The narrative goes something like this: a long long time ago in a galaxy located at the exact same co-ordinates as our own, it was possible for friends to be friends and married couples to be married. Then, as things gradually approached modern times, something happened. Or rather a bunch of things happened which are too complex to be summarized by a man who is feeling a little hounded for time and sleep deprived.
Anyway, we wind up with a situation where (a highly individualistic conception of) romantic love becomes the lens by which other loves are seen and measured – friendship is no longer seen as a different kind of love, but a lesser kind of love. “Just friends.” This, combined with the modern tendency to divide people into gay/straight/bisexual/bowie, increasingly rigid gender stuff, and the crudely Freudian notion that all our interactions with other people are ‘really’ about our unconscious desire to kill/have sex with them, has led to an anthropology that goes something like this:
Straight people are the sort who are only capable of being “just friends” with people of the same sex, but who achieve the glorious plateau of erotic love with the opposite sex. Gay people are the inverse of this. And what this means is that anything relating to emotional intimacy and affection between people of the same sex increasingly falls under the heading of ‘gay’. The tenderness of the relationship between, say, Frodo and Sam, which would have been recognized by earlier generations as qualities of a really good friendship, are now seen as kinda gay. And this sort of thinking becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: because these qualities are seen now as qualities that gay couples have, it is increasingly the case that only gay relationships manifest them. It should indeed give us pause that, in places like India, which have (in my humble opinion) rather inhumane laws regarding homosexuality, no one bats an eye at the sight of two men holding hands. Whereas here in North America, hand holding means, well, you know.
It’s not like friendship is magic or anything
The second part of Eve Tushnet’s book, “Gay and Catholic”, has in large part the aim of offering a remedy to this modern situation by attempting to articulate older ideals of friendship and giving advice as to how to apply that to one’s own life. So she looks at stuff like St. Aelred’s treatise, “Spiritual Friendship,” and medieval ‘vowed friendships’ (which, contra revisionist historians, were not medieval gay marriage):
Kinship is a form of love that persists after the death of one of the parties. It is a love with obligations as well as joys. With these criteria we can see clearly how medieval sworn friendship differed from the relationship we now describe as being “just friends” with someone. The specific obligations incurred through vows of friendship varied, but they would often include features like caring for the friend’s children after death (perhaps an especially important clause given that many of the sworn friends we know were married knits) and having Masses said for the friend’s soul. As Bray put it, “they left each other their families.”
Bray also found another form of same-sex kinship formed through promise making. Becoming godparent to a friend’s child was one way friends could merge their families’ interests and publicly signify their allegiance. As with sworn friendship, kinship created by Baptism drew freely from both blood and marriage kinship for its metaphors and explanations.
The point isn’t to take these pre-modern models and make them into a sort of erzatz, sexless marriage for same-sex attracted people. But rather, to underline how friendship should not be reduced to a mere enjoyment of each others’ company. True friendship, as Aristotle put it, involves seeing the good in another individual and helping to cultivate it. We help each other on the road to salvation.
Tushnet rightly underlines that for Christians, there’s this guy called Jesus and that having a personal relationship with him is kinda important. Friendship and romance will be unable to satisfy your deepest longings – and they’ll start to get a little bit creepy if you try to make them – only Christ can. The foundation for getting things to work right has to be in prayer and sacraments.
Indeed this is the most important safeguard against the perversion of friendship and marriage – any relationship can be turned into something vicious. The realization of this possibility should not be seen as a reason for seeking out isolation. Taking that approach has its own problems; absent normal human contact, there is always a host of loathsome vices waiting to fill the gap.
The takehome point here is that friendship should be incorporated into your spirituality in some fashion. And this a point of agreement with other folks as well. Courage, which is the official Catholic apostolate dealing with homosexuality, lists the formation of chaste same-sex friendships as one of its goals. And, of course, the people at Spiritual Friendship, a ragtag collection of bloggers including Tushnet herself, are all over this friendshippy stuff.
(Incidentally, there is a degree of criticism between people associated with one or the other group. Courage people tend to not be too crazy about some of the things said by SF people and vice-versa. I often find myself sympathizing with people in both camps. I’m not sure if this is because the differences between the two are actually smaller than they seem, or because I have yet to really come to a settled opinion about all the nitty-gritty questions. Anyway, some of the blog sniping has at times struck me as broadcasting a not too appealing image):
(Vulgar language warning)
As you may have noticed, Spiritual Friendship takes its name from St. Aelred’s treatise, which Tushnet discusses. I’ve never read it, so I don’t feel competent to discuss her reading of it. However, when she talks about St. Aelred’s advice for carefully choosing one’s friends, I felt a twinge of recogniztion in Tushnet’s admitted lack of this sort of rigor:
I admit that I don’t think I’ve ever practiced St. Aelred-style testing of potential friends. I more or less wake up inside my friendships, only noticing them once they’ve already been forged too tightly to easily slither out of them. My friendships tend to be based on shared experiences rather than shared belief, and the experiences themselves are not exactly morally edifying. “We got drunk and argued about philosophy a lot” isn’t a basis for friendship that St. Aelred would approve or even necessarily understand, and yet it’s served me well so far.
Most of my friendships have similarly been forged through the vagaries of experience.
Tushnet’s own advice is to consider the relationships we already find ourselves in – friends, family and the like, and to see how our singleness makes us able to be of greater benefit to the loved ones in our lives. How can we be more self-giving, and radically available? I admit that this can be a difficult question for me to ask myself, because I value my autonomy and time quite a bit. It can be easy to see the needs of others as impositions.
To be concluded (I hope)…