One of the disciplines of Lent is the idea of “reading and meditat[ing] upon God’s Holy Word.” It is to that end that we have embarked upon a brief look at parts of the wonderful narrative of the story of David. It belongs to the further idea of “self-examination and repentance” that is part of the spiritual discipline of Lent as it is in other religious traditions as well. In one sense, the chapel readings in this last week before the March break speak to an ancient question raised by Plotinus. “But we … who are we?” Or to put it in another way, where are our hearts?
In the story of David, we see the heart of David which God sees. But that connects to what we see in one another’s hearts as well as to the project of self-knowing, knowing even as we are known. Thus, in the great narrative arc of David’s story, there is the powerful story of the friendship between Jonathan and David. This places the David narrative within the larger spiritual and intellectual traditions of reflection about the power and nature of friendship and to the idea of our friendship with the Good.
It looks back to the Epic of Gilgamesh, to the friendship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Enkidu is created to be Gilgamesh’s second self such that Gilgamesh learns to see others not as things to be abused and exploited but as persons to be respected and honoured. The death of Enkidu awakens Gilgamesh to wisdom and to a deeper form of self-awareness. It sets him on the quest for wisdom. Homer’s Iliad presents us with the profound friendship between Patroclus and Achilleus. Aristotle will write in the Nicomachean Ethics about the power of friendship. Later, Cicero will write an important treatise, de Amicitia, Of Friendship, offering the idea that “friendship is nothing else than an accord in all things, human and divine, conjoined with mutual goodwill and affection”. In the early 12th century, Aelred of Rievaulx in northern England wrote his famous de Spirituali Amicitia, On Spiritual Friendship, translating the more familiar phrase “God is love” as “God is friendship”. Friendship is a gift of God. The friend is “the companion of your soul, to whom you can entrust yourself as to another self,” an echo of the Epic of Gilgamesh. A true friend, he says “sees nothing in his/her friend but their heart”, echoing explicitly the story of Jonathan and David.
“We go up to Jerusalem,” Jesus says. The spiritual journey is the pilgrimage of friends who seek God and seek the good for one another. The story of the friendship between Jonathan and David is set in the context of division and hatred, especially on the part of Saul, Jonathan’s father, who is envious and fearful about David. Friendship perseveres and increases in the face of struggles and difficulties. Even more, friendship is committed to the good of the other. It is not about using one another as means for our own ends which, as George Bernard Shaw notes, is really “to deny that person’s right to live.”
We go up to Jerusalem in the journey of the understanding so that we may know even as we are known in the friendship of God and man. The desire to see and know is complemented by love and service, care and compassion.
The lovely prayer of Richard, Bishop of Chichester (13th c.), captures the idea of the gift of friendship that belongs to the spiritual journey of our lives. “O most merciful redeemer, friend and brother, may I know thee more clearly, love thee more dearly and follow thee more nearly, day by day.” It has been reworked into a popular hymn, “Day by Day, Dear Lord, three things I pray, to see thee more clearly, love thee more dearly, and follow thee more nearly, day by day.”
In our divided world, the strong ethical teaching about friendship recalls us to the deeper truths of our common humanity; in short, to who we are in the sight of God. To know even as we are known and to love even as we are loved happens not in our aloneness and separation but in our lives with one another. Such is the great gift of friendship. The heart which God sees are our hearts with one another in the love of the good.
(Rev’d) David Curry
Chaplain, English & ToK Teacher
Chair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy