During our walk recently across Port Meadow, Oxford, my friend expressed uncertainty about the practice of confessing one’s sins to one’s friends. That was, I think, a kind of confession in itself. I was glad to hear it. A good definition of a friend, it seems to me, is he to whom one can confess freely, to whom one can unburden oneself, and with whom one can live.
Saint James puts it this way:
Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another.
Confess your sins to friends. Our friends, I think, stand in for Christ in being the locus of our redemption by love that is instantly discerned, refracted, and exchanged. To have a friend is, in a sense, to lose one’s life and find it.
The Thought Crucified
It was the philosopher Arthur Oncken Lovejoy, I believe, who wrote that the purpose of a thought articulated—or confessed—is to prevent the thinker’s death. One might add, it is to give him or her newness of life; to allow the self as it is perceived (the thought) to be crucified. Speaking for myself: my prayer has often been to that effect: O Lord, take me away, by which I mean, take away my thoughts, my thinking self, that my heart might rest. How is that to be accomplished? And to what end?
In the friends we have, we are given the chance of emptying ourselves and being glorified, above all else, in the rediscovery that we can engage in love with the whole world. This is because our Lord Jesus Christ inheres in all, through all. Our Lord Jesus Christ has called us, further, “not as servants, but as friends” (John 15).
Jeremy Taylor, the seventeenth century Anglican divine, states:
By “friendships” I suppose you mean, the greatest love and the greatest usefulness, and the most open communication, and the noblest sufferings, and the most exemplar faithfulness, and the severest truth, and the heartiest counsel, and the greatest union of minds, of which brave men and women are capable. But then I must tell you that Christianity hath now christened it, and calls this “charity” [or love]…
….[and] Christian charity is friendship to all to the world.
[It is] like rivers, and the strands of the seas, and the aim, common to the all the world; but tyrants, and evil customs, wars, and want of love, make them proper and peculiar. But when Christianity came to renew our nature […] then it was declared that our friendships were to be as universal as our conversation; that is, actual to all with whom we converse, and potentially extended unto those with whom we do not. For he who was to treat his enemies with forgiveness and prayers and love and beneficence, was indeed to have no enemies, and to have all friends.
We should befriend the whole world.
Think about the delight that comes when one bumps into a friend in the street or some unexpected place. Those moments lift us, I think, into a higher stage of consciousness; we are taken out of ourselves, in a sense. Ask what the world would be like if we had that feeling of being lifted up with whomever we encounter day-to-day: the person at the bus-stop, behind the shop-counter, sitting on the street. We should recognize that they too give us the opportunity to participate in the love of God wherein we are caught up, easily, with our nearest and dearest.
When Friendship Suffered
We should recognize, too, that friendship can go wrong. It can be “proper and peculiar,” or a means of hiding from the world. It can be bottom-line selfish as we focus on those with whom we identify on a worldly level, rather than an expression of true, godly friendship which must by definition be a springboard from which to grow in love and to embrace the world, as is our calling.
Jeremy Taylor wrote soon after the bloody English civil wars. Friendship suffered in those years. This is my confession to you: I am angry that we have not pursued sustained reflection on Christian friendship in the wake of national lockdowns during which true friendship in the flesh was likewise denied.
Because there was an opportunity, which is still presented to us, always: to stop, think about what friendship really means, and frame it, not in terms of a survival mechanism alone, or as a way to hide from the loneliness, the God-shaped hole that cuts to our core. Friendship is, in fact, a gift that we can offer to the whole world. It should be, to quote Dietrich Bonhoeffer, that we affirm that the opportunity to confess to friends constitutes “the ‘roses and the lilies’ of the Christian life”: the way to grow in grace.
Lockdowns are gone. Thank God. Still we should look up, into the faces of our friends, and confess. Be grateful for it.
Or at least, that is what I should have said to my friend.