Friendship as Spiritual Discipline

(Originally written as a Gathering Voices post on April 8, 2011)


As I type these words, I’m sitting in a Catholic retreat center in Saint Louis with two dear friends/colleagues.  The official purpose of this meeting of the minds is a writing retreat (we’re chewing on something that has the potential to be pretty exciting!).  Computers are out, keys clicking a symphony of ideas – and we really are getting some serious work done.

Yet, in many ways, the real work is happening aside from the writing.  We laugh.  We feast. We pad around in bare feet for late-night conversation.  Words ebb and flow, dancing from silly to vulnerable and back again.  We dream out loud.  Exhausted, we sleep hard so we can get up and do it all again.  This is the labor of soul friends.

Friends have always been important to me, and at the same time, friendship has often been difficult.  As an “army brat”, moving from place to place, I learned early on that friendships can swiftly evolve or end and take lots of work to maintain – especially over geographical distance.  Often, it was easier to just move on.

As a minister, I’ve moved with the same sort of frequent irregularity that is becoming more and more characteristic of young adults across the board.  Consequently, I have sometimes found myself living in a new place, isolated except for the rich tapestry of friendships that exist beyond my physical locale.  But I haven’t always reached for the tapestry.  Hiding behind my “introvert badge”, I’ve instead savored my isolation, even wallowed in it – only to discover somewhere down the road that (go figure!) my spirit was literally starving.

I’m beginning to understand that friendships aren’t “just” friendships.  Friendships (and the work of cultivating them) are a form of spiritual discipline, just like prayer or scripture reading or mindful eating.  When I don’t pray, my spirit suffers.  When I don’t spend time reading the Word, my spirit/mind become impoverished.  When I don’t eat mindfully, my spirit/body become stressed and broken.  And when I don’t practice the art of friendship, my spirit begins to turn in on itself.

As it turns out, I’m not alone in this.  The friends who journey alongside me need this too.  It is part of the human mold, this yearning to be connected in meaningful relationship.  So now, we carve out time.  One small group of soul friends meets every fall, another meets for both business and relationship twice a year, and this trio will meet each spring.  We stay in conversation via social media throughout the year, but we also need this time set apart to laugh and cry and dream “in the flesh”.

While, to a casual observer, there’s nothing about these gatherings that screams “work”, this is holy work all the same.  It is part of our vocation (not just as ministers, but as Christians) to be the best friends we can be…and that requires practice!

Speaking of which, my friends are waiting and it’s time to get back to work…

  • Who are your soul-friends (friends who walk with you on your journey through life)?
  • How can the Church help us to cultivate deeper, life-enriching friendships?
  • What other seemingly-mundane activities could actually be spiritual disciplines?


As if any of us needed to be reminded of how quickly a year can fly by, it is now roughly four and a half days until the beginning of Advent.  And though that realization does initially make me wince a little bit, I’m finding that I am also excited.

Growing up, I always loved the season of Advent:  the colors, the mystery, the swelling sense of expectation.  I loved lighting the candles on the Advent wreath each Sunday, watching the tiny flames wriggle out a dance that seemed to mirror my own anticipation.  Even as a young child, I knew something big was coming – something that went beyond the presents under our tree – and that knowledge was thrilling.

Now I am thirty-two and a minister.  Consequently, I’m one of the folks who plans out the season’s events weeks and months in advance, the one with intimate knowledge of every little detail from the brand of oil inside the Advent candles to the complaints about which carols should be sung when (and by whom).  As ministers, in some ways my colleagues and I are like the Wizard of Oz, directing from behind the curtain with high hopes that the focus of the festivities will never be on us.

This, of course, changes things to a certain extent.  Some of the anticipation is lessened when you know precisely what is going to happen next.  Sometimes that sense of expectation can get watered down and Advent can become more work than wonder.

So this week, in preparation for both the first Sunday of Advent and a Divine Details essay for Fidelia’s Sisters, I am spending some time thinking about where we clergy-folk find the Divine in the details of this season.  What can we do (what do you do?) to keep our eyes open to the holy while we arrange a hundred or so poinsettias in the Sanctuary or edit the bulletin for the eighth time?  How can we have hearts awash with wonder while we manage a calendar stuffed with parties, worship services, potlucks, service projects and festivals?  Friends, when do you feel most full of anticipation during this busy, busy time?

I’ll be reflecting on these questions during the lull of Thanksgiving.  If you come up with anything you’d like to share, please let me know!