Spiritual Friendship as Spiritual Formation: Part IV
Welcome to Part IV of a series of blogs from a paper I wrote on how St. Aelred’s work on spiritual friendship can be a way we grow in God. If you’re just tuning in, you’ll definitely want to check out Part I, Part II, and Part III to catch up. This post will make a lot more sense if you do!
This post covers the 2nd stage of friendship in St. Aelred’s “Threefold Kiss” metaphor. Now, a quick reminder: Aelred’s language of “kisses” to describe these levels and degrees of friendship might seem a little bit odd to us. When it comes to kisses, our minds immediately think of romantic or familial relationships—and definitely not our friendships (usually). But for Aelred in his 10th century context, giving a friend a quick kiss was a very normal thing to do, as it still is in most Eastern cultures.
But what’s most notable of Aelred’s use of the word “kiss” is not to describe a particular action between friends, but the level of intimacy between friends. These three types of kisses, then, are simply three stages of intimacy. So this second kiss—the spiritual kiss—takes place essentially when two friends’ spirits hang out with each other (or “intermingle,” as Aelred would say). Through prayer and worship, these two friends interact at a spiritual level that recognizes “Christ in their midst,” and even become aware of his very presence between them. It’s pretty sweet. Check out more by reading below!
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The Spiritual Kiss: Via Illuminativa
The Via Illuminativa, or the way of illumination, is when a soul begins to awake and see God in all things.One such means to illumination is fellowship: discerning God’s purifying light in another.This is the essence of spiritual friendship.
Aelred describes the spiritual kiss as “the kiss of friends who are bound by one law of friendship; for it is not made by contact of the mouth but by the affection of the heart; not by a meeting of lips but by a mingling of spirits, by the purification of all things in the Spirit of God, and, through his own participation, it emits a celestial savor.”Aelred describes this stage as the truest form of friendship. It is purifying, selfless, and only experienced by those pursuing the good. It is here where friendship is perfected.
Beyond the purification ramifications of spiritual friendship, it is also in this stage when one receives “the kiss of Christ.” This kiss is a sweet affection that no doubt is from Christ, but rather than coming directly from himself, the kiss comes indirectly “from the mouth of another.”Friendship becomes that stage bordering on the perfection of love and knowledge of God when the two friends begin to undergo mystical experiences of Christ gathered in their midst. One example Aelred provides of the spiritual kiss is when two friends pray for one another. By going before the Lord together, directing their prayers on behalf of the other, their love intermingles in such a way that they come “into close contact with the sweetness of Christ himself,” and begin “to taste [Christ’s] sweetness and to experience his charm.”They are now aware of Christ’s presence in their midst.
A concluding thought of spiritual friendship’s illuminative nature is when Aelred states:
“By these beginnings, with a growth in piety and in constant zeal for things of the spirit, with the growing seriousness of mature years and the illumination of the spiritual senses, they may, with purer affections, mount to loftier heights from, as it were, a region close by… friendship of man could be easily translated into a friendship for God himself because of the similarity existing between both.”