The Virtue of Friendship: Here Now & Not Yet

One of the stars of the Anglican tradition is St. Aelred of Rievaulx. He was a Cisterian abbot, known for his treatise, Spiritual Friendship. This is required reading for every Christian man. In western culture, the idea of intimate yet thoroughly masculine men united as one soul has decayed as sodomy has festered. Christian men need to model the vulnerability and intimacy of the holy men of the Bible and the great saints of the Catholic Church.

St. Aelred explains the meaning of friendship and how it is a virtue. This virtue requires trust and a growth in charity, which consists not in present perfection but between sinners who seek Christ. We begin in the virtue, but we never complete the virtue until heaven. Just as Christian men seek the virtue of charity while embroiled in sinful flesh and constant missteps, likewise friendship is the call to charity with another Christian man amidst each other’s sins and mistakes. This shows not that friendship is impossible but that the life of friendship exists among these sins with Jesus Christ—the model of friendship and the friend of even sinners—who is our reference point and ultimate goal.

What is Friendship?

To explain friendship, St. Aelred takes up Cicero’s work on it, but he is dissatisfied with the philosophy of Cicero, because

Nothing not seasoned with the salt of the sacred Scriptures wholly won my affection.

Spiritual Friendship Prologue:5

For St. Aelred, friendship is a virtue, since it is oriented towards the good, just as any virtue is a habit oriented towards the good. This virtue consists in

Agreement in things human and divine, with good will and charity.

Spiritual Friendship 1:11

Friendship is natural to man, since man is created to be social. Man’s purpose is bound up in other men: fundamentally to love them. Friendship, however, is more particular. While we should will the good to all men, only with some do we have friendship. Yet, since man is bound by his physical powers, and so few men seek virtue, friendship will only be with a few.

The effect of the virtue of friendship is the unity of the men. St. Aelred writes, echoing Cicero, that

Friendship is that virtue, therefore, through which by a covenant of sweetest love our very spirits are united, and from many are made one.

Spiritual Friendship 1:21

St. Aelred himself reflects on the story of David and Jonathan. For example, when David and Jonathan become friends:

the soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul . . . Then Jonathan and David made a covenant, because he loved him as his own soul. And Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that was upon him, and gave it to David, and his apparel, even to his sword, and to his bow, and to his girdle.

1 Samuel 18:1,3-4

The friend loves the friend not for perceived gain or self-advantage, but he seeks friendship for the sake of the virtue of friendship itself, out of love for the friend. If marriage is the two become one flesh, then friendship is the two become one soul. However, while matrimony is a contract which ends at death, St. Aelred views friendship much more highly. St. Aelred constantly reflects throughout Spiritual Friendship on the proverb:

A friend loveth at all times;

Proverbs 17:17

The true, perfect, spiritual friendship never ends, but the union of persons persists unto eternity. This is why friendship must be oriented towards the good and “only be between good men” (On Friendship 5), while the wicked man hates his own soul. To understand this, it is necessary to understand the philosophy of virtue, especially as developed by Aristotle.

The Call to Virtue

To Aristotle, virtue is not simply doing what is right. The man who does the right thing—while his passions rage against him and his appetites for evil pull him to vice—is not virtuous; he is continent. That is not to say the man should not do the right thing. Instead, it means that true virtue involves the whole man: his intellect, will, and passions. As Aristotle writes in his Nicomachean Ethics:

[The merely continent man] has . . . bad appetites . . . is such as to feel pleasure but not to be led by it.

Nicomachean Ethics VII:9

The virtuous man, in contrast, does not have bad appetites and does not feel the pleasure or desire for the vice. St. Paul develops the doctrine of this human reality in his epistle to the Romans. He reflects on the sinfulness of man, that he not only chooses sin but even experiences it within himself. He writes,

For I know that in me, that is, in my flesh, dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me, but to do that which is good is not. For the good which I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I practise. But if what I would not, that I do, it is no more I that do it, but sin which dwelleth in me. I find then the law, that, to me who would do good, evil is present. For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: but I see a different law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity under the law of sin which is in my members.

Romans 7:18-23

St. Paul explains man’s struggle against not only wrong action but also concupiscence (the desire for sin which inheres in fallen man). For concupiscence is itself abhorrent to a perfect God and incompatible with true virtue. Man, then, always strives for perfect charity but never has it, for he always finds his obedience and charity imperfect and tainted. This becomes obvious when one reflects on the hope of the Christian: the Resurrection of the Dead. The just will be resurrected, healed from this concupiscence, for it only hinders man’s happiness and distances him from God.

Therefore, if friendship is a virtue, but virtue requires not only an intellect but also a will and even the passions ordered towards the good, then how could any man on earth have this virtue? Especially since friendship is a subset of charity, and a friend loveth at all times, it seems like man never loves ever, since his actions always involve concupiscence and minor sins which are infinitely-indebting offences against God and afflictions to the friendship. How is man ever to find friendship? This is going to be found in the reality of friendship as charity not yet fulfilled but beginning.

Perfect Friendship: An Eternal Goal

The virtue of friendship develops between the two friends as they both grow together. What unites them as friends is not perfect charity, for (as we saw) no one has perfect charity. Instead, that is the goal in heaven. The charity demanded by spiritual friendship is a charity that is beginning and only fulfilled in heaven, which is its orientation.

