Three 20-something women trying to figure out what it means to be lay, Catholic, and modern all at once.

July 20, 2010

Male Friendship

Last weekend I had a fascinating discussion about male friendship, spurred by this article describing the modern misconception of the relationship between Cardinal Newman and his dear friend Fr. Ambrose St. John:
[Newman] was not afraid to be very close indeed to a few people. "The best preparation for loving the world at large, and loving it duly and wisely," he wrote in a letter, "is to cultivate an intimate friendship and affection for those who are immediately about." Hence his deep friendships with those "immediately about" him: John Bowden as a student, Richard Hurrell Froude and Frederic Rogers while a don at Oxford, and Ambrose St John as a Catholic priest.

St John had been in Oxford with Newman; they became Catholics together, and were ordained priests in Rome at the same time. When Newman founded the Oratory in 1848, St John was one of the first members. Being 15 years Newman's junior, when he died suddenly aged 60, Newman was devastated. "I have ever thought no bereavement was equal to that of a husband's or a wife's," he wrote, "but I feel it difficult to believe that any can be greater, or any one's sorrow greater, than mine." Some 15 centuries earlier, St Augustine in his Confessions wrote in the same way about the death not of his mistress, but of his best friend. "My eyes sought him everywhere, but they did not see him; and I hated all places because he was not in them, because they could not say to me, 'Look, he is coming,' as they did when he was alive and absent."

The article concludes with a eye towards the failing of modern culture with regards to understanding male friendship:
Do we – can we – today applaud such friendship? Do we – can we – make room, now, for such "evidences of sweet brotherly love"? Men and women often have intense friendships with members of their own sex, friendships that have no sexual component; yet we are losing the vocabulary to speak about them, or we are embarrassed to do so.
(If you have a strong constitution, you need only look at the comments to discover the veracity of his complaint.)

A favorite professor, Anthony Esolen, has written extensively on this topic. His most developed expression is found in Touchstone Magazine, and is available to read online. Here's a snippet. Do read it all, and let us know your thoughts, friends!
Shakespeare, or his narrative persona, expressed in his sonnets a passionate love for an unnamed and not too loyal young man, so Shakespeare must have been homosexual—despite the absence of evidence, and despite his persona’s explicit statement in sonnet 20 that the young man’s sexual accoutrements are of no interest (or use) to him whatever.

The bachelor Abe Lincoln long shared a bed with his closest friend, Joshua Speed, and later wrote letters expressing, with what seems a touch of self-deprecating irony, his fear that he would be lonely once Speed had taken a wife. Lincoln therefore must be homosexual. No matter that men (and women too) commonly shared beds, and also commonly spoke of their friendship in strong, earthy language that now embarrasses. The poet Edmund Spenser, celebrator of his own wedding in one of the most brilliant poems in English, used to share a bed with his friend and fellow scholar at Cambridge, Gabriel Harvey. There you go.

“Your love to me was finer than the love of women,” laments David in a public song, when he learns of the death of his friend Jonathan. We know why. The godlike hero Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu walk hand in hand into the dark forest of Humbaba. No wonder then that at Enkidu’s death Gilgamesh will weep inconsolably, letting his hair grow long, flinging away his royal robes, and leaving the city to wander in the wilderness.


Angela Miceli said...

Thought provoking...thanks for posting!! I'll need to let this one marinate!

AMiA in Seattle said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jennifer said...

Are you aware of a new book that is out on strong friendship between men and women (friendship, not romance). Its similar to what you're talking about and I think you'd find it really interesting...
"Sacred Unions Sacred Passions"

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