. We would expect seven because seven is the perfect biblical number. But Psalm 19 deliberately stops short. Its hymn of praise isn’t finished until the law “jumps off the page” and we put it into practice. Our lives are supposed to become the seventh reference to the law, the reference that perfects the hymn of praise.

Jesus does the same thing in the Sermon on the Mount. He speaks of the law in six ways, then concludes by saying: “Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The parallel is clear: the Sermon on the Mount isn’t finished until we take Jesus’ teaching and put it into practice. As with Psalm 19, our lives are supposed to be the seventh point, the conclusion of the lesson.

Similarly, throughout the past year, I’ve written about great friendships in faith, and people whose friendships helped to make them holy. But our consideration of holy friendship won’t be completed until it jumps off the page and becomes real in our own lives.

Fortunately, Blessed Aelred of Rievaulx’s book on Spiritual Friendship contains some practical guidance for making that transition.

Following St. Jerome, Aelred believed that true friendship touches eternity. It gives us a taste of the love of God on earth, a love that death cannot destroy. But in order to touch eternity, friendship needs to be cultivated the right way. It requires saying yes to some things and no to others.

Friendship is one of life’s gifts and a grace from God. Through our friends, the Lord refines us and leads us to maturity.

— Pope Francis, Christus Vivit, #151.
For example, Aelred advises us, true friends refuse anything that leads to the death of the soul. Here’s a great thought experiment: what should Adam have done to be a true friend to Eve while she was being tempted and after she had eaten the forbidden fruit? We know he failed the test of friendship in both instances. What would it mean, in our friendships, to do better?

One of the major themes of Aelred’s writing is that our affections — our desires — are unruly. Left to themselves they sometimes lead us to what is good, but just as often to what is bad. (CS Lewis would say they’re like piano keys: they’re all real, but they can be well or badly played.) Our affections, then, need a measure. And this is crucial because friendships grow out of affections.

How do we train our affections, and keep our friendships on track?

If we read one chapter of the New Testament a day, we’ll slowly let Christ’s teaching become the measure of our affections. If we spend an hour a week in Eucharistic Adoration, we’ll have a touchstone for measuring our affections. If we spend a little time in prayer every day – speaking and listening to God – we’ll develop a way to let God measure our affections. There are other ways to do it, but the point is this: if we don’t find a way to let Christ rule our affections, then our affections will rule us. And, as Aelred says, that’s how a child lives.

If we let our affections be measured by Christ through Scripture, sacraments, and prayer, our friendships will be pruned. Those that are leading us to heaven will be strengthened and deepened. Those that lead away from heaven will have to be reformed or left behind.

If we allow Christ to become the measure of our affections, as Aelred advises, he can also become the cornerstone of our friendships. Then the lessons we learned from the saints about friendships in faith can jump off the page and be completed in our lives. Then we can hear anew what Jesus said: “I have called you friends.”

For Further Reading

Aelred of Rievaulx. Spiritual Friendship. Translated by Lawrence C. Braceland. Edited and Introduced by Marsha L. Dutton. Cistercian Fathers Series.

Aelred of Rievaulx. Spiritual Friendship. The Classic Text with a Spiritual Commentary by Dennis Billy, C.Ss.R. Classics with Commentary Series.

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