Spiritual Friendship as Spiritual Formation: Part V
We at last conclude our journey through an analysis of St. Aelred’s words on spiritual friendship can be a very powerful means to formation into God’s image.
In Part I, we were introduced to one of the leading voices in medieval spiritual friendship: St. Aelred of Rievaulx. One of the ways he describes the degrees of intimacy of spiritual friendship is through his Threefold Kiss metaphor (The Carnal Kiss, the Spiritual Kiss, and the Intellectual Kiss). Furher, part I introduced how the three levels of spiritual friendship with the ancient monastics’ Threefold Way of spiritual formation: the way of purgation (via purgativa), the way of illumination (via illuminativa), and the way of union (via unitiva).
Before diving into the Threefold Kiss, Part II lays the foundation with Aelred’s words that the sweetness of spiritual friendship can only happen when the love of God is front and center in one’s life. We can only know what true friendship looks like through the friendship of Jesus Christ.
Part III looks into the first stage of spiritual friendship (the Carnal Kiss) and how it is a means of purging one of sins to embrace a life of virtue. Aelred heavily emphasizes the need to choose carefully whom to befriend, as they will either raise us up in virtue or drag us down us into vice. In other words: Don’t befriend jerks.
Part IV talks about how our spirits hang out with one another when we hang out with one another (the Spiritual Kiss). When we pursue the common divine virtue of Jesus Christ through practices like prayer, worship, and service, our spirits “intermingle” with each other, creating a deeper bond to which earthly friendships cannot compare. In fact, these spirits may even brush up against Christ’s spirit as he is “gathered in their midst.”
And now, we arrive to Part V: the Intellectual Kiss. The word “intellectual” doesn’t mean “smart,” “logical,” or “brainy,” as we normally interpret the word. In Aelred’s day, the “intellect” revolved around the mind, this part of us that is capable of knowing God and being with him. Aelred’s argument here, then, is after we are with Christlike friends where we experience God indirectly through our friendship, we eventually reach the point where we want to be with God directly.
And so we arrive full circle: Our love for God enables us to choose friendships that binds our spirits together in a greater, fuller pursuit of Christ himself, resulting in a transformed person.
Enjoy reading this final section of my paper below!
• • •
The Intellectual Kiss: Via Unitiva
The final stage of the threefold way is the Via Unitiva, orthe way of union. After the purging of all distractions and hindrances with a new tuning towards God in all things, the soul can be entirely united with God’s.Union takes place when the soul finds satisfaction in simply being with God, lounging with him just as one would with a friend.
After experiencing the kiss of Christ indirectly through a friend, Aelred says eventually the soul will yearn for the intellectual kiss, to be embraced by God himself: “So that now, after all earthly affections have been tempered, and all thoughts and desires which savor of the world have been quieted, the soul takes delight in the kiss of Christ alone and rests in his embrace, exulting and exclaiming: ‘His left hand is under my head and his right hand shall embrace me.”
Many ancient voices in spiritual formation traditions hold that union with God is the ultimate destination for the spiritual life. For Evagrius of Pontus, it was to achieve “knowledge of God,” or for St. Teresa of Avila, it was to arrive at the seventh dwelling place of the soul’s Interior Castle. Yet Aelred uniquely portrays union with God through the intimacy of friendship. In his commentary on 1 John 4:16, Aelred makes his most startling remark of spiritual friendship: If God is love, and love is foundational to friendship, then “God is friendship.”He believed the relationship between God and humanity could best be understood as “friendship-love,” an infinitely intimate and self-sacrificial love that lays his life down for his friends.The intellectual kiss is “infused with grace,” because the God of the universe who befriends humankind in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ is a sheer act of grace.By experiencing the sweetness and charm of spiritual friends, one has climbed “the ladder of charity” to experience the fullest friendship known to man: embracing Christ himself in union, bringing about the perfection of the soul.
St. Aelred’s work on spiritual friendship shows that one of the most fundamental human relationships can be a viable means to personal spiritual formation. By loving God, one can exercise good judgment to select virtuous friends that purge him or her of sin and can practice self-sacrificial love. Such friendships’ spirits will begin to intermingle, illuminating Christ’s presence through the love of his or her friend. Finally, one’s spiritual friendship experiences ushers him or her to experience the union of God’s friendship, an intimacy unmatched by anything else the world has to offer. The result is a soul transformed into the image of the God who laid his life down for his friends.