Taking A Vow Of Friendship

Wesley Hill laments that “intimate, vowed forms of Christian friendship” have been consigned to “the rubbish heap of history” – that friendship lacks the permanence and formal commitment of marriage::

In the ancient East up until today, a rite exists—adelphopoiesis, “brother-making”—in which friends make promises to each other and solidify their commitment by sharing in the Eucharist. (Although it was primarily men who exchanged these vows, the rite was open to women as well.) In the West, 12th-century English writer Aelred of Rievaulx upheld a similar ideal. Speaking primarily of friendships between monks, Aelred writes that we call such people friends “to whom we have no qualm about entrusting our heart and all its contents.” But he goes further: “See how far love between friends should extend; namely, that they be willing to die for one another,” unmistakably echoing Jesus. Dying for one’s friends is the apex of love.

We might want to write off Aelred’s vision of “spiritual friendship” as pious idealism. But his model of devoted friendship bore noticeable fruit. In the centuries following his death, pairs of Christian friends were buried together to signal their love. Looking forward to the bodily resurrection of the dead, the shared tombs ensured for each friend that “the first figure his awakened eyes will see will be [the other friend],” notes historian Alan Bray. With that belief, 19th-century Catholic John Henry Newman was buried next to fellow cleric Ambrose St. John. After St. John’s death, Newman lamented, “I have ever thought no bereavement was equal to that of a husband’s or a wife’s, but I feel it difficult to believe that any can be greater, or any one’s sorrow greater, than mine.”

Matthew Lee Anderson hesitates at this, suggesting that friendship, as a form of love, is distinctive in transcending obligation and duty:

[I]t’s possible to think that friendships do not have or need vows because they are a lesser form of union, and that the lack of public recognition is tied to their weakness. It is also possible, though, that explicit vows and promises create obligations, and that friendship moves us into a realm beyond these. The high point of the Gospels, in my opinion, is the moment when Jesus tells his disciples that they are no longer disciples, but that they are now friends. I’m not prepared to speak of the obligations on God which exist because of the covenant established with man in creation: but it is clear that even if there were obligations, they could not possibly include that. Nor does it seem right to me that such a moment could generate obligations the ways that vows unquestionably do: what duty could bind Jesus’ friendship with us? What obligation might provide the shape to the unmerited gift of his grace? To be friends with God is to participate in a form of charity which is not incompatible with vows per se—lest we deny marriages any form of participation in it as well—but the vow-less, obligation-free character of friendship illuminates the unrestrained nature of charity in a way that a life mediated by vows and promises might not.