This is clarified by St. Aelred’s saying that a friendship which ends “was not true friendship” (Spiritual Friendship 1:21). Now, if that was taken in a sense detached from the philosophy of friendship and virtue, then it would seem that a man could never know (until heaven) that he has any friends. Furthermore, a loss of friendship would not really be a loss but a revelation that it never existed. But the loss of friendship is not just a revelation of a previous fact but a real change and betrayal.

Therefore, St. Aelred is right in the sense that a friendship which ends was not able to reach its fulfilment unto eternity: it could not be fully true and formed. While the beginnings of spiritual friendship (which are rightly named spiritual friendship) certainly existed, the virtue of friendship—in its fullest and most complete sense—was frustrated and stopped.

Friendship Abides amidst Sin

So, if perfect charity does not bind friends, since there can be sin and imperfect virtue between friends on earth, then what binds friends together? St. Aelred locates the defining characteristic of friendship:

[Friends are those] to whom we have no qualm about entrusting our heart and all its contents, while these friends are bound to us in turn by the same inviolable law of loyalty and trustworthiness.

Spiritual Friendship 1:32

The agreement, good will, and charity between friends grow over time as the friendship matures and deepens. What remains, while these grow, is faith in each other. This is the basis and foundation of all friendship. Going beyond mental acknowledgement of the other, friendship begins and grows upon this mutual trust. This is when promises start to be given and intimacy begins to form.

This trust engenders charity, albeit imperfect. It is out of this charity and mutual trust that the friend endures the sinfulness and errors of the other. A friend loves his friend, and he desires that they grow in virtue together. They are both oriented towards Christ together. Therefore, in friendship, there is a bearing of burdens, of each other’s faults and sometimes even setbacks in virtue. What persists amidst all the troubles and sufferings is the mutual trust in each other which generates affection and charity. From this faith flows degrees of charity which, while they always accompany this faith, are imperfect until the Wedding Feast of the Lamb.

Jesus Christ: Friend of Sinners

Jesus Christ, who lovingly chose to befriend us instead of condemn us, is the chief model of friendship. It is supremely meet that Our Lord describes His relationship to us as friendship.

No longer do I call you servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I heard from my Father I have made known unto you.

John 15:15

He says this right before He is betrayed and as they are even imperfectly faithful and obedient (always needing to be instructed away from their error and corrected for their sin by Our Lord). The Christian man’s union with Christ is not maintained by perfect charity. Instead, the Christian man clings to Christ by faith (his trust in His promises) and grows in charity. As the prophet Habakkuk teaches,

the righteous shall live by his faith.

Habakkuk 2:4

This is seen throughout the Scriptures where God declares the ungodly to be godly; the unjust to be just. As the Scriptures teach, the righteous are not always perfect:

For a righteous man falleth seven times, and riseth up again;

Proverbs 24:16

But, at the same time, as we pray in the Dies Irae:

What shall I, frail man, be pleading?
Who for me be interceding,
When the just are mercy needing?

Dies Irae

Even those who are declared just by God, and made sons of God, yet live in a state where they are embroiled in sin, even in their flesh. Yet, instead of receiving the infinite punishment for the debt he incurs every day, the righteousness of Christ, our friend, stands in the way of judgement. As the next stanza goes:

King of Majesty tremendous,
Who dost free salvation send us,
Fount of pity, then befriend us!

Dies Irae

This reality of being sinful yet declared righteous because of Christ, is a persistent experience of the Christian life. It is so persistent that it constantly makes itself into the liturgy. For example, a common prayer given to the laity in mediaeval primers eventually was incorporated into the liturgy of the Ecclesia Anglicana and—through that incorporation—even into the Divine Office of the Roman Church:

O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, we pray thee to set thy Passion, Cross, and death between thy judgement and our souls, now and in the hour of our death.

St. Bernard rightly explained this excellent state of the Christian:

For what could man, the slave of sin, fast bound by the devil, do of him self to recover that righteousness which he had formerly lost? Therefore he who lacked righteousness had another’s imputed to him . . . For if one, says S. Paul, died for all, then were all dead, so that, as One bore the sins of all, the satisfaction of One is imputed to all.

Letter XCX VI:15

It is important to have a proper understanding of one’s sin, for it is great. Every rejection and disobedience against the infinitely-holy God incurs an infinite penalty which man cannot pay, yet he constantly incurs it. However, the Gospel is found in the Sacrifice of Christ who stands between wrath and the sinner and says to the Christian:

Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven,
Whose sin is covered.
Blessed is the man unto whom Yahweh imputeth not iniquity,
And in whose spirit there is no guile.

Psalm 32:1-2

Jesus Christ, friend of sinners, gives the virtuous model to all friends. Amidst setbacks and difficulties, friends are oriented towards agreement in things human and divine, with good will and charity. However, this begins in their mutual trust and grows in perfection over time, consummating in Jesus Christ Himself. The good friend is the one who seeks the Lord honestly and lives a life of penitence for his sins. But woe to him who abandons friendship by treachery and disloyalty: through backstabbing, backbiting, and revelation of secrets.


Friends remain friends, for just as Christ remains united to us by faith, amidst our sins and concupiscence, friends remain united to each other in mutual trust as they seek charity and even fall. It is by means of the sufferings and joys of friendship that men grow in virtue together. Man was not meant to simply pursue his pleasures or to work (even for the good) as an individual. Instead, man is made for the other. Therefore, to be a good man, to be virtuously masculine, to be Christ to others around you, you must be an intimate, vulnerable, and faithful friend.


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