The Power of Spiritual Friendships: Thoughts and Images

 Dear Reader,

         For December, I’m turning my attention to the traditional readings of the Christmas story. These stories have inspired many artists, and I am including a sampling of images that invite us to imagine the story in new ways.

At a retreat years ago, I was shown how each story can be a rich source for spiritual psychology. Last week I began the process by considering the story of the angel Gabriel visiting Mary (Luke 1: 26-38).  I suggested the “soul meaning” of the story is that the divine can be born within each one of us, and quoted Thomas Merton who described it as a “pure point” of brilliant light. 

            Now let’s pick up Mary’s story after Gabriel departs (Luke 1: 39-56).

            Gabriel had told Mary her cousin Elizabeth was six months pregnant, despite being past the normal age of childbearing. This was a sign that surprising events were unfolding in other lives as well as Mary’s.  Mary travels from Nazareth to Elizabeth’s house in the Judean hill country. Here’s how the Italian sculptor Luca dell Robbia imagined their initial encounter:

Here’s a close-up:

            As Mary enters, the child within Elizabeth “leaps” in her womb.  The Spirit reveals to Elizabeth that Mary’s child is a unique gift from God, and Elizabeth declares how honored she is to have Mary visit. Mary responds with her own declaration of what it means: “My soul magnifies the Lord…”  The story reads like the script to a play or a musical, and is intended to convey truth and joy.

            If you’re Catholic, the words the women exchange (for example, “…blessed is the fruit of thy womb…”) may be familiar from prayers you were taught when you were young. For many others, the story may be unfamiliar.

            But if we look for the “soul meaning” of the story, here’s what I see.  Two people have an unexpected personal spiritual experience.  They carry within them a new spark of life that’s both a mystery and a wonder.  Who can they tell?  Who can they trust? Not everyone will understand. The scene is about finding a soul mate, a spiritual friend.  They form a bond that transcends their age difference. 

A spiritual friendship is similar to other types of meaningful relationships in many ways. What makes it unique is that, at its core, it’s about nurturing a life force that reaches beyond the private lives of just two people. Mary and Elizabeth are giving birth to children (Jesus and John the Baptist) who will have a profound effect on the life of others. Each person benefits from the friendship, but the positive effect of their relationship goes beyond just the two of them.

            Here’s a close-up of Rembrandt’s version of the scene:

Elizabeth is looking up, perhaps describing the inspiration she’s having.  Mary listens affectionately to her older cousin.

            The scene has been envisioned through different cultural lenses. Here’s one by a Vietnamese folk artist:

            This is how the contemporary American feminist artist Janet McKenzie portrays the scene; the women’s attention is turned inward:

            However we imagine it visually, the story of Elizabeth meeting Mary affirms the bond we feel when we find a friend with whom we can share the experiences of our spiritual life. 

            I’ve known many young women who have come to church and ended up forming bonds with older women who’ve become treasured mentors. 

            I’ve found my own mentors in older men in my congregations, and am greatful for the wisdom they’ve passed on.

            I’ve seen many groups in which people form bonds that go beyond gender and age.        

I remember well the first intergenerational spiritual group in which I participated. We were newly married with our first child on the way. I had never been in a spiritual study group before and was apprehensive when I first walked in. There were maybe 15 people of varied ages, gender, and backgrounds. Each week we’d simply read a passage and reflect on what it might mean in our lives; everyone took a turn, and everyone listened respectfully.  At the close, people offered simple prayers for each other.  I particularly remember the oldest member of the group, a widow named Edith, who humbly shared lessons she’d learned in her life. It was exciting. The insights were powerful. The bonds we formed continued long after we moved away.

            All spiritual traditions emphasize the importance of community: a sangha in Buddhism, an ummah in Islam, a shul in Judaism.  The power of the recovery movement lies not only in the 12 Steps themselves, but also in the regular meetings.  Many people I know who’ve suffered the loss of loved ones have described hospice support groups as “lifesaving.” Such groups and friendships can get us through the hardest of times.

            Let’s close with a famous work by the Italian Renaissance artist Pontormo.  I was able to see it in person at the Getty in 2018 after being fascinated by it for many years.  I don’t pretend to understand all the artistic subtleties.  Here’s the full painting:

…and here’s a close-up:

The two women are looking deeply into each other’s eyes.  You sense a spiritual bond, a deep knowing and appreciation.  And there’s that mysterious central figure who is looking right at us.  What does she want us to know? What is she inviting us to be part of?

            In this gift-giving holiday season, let’s be grateful for the gift of our “soul friends” with whom we share our joys and sorrows, our burdens and our hopes.

4 Comments

  1. livelier13 says:

    Steve Love it. Smooth opening!

    Kristen Jacobsen Leadership & Change Mobile 831-818-6573

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    Like

  2. Cragg Gilbert says:

    You keep knocking it out of the park. Thank you.

    Like

  3. Cresanna says:

    Thank you, Steve. Because this and last’s holiday season is very different, I find I am noticing and benefiting from these soul mate connections. Hope you have a blessed celebration. Cresanna

    Like

    1. Thank you for the note, Cresanna. I’m grateful you find them useful. Holiday blessings! Steve

      Like

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