Discernment: Spiritual Friendships

I’m working through Henry Nouwen’s book called Discernment: Reading the Signs of Daily Life. Chapter 5 has a section entitled “Living Sign Posts: People Who Help Point to God.” Nouwen writes about people who have a significant impact on a person’s faith journey. 

As an example, he points to the personal spiritual journey of Thomas Merton. Several people played an important role in Merton’s spiritual life. One was Daniel Walsh. Walsh was a guest lecturer at Columbia University. He was responsible for introducing Thomas Merton to the writings of Thomas Aquinas as well as Duns Scotus. These were two of the great theologians-philosophers of the late Middle Ages. It was Walsh who recommended that Merton take a retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Genesee, NY. Later Walsh spoke to Merton about joining the Trappists.

These types of spiritual friendships also played a role in Henry Nouwen’s life. At one point in his life, Nouwen considered leaving his teaching position at Harvard. His close friends helped him sift through this difficult decision. They forced Nouwen to ask difficult questions. “Would I be following or betraying my vocation by leaving?” “How much good can I continue to do in the place where I am now?” “Do the people around me truly need me or are they simply using me?” “What good is it to preach the Gospel to others if I end up losing my soul in the process?”

These are not only questions for spiritual authors and mystics. At some point, we all wrestle with similar questions. This is where spiritual companions are key. They help us discern critical times of personal confusion and exploration. They can affirm. They also encourage you to ask – and answer – tough questions. Good spiritual friends become living signposts. They point you to the truth and ultimately to God. 

Spiritual friendships can be challenging. Nouwen writes that they can become unhealthy. This is especially the case when you expect from a friend what only Christ can give. True spiritual friendships require a constant willingness to ask Christ to be the true center of the relationship. Christ needs to mediate the friendship. Otherwise, the relationship can easily become demanding, manipulative, and oppressive. A true spiritual friendship requires closeness, affection, support, and mutual encouragement. It also requires distance, space to grow, freedom, and solitude.

Relationships in general, and friendships in particular, can be fruitful. But like all relationships, they need work and discernment. Friends need to attend to both the spiritual and the human dimensions. Discernment points to this combination of healthy human dynamics and solid Christ-centered spiritual foundations.

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