Sr. Joan Chittister Reveals How to Be a Good Friend Without Losing Your Sense of Self
Friendship is a holy thing, but it is not an easy thing. Love and friendship take us out of ourselves, yes. And that is certainly a good thing. But if there is nothing in us that is ourselves alone, there is nothing in us to give away. Spiritual direction, “holy friendship,” can be found in every spiritual tradition. But the purpose is not to attach us to someone wiser than ourselves—the guru, the great guide, the spiritual master, the bodhisattva, the saint. The purpose of spiritual direction is to enable us to become holy ourselves. “What is the purpose of a master?” the disciple asked the Sufi. And the Sufi answered, “To make you understand the value of not having one.”
Part of the process of becoming ourselves, however, lies in having someone against whose wisdom we can test our own. It lies in learning to tell our truth. “When we have friends and really share our truth with them, it changes the way things are from the inside out,” Donna Schaper writes. The problem is that once we come to the point where we have a truth of our own, we have to decide when it is right, when it is safe, to share it. The struggle is a real one.
Spiritual friendship is not intended to be a crutch. It is not meant to become a substitute for self-control or the self-observation that invites us to grow. It is meant to be a bridge to the development of the self.
Friendship, the kind that develops us, enables us to carry our own burdens by helping us to understand them. It gives us the confidence to strike out on our own, as well as to share our thoughts, our concerns, with the other. Friendship enables us to become ourselves, not a duplicate of someone else.
“Friend” is a word the West uses lightly, almost without substance. Friend has become a synonym for someone with whom we spend time. They provide a measure by which we assess ourselves: our emotional responses, our physical appearance, our intellectual acuity, our social desirability. They are a very necessary part of life. They validate us, they accompany us, they put us in touch with the world. But they do not, by and large, explore the territory of the psyche with us.
In the spiritual tradition, on the other hand, friend means the person to whom I bared my soul, not in a gush of narcissistic self-interest, but in the way we mine for gold in rock. Carefully. Reverently. My friend is the one I see to be wiser than I. This kind of friend stands by in the midst of the spiritual whirlwind and holds out a hand on the rocks. This kind of friend offers more than presence, more than companionship. When others cling, this friend simply frees us to be ourselves. And stands by. This is the person we turn to knowing we will find unfathomed substance and understanding without evaluation. “A friend,” Anne E. Carr writes, “is one who remains fundamentally a mystery, inexhaustible, never fully known, always surprising.” After years of community and friendship, I understood that we need friends who can be themselves, live their own lives, be their own persons, go their own way—and enable me to do the same.
To love the other without letting go of the self, to honor the fullness of the self without losing sight of the other, that is the sacrament of friendship.
In the end, friendship must be both light and liberty. Only when we are truly ourselves can we really be any good to anybody else.
Joan Chittister is one of the most influential religious and social leaders of our time. For 40 years she has passionately advocated on behalf of peace, human rights, women’s issues, and church renewal. A much sought-after speaker, counselor and clear voice that bridges across all religions, she is also a best-selling author of more than 50 books, hundreds of articles, an online column for the National Catholic Reporter, and a blog for the Huffington Post.
This essay was featured in the June 16th edition of The Sunday Paper. The Sunday Paper is the paper of record for individuals who want to be Architects of Change, lead meaningful lives and Move Humanity Forward. To get inspiring and informative content like this essay delivered to your inbox each Sunday morning for free, click here to subscribe.