What does it mean to be a friend of Jesus?
It seems as though self-love has been a difficult concept to reconcile in the Christian tradition. If we love ourselves is that not a sign of pride and therefore sinful? Or what does it mean to love our neighbor as ourselves? It is a difficult concept to understand, but it is an important concept that builds upon the very foundation of what it means to be human. We also have this concept of friendship. What does it mean to be a friend of Jesus when we it is difficult to foster and nourish friendship in this world? What does it mean when Jesus says I no longer call you servants, but friends? Teresa of Avila and Julian of Norwich offer insight into these problems and help us to see what it means to be a friend of Jesus and how that in turn allows us to love ourselves in a humble and appropriate way. I will begin by explaining the meaning of friendship in Julian and Teresa and then move into a discussion on how this informs self-love.
Each of these women sought to have Jesus as their friend. Julian describes in her revelations on divine love that she desired to be at the foot of the cross with Mary the mother of Jesus and the beloved disciple. To gaze upon the cross as a friend of the dying Christ, to take part in his suffering that she might know more fully the love of God. At first glance, this may seem as if she is asking for a harsh punishment; she seems to be wishing for her own suffering, which is not a part of human nature. In fact, as humans, we tend to avoid situations where suffering may occur because we always seek to survive. Yet, here is Julian asking for illness. It is important to also acknowledge that she also seeks contrition and a desire to know God. What does this mean? I think that for Julian to be a friend of Christ is to not fear suffering and contrition. It calls for us to embrace the Cross, not to fear it. Denys Turner explains that within Julian's writings there are these understanding of being in the in-betweens. Julian received her visions on her deathbed when she was hovering between life and death. Her focus is on the cross, which is the symbol of both death and life because it is on the Cross where Jesus died, yet because of that Cross he rose to new life and Christians in turn will also be raised to new life. Friendship with Christ is not a relationship that takes place simply when we are thankful for our blessings or when we are in the midst of our own suffering. True friendship with Christ is an all or nothing endeavor. He will be there for us no matter our situation, but what Julian shows, and I think this is important, especially in the current Lenten season, is that we cannot be friends to Christ only on Christmas and Easter, but we must be present in the life of Christ as much as possible, even at the lowest point, on the Cross. We must be like his mother and the beloved disciple and stand at the foot of the cross gazing with love.
Teresa of Avila has a similar yet different understanding of friendship with Christ. Whereas Julian's idea of friendship comes from gazing upon the crucified Lord at the foot of the cross, Teresa sees this friendship as a relationship of companionship on the spiritual journey. She writes in the Way of Perfection that we are on a journey and what better friend to help us stay the course that Jesus himself. This friendship with Christ serves as the anchor for our earthly journey. Teresa was speaking specifically to her nuns in the monastery and their contemplative prayer life. It is easy to get caught up in the temptations of life, whether it be pride, anger, gossiping or other forms of cattiness that can take place within relationships between people living in close proximity to one another. Rowan Williams explains that Teresa often in her writings is warning her nuns to be aware of the temptations that arise in the world. Just because they live in a monastery does not mean that they are exempt from the trials of the world. In fact, they are more magnified because all humans share the same condition, and within the walls of the monastery the problems of the world exist in a microcosm. Teresa explains that to stay grounded in the friendship of Christ will help us to be better human beings. To practice contemplative prayer and stay grounded in the friendship of Christ helps us to align our minds, hearts, and wills with God. What better and truer friendship is there than to be of one will with your best friend? This is the goal of contemplative prayer. She makes this explicit in the Interior Castle. The final mansion is the room where God dwells. If we can make our way through the rooms and mansions that surround this inner-most room, then we will enter into God and we will cease to be independent of God. Our wills are transformed and conformed to his will. This seems like a tall task, but we are constantly reminded by Teresa that we are not alone on this journey. We have Christ there with every step of the way and in every room we enter. But what does this have to do with self-love?
The simple answer is that we should love what God loves and God loves us. Yet this is dangerous because we live in a world where we constantly inflate ourselves to a degree that humility is no where to be found or on the opposite side of the spectrum, we find ourselves so unworthy of love that we cannot love ourselves. Neither of these options is how we should love ourselves. We are not called to loathe ourselves and we are not called to exalt ourselves. If we remain with our friend Jesus, we will find this balance of love and humility. We will learn to love ourselves not just for our own sake, but for God's sake. God loves us and when we enter into union with him in contemplative prayer as Teresa explains or as Julian describes, we stand at the foot of the cross and witness the death of our best friend in the ultimate act of love, we are reminded and embraced in the love of God for us. Our reaction should not be to turn away from this love and feel unworthy of it, nor should it be to boast that we are indeed loved by God, but rather, we should return love to God as much as we are able. We should love God and we should love ourselves because this is truly the gift that God has given us: that we are loved and that we can love.
The teachings of Teresa of Avila and Julian of Norwich are important to our understanding of what it means to be a friend of Christ and of what it means to love ourselves and to be loved by God. Both of these writers are still relevant today because they speak to what we as human beings long for: self-acceptance and acceptance by others. We are relational beings. We are in relationship