What Is Spiritual Friendship?

An intentionally Christ-centred relationship can help believers hear God together on our journeys through life.
By Norm AllenFive of us are sitting around a dinner table – a fund manager, a corporate real estate executive, a manufacturer, a mortgage broker and me. We have become friends, intentionally working together to create what I call spiritual friendship.

The fund manager opens Our Journey Home by Jean Vanier and reads aloud: “What is a friend if not someone who does not judge me, who does not abandon me when he discovers my weaknesses, limitations, wounds, shortcomings, everything that is broken within me? A friend is someone who sees my true beauty and potential, and who wants to help me to develop them. A friend is happy to be with me. He feels joy in being with me.”

All of us around the table – perhaps all people everywhere – recognize and value these aspects of friendship. There is something spiritual in them.

But we are after a friendship that also intentionally connects with and nourishes our inner journey with Jesus. This might be a bit trickier to describe, let alone define – that mysterious place where your quiet prayers connect with those of a friend.

In fact, the basis for what I mean by spiritual friendship lies in discovering a friend who spends time in quiet prayer and would like to share the experience. For this relationship to be spiritually nourishing, that prayer needs to include listening time: listening to God and listening to our friends as they explore what God may be doing in their lives.

Many people see the value of reflecting and journaling, but do it in solitude. This can lead to narcissism or depression. They need to see instead how much healthier it is to share our journey with a wise listening companion.

Simply finding a potential spiritual companion is not enough, however. One-on-one, or in a small group, spiritual friendship only develops with intentionality. Thank God for the historic tools of listening prayer and spiritual direction as we seek to nurture and enable a friendship in Christ.

Here’s how I sometimes use these tools. With a friend, I might read aloud a psalm or brief Gospel story. After reading it a couple of times each, we’ll sit in the quiet, present to one another, open to God. After an appropriate silence, our conversation will be shaped by what our whole being has experienced in those moments of listening and experiencing together in the living word of God in Christ.

If our visit is an extended one, our conversation and thoughts will be shaped and influenced by that experience. We may find the Spirit leading us to a new conclusion about obedience or to an adjustment of our view of situations. We may find that our awareness about what the Spirit is doing in our individual lives helps make us more aware of what the Spirit is also doing in the life of another.

A rewarding and sustained spiritual friendship requires that these moments become more than mere transactions. They can instead be reference points on the journey of life. They mark the way, so that the next time we are together we may return to these ideas as the starting point for ongoing conversation.

An ongoing friendship that nurtures the soul – true spiritual friendship – will eventually include our broken places, the places where we discover we need help from God and a few friends, no matter how powerful and in control we are accustomed to being. The friendship may even begin right from that brokenness. In either case, it is here we also discover the power of receiving and not just giving.

That receiving and giving points to another important characteristic of spiritual friendship: mutuality rather than dominance and submission.

Yes, discipleship usually implies a wise teacher and a weaker learner. But a spiritual friendship is different from that. Learning and growing can also happen as disciples of Christ learn from Him together and from each other.

This mutuality runs counter to the common belief that our identity and worth depends on our performance. For many of us, this belief about identity is what creates the inner pressure to produce and perform, but it also leads us to fear that our friends will think less of us if we fail. Worst of all, it usually leads us to think and feel that God will respond in the same way.

Friendships that nourish our soul must look to a different energy source than performance. They begin with our own reflective life in times of quiet thought and prayer. They require a commitment to the time and energy necessary to truly be present to one another – for no reason other than listening to the rhythms of God’s work in our lives.

For many years I’ve had the privilege of walking with men and women, clergy and laity alike, who have a deep desire to experience the God who comes to us in Jesus, often in quiet and restful moments of listening. In retreats and small gatherings they listen deeply to one another – the pain and the joy, the success and the failure – but always with the gentle grace of God evident.

Perhaps the most important truth we reaffirm in such moments is that we are the beloved daughters and sons of God. That love is what can create an atmosphere of trust, based on confidentiality and confidence, that we have one another’s best interests at heart.

In that freedom we can share the darkest struggles and deepest fears – and find grace in the presence of God fleshed out in the skin and bone of our friends. Jesus expressed his love for us the same way – in skin and bone.