Several years ago, our priest sent me an e-mail introducing another woman from our parish for the purpose of meeting for spiritual friendship. He called it “a holy suggestion.” Spiritual direction wasn’t widely available in our area, and he knew us both to be introspective women who were serious about growing in faith. He suggested we start meeting with the intention of encouraging one another and holding each other accountable.
It seems like an odd way to begin a friendship, maybe. She and I knew each other, but we weren’t really friends. In some ways, we didn’t have many things in common. She was a mom of older kids, while I was deep in the trenches of sleepless nights and diaper changes. She owned her own business, while I struggled with the mundane tasks related to being a homeschooling mom. We both respected the discernment of our priest, though, and so we set up a meeting.
She drove to my house during nap time, which was the only child-free time I could find. I bustled around the house, putting the kettle on for tea, tidying the toys in the living room, straightening the couch cushions, wiping some really icky fingerprints off the window near where she’d be sitting. Right before she arrived, I took a deep breath, lit a candle, and sat down to wait for her to show up.
She did show up.
More importantly, though, Jesus showed up. He was definitely with us during that first conversation while my kids napped one room away. Maybe because we weren’t embarking on a typical friendship, we skipped most of the small talk and jumped right into the bigger issues. We talked about our struggles and our fears. We talked about our images of God and our relationships with our fathers and how our families had influenced our faith. We were honest, even about the parts that were not our most presentable, and it laid the groundwork for our friendship going forward.
God has blessed our relationship over the years with spiritual growth for each of us. We have prayerfully supported each other through some challenging times, and we’ve had opportunities to rejoice with one another, too. Because our friendship is focused on helping each other to grow toward Christ and to walk more closely with Him, we use our time together to reflect on how He is moving in our lives and on how we can support each other through prayer.
The Catholic Church has a long tradition of spiritual friendship. The Bible tells us that “a friend loves at all times” (Proverbs 17:17) and “A faithful friend is a sturdy shelter: he that has found one has found a treasure.” (Sirach 6:14-16) The saints were rich in spiritual friendship. St. Francis de Sales had Jane de Chantal, St. Therese had her sisters Marie and Celine and a seminarian named Maurice Belliere with whom she corresponded at length. St. Francis and St. Clare were spiritual companions, and St. Benedict and St. Scholastica encouraged each other and talked together on one miraculous occasion through the night. As iron sharpens iron, we are invited to seek out relationships that help us grow in fortitude and make us better disciples as we journey with Jesus throughout our lives.
How does one go about developing a spiritual friendship? Here are some tips to get you started:
- Don’t automatically choose your best friend, even if she or he shares your faith. Be willing to look outside your immediate circle of acquaintances for someone who shares your goal of being more closely united with Christ. As our priest wisely counseled us, “Too many times with family there is a nurturing thing that happens that ignores the issue and focuses on the person. That has its place but can be personally limiting for someone who wants to grow in self-honesty and integrity in decision making and life attitudes. The family says ‘you’re afraid and we still love you.’ The accountability partner says ‘you’re afraid so how can you be courageous and faithful?’” A spiritual friend needs to be someone who is willing to both talk honestly to you and listen to you. He or she should be a person of prayer who takes faith seriously and who is willing to accept guidance as well as offer it. Ask God to show you if He has someone specific with whom you could begin a spiritual friendship, and then keep your eyes open for that person. You might also ask your priest for a recommendation — it worked for us.
- Invite the Holy Spirit deliberately to your conversation. We often ask the Holy Spirit to come, to teach us to pray, and we usually light a candle before we begin to talk as a reminder that our time together is sacred. I know some people who leave an empty chair in the room as a reminder that Jesus is also present in the conversation.
- Have a structure for your time. We usually take turns talking. Each of us shares what has happened in our lives since our last meeting, focusing especially on faith issues or on how we have felt God’s movement in our lives. While listening, we ask each other clarifying questions if needed, and if we have specific images or thoughts that might be helpful, we share them. After we have both shared, we ask each other how we can pray for each other going forward. Finally, we pray together.
- Pray faithfully for each other — not just when you meet, but on the days in between. Hold your spiritual friend in prayer for the requests she has shared, and remember to let her know that you are praying for her. You might also agree upon ways to hold one another accountable for goals or habits that you have discerned you want to practice.
- Be consistent. Try to meet regularly. We generally try to meet once a month or so, but in busy seasons it has definitely been less than that. The important thing to remember is that your relationship requires tending and pruning to grow. In the beginning, it’s important to meet often enough to sustain the new connection you are making. Every so often, reevaluate the relationship to make sure you are both growing and that you are challenging each other to draw closer to Christ.
As members of the Body of Christ, we are each other’s keepers in so many ways. By developing spiritual friendships (with Jesus always as the third person in the relationship), we can help each other grow in holiness. A cord of three strands is not easily broken.
Copyright 2017 Abbey Dupuy