Ambient Intimacy & Spiritual Friendships


Kathryn Whitaker & Lisa Schmidt

Letter writing seems to be a thing of the past. For my part, other than writing an occasional thank you note or scribbling a short message to accompany a birthday card, I haven’t sat down with stationery and a pen in a very long time. I have something of a wistful romantic attachment to letter writing as a relic of a bygone era. I don’t want the elegant simplicity of a handwritten letter to become a lost art.

But thanks to things like mobile devices, personal blogs, and online social networks like Facebook and Twitter, I am able to keep in touch more than ever with family and friends throughout the world.

Ambient Intimacy

That’s the term to describe all this connectedness in our digital age. It was coined by blogger Leisa Reichelt.

Ambient intimacy is about being able to keep in touch with people with a level of regularity and intimacy that you wouldn’t usually have access to, because time and space conspire to make it impossible.

It helps us get to know people who would otherwise be just acquaintances. It makes us feel closer to people we care for but in whose lives we’re not able to participate as closely as we’d like. 

Knowing these details creates intimacy. (It also saves a lot of time when you finally do get to catch up with these people in real life!) It’s not so much about meaning, it’s just about being in touch.

The power of ambient intimacy is on my heart because I just got back from the 2012 Catholic New Media Conference. For the past week, I linked arms, hugged necks, and networked with other Catholic new media enthusiasts. Some I had met previously at last year’s conference; others I had only connected with via online networks. Most I will see face to face, at best, once a year. But in the interim, I stay connected with them through the likes of blogs, Facebook, and Twitter. We share ambient intimacy.

Spiritual Friendships

I often ponder the letters of spiritual direction written and shared between St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane de Chantal. These two saints developed a great spiritual friendship through their exchange of written word. New media has fostered a growth of spiritual friendships in my life. I desire to stay connected with these friends because they are faithful Catholics, doing their part to share their love for Holy Mother Church. They spiritually feed me and fill a longing I didn’t even know I had. The spiritual friendships I have developed, with Catholic women and moms especially, are a gift. Used for good, new media ultimately leads me toward a relationship, an encounter, with Jesus.

Living in Communion

What’s more, there is a level of intimacy present with this group that I often don’t experience with others. We are made to live in communion — with the Father, Jesus and Mary, and the saints triumphant. Our hearts also desire communion with God’s family here on earth. Being engaged in Catholic new media brings me into communion with others.

While living in digital communion can foster ambient intimacy, it can also breed the opposite. Leisa Reichelt has coined the term ambient exposure to describe this experience. Writing from a Catholic lens, I sometimes share things that leave me feeling vulnerable and exposed. This vulnerability underscores the importance of having a net of spiritual friends to catch you when you feel like jumping off.

Developing spiritual friendships in this digital age is a topic I would like to explore in future posts. I’m curious. Has technology fostered a growth of spiritual friendships in your life? Does the term ambient intimacy resonate with you? Or does ambient exposure seem like a better fit?

I’m looking forward to learning from you.

Copyright 2012 Lisa Schmidt


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  1. I think being online has blurred the physical boundaries of life and has allowed a person to foster friendships with people that share similar interests. I appreciate this as I live in a very small town ( it is actually a village!), and I love connecting with others that share my interests! I would love to find a blog or group of catholic mothers to big families, as I have seven of my own!

  2. Lisa, I loved this column – I truly believe in the power of “ambient intimacy”. My front row seat for the best writing on the web (from you, and our other CM contributors), makes me feel a part of your lives. As I post your work, I come to know your families, your joys, your struggles and your little victories. Connecting with you on social networks simply underscores this, and I believe in the synergy we create within our community of New Evangelists to change lives and to truly impact our Church. Call me “simple” but every time I meet an online friend in person, the “realness” of our relationships is underscored when I feel as if I’ve known them forever. Sure, I don’t put everything in my life “out there”, but I do trust my online friends to protect my privacy and to be with me in prayer when times get tough. Interesting topic!

  3. I think both ambient intimacy and ambient exposure are appropriate and real. I have made new friends and developed deeper friendships through social media, and many of these have also helped me on my spiritual journey. I also feel like my friends and family who live in other places have a chance to know my children through pictures and stories that I wouldn’t have the time to share with each one of them individually by phone or letter, and that we are living examples of faithful Catholics to others who may not have exposure to families like ours. However, I also feel that sometimes we seek friendship and interaction through the internet when what we are really craving is a deeper relationship with friends who live nearby. Just as we need to carefully guard our families from being absorbed in screens and lacking intimacy with one another, we also need to balance how we develop friendships online with those in person. I’m looking forward to more on this topic – and especially to your talk in Peoria in February!!

    • Ditto Marie.
      I very much appreciate the friendships I have made and/or strengthened online but what I really crave at the end of the day is a friend who is physically present. I want to sip a drink and visit while my kids (our kids if she’s got ’em too!) play nearby. I sometimes think I’ve lost the ability to carry on a conversation – a true, back-and-forth exchange – because so much is typed out.
      But that doesn’t mean that I devalue my online friendships, especially those that I have had the pleasure to hang out with in person.
      Does this make sense? I need to go wash the dishes! If we were on the phone chatting we could just keep chatting while I cleaned! True friendship! 🙂

  4. Beautifully inpsired post! I love the way you are able to write something so clearly and capture our hearts. Yes, writing thru the lens of our faith opens us up to exposure, yet we will always be there to support you and pray for you. It was a realy blessing to meet you and your beautiful family last week. I look forward to reading more in the year to come until we meet again.

  5. Pingback: Being Real When Nothing Much Is: Navigating online relationships | The Loveliest Hour

  6. I have really enjoyed the friendships I’ve developed online. It is comforting to find like minded, faith filled women who can help me on my own journey through life. Thank you, Lisa, for being one of those women I admire and look up to!

  7. This is lovely, as was meeting you “for real life”, as my kids say. Technology has allowed me to connect with people I would never have known otherwise, yet God allowed us to connect with a hug. It was the work of the Holy Spirit and I value my new friendships even more, now!

  8. Great post, Lisa, and I agree with you 100%. I have made REAL friends via this online world, and I have grown in my faith as a result. I’m so blessed and touched by this community (especially here at CM), and I thank you for the important and great work YOU are doing! 🙂

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