A note from Jamie Howison: What follows here is the text of a reflection I offered at the University of King’s College on January 23/13, as part of the King’s chapel “Evenspeak” series. The King’s College chaplain, Fr. Gary Thorne, invited me to reflect on the topic, “What I have learned from my friends along the way”; a fitting topic, in that it was really Gary who originally alerted me to the theological and spiritual significance of friendship.
Iam convinced that part of what the season of Lent calls us to consider is our contingency; the fact that we are not self-made, free-standing, independent creatures who construct our own lives. As a wilderness season, Lent invites us to be honest about our fragility, our weaknesses, and our sin. The desert space of the season reminds me that not only did I not construct my own life, but also that I cannot walk this path in isolation from others; to believe that I could is to kneel before the idol of a very destructive individualism. And so last year as part of my Lenten discipline I wrote a series of letters to some of the people who had been part of shaping my life and my faith.
Two letters went to former high school teachers, two to theological mentors, two to priestly mentors, and three to friends. I received word back from all of the people to whom I’d written—some wrote letters, some sent emails, and a few spoke to me in person. The responses from the former teachers and mentors tended to express both surprise and delight—“nice to know my years teaching high school had an impact” one person wrote—but the responses from the three friends were closer to shock. It was as if they had never really considered the degree to which our friendships shape us.
One of those friends is Larry Campbell. I tell you his name, because names are important. Rather than generically referring to “my friend,” I’ll speak about Larry. But his last name is also important, and in this story so is mine. I’m a Howison, a name that comes from “Hugh’s son.” Hugh MacDonald’s son, and if you know anything of Scottish clan history, you might know of the hostility that has existed between Campbells and MacDonalds. If this isn’t familiar to you, I’d just say that it is not unlike the deep hostility between the Hatfields and McCoys in the American south.
So deep is the hostility that my father had an aunt who wouldn’t even buy Campbell’s soup. Some years ago when Larry was traveling with his family in Scotland they ended up in the Valley of Glencoe; very much MacDonald country, and the setting of the infamous Glencoe Massacre. He entered the local inn, looking for the pub, and discovered a brass plaque affixed to the wall that read “No Dogs, No Campbells.” Memories are long in the Highlands.
The two of us like to tell such stories to other friends, and because there’s not so much as an ounce of hostility between us the stories always make people laugh. And yet I’m often aware that it is not just the fact that both of us grew up in Canada, far from those clannish memories, that makes our laughter possible. It is because our primary identity is as friends in Christ, in whom “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3.28) Members of one body, and sharing a bond of friendship. And I don’t use the word “friendship” lightly.
Larry and I have been friends for close to twenty-five years. At some fairly early point in our friendship, he told me that a friend is someone you can call in the middle of the night from Kenora—a town some two hours east of Winnipeg—ask for a ride, and without looking for a reason or explanation, that person will get out of bed and come and get you. At the point that Larry offered that definition, he had just been a couple of years out of his former job as the bass player in a country band; a context in which getting marooned in Kenora in the middle of the night might not have been an entirely unlikely event…
His point, though, was made. And even if being marooned in Kenora in the middle of the night was all part of some serious misadventure, in friendship you don’t say “you made your bed; now lie in it.” In fact, you don’t look for an accounting of things at all; not in that initial reaching out for help. You just go. But what Larry didn’t add to his definition is the picture of what might happen on that long two-hour drive home.
In his writings on spiritual friendship, Aelred of Rievaulx writes that “nothing ought to be denied to a friend, nothing ought to be refused for a friend, which is less than the very precious life of the body, which divine authority has taught should be laid down for a friend.” Off to Kenora I go. But then Aelred adds, “since the life of the soul is of far greater excellence than that of the body, any action, we believe, should be altogether denied a friend which brings about the death of the soul, that is, sin, which separated God from the soul and the soul from life.” (2:69) Ah… You see, maybe on the drive home there is a conversation that needs to happen.
In 1995, after close to eleven years, my first marriage finally collapsed in on itself. It was years in the undoing, and the people closest to us were not all that surprised by its demise. All the same, for me it was a grief-filled and deeply dis-locating time. A friend of a friend had a spare bedroom in his little house, and he invited me to move in; in itself a gracious gift. But the real gift was that Larry and his family lived across the back lane and down just a few houses, while right across the front street was the home of another very close friend. I lived in that spare bedroom for the better part of a year; the toughest and saddest year of my life so far. It was too easy to “go underground;” to wallow in a very dangerous cocktail of self-pity and shame, and to drink too much. It was too easy to make self-destructive decisions, too easy to become bitter, too easy to fragment. It is to such that Aelred points when he writes of the “death of the soul,” and of sin; not in thinly moralistic terms but as that which divides “God from the soul and the soul from life.”
Yet there were these two friends—Larry Campbell across the back lane, Steve Bell across the front street—and they wouldn’t let me get away with it. Over that year we consumed buckets of coffee and more than a few pints of beer, talking late into those dark nights. And by no means were these uncritical discussions in which they vilified my former wife or simply patted me on the head. We all knew that I had been an equal partner in the collapse of that marriage, and that I had made this bed that I was lying in. They just weren’t prepared to let me be there all alone, and they certainly weren’t interested in seeing me self-destruct.
The language we used was that of accountability; we each gave permission to the others to hold each other accountable to the claims placed upon us by the faith we shared. Any sign of what Aelred would call “the death of the soul, that is, sin, which separated God from the soul and the soul from life” would be named. Not that it looked anything like a therapy group, mind you. Most of the time it was just in being together—in going for late night coffee at the 24-hour diner—that such support and accountability was expressed. Whether talking about music, faith, books, movies, or whatever, the shared bond reminded me of who I really was. And on those relatively rare instances when we intentionally waded into the waters of my own sorrow and dis-location, I knew I could trust these two friends with my wounds.
A few years later, when I had managed to grow through the fear, the self-pity and the shame, and had allowed myself to risk loving again, it was Steve and Larry who stood up with me at my wedding to Catherine.
“What I have learned from my friends along the way?”—that’s the question I was given for framing this reflection. My quick response is “much,” but that probably doesn’t quite do the question justice. Maybe what I’ve really learned from my friends is friendship—given and received—and just how critical friendship can be as a shield against the death of the soul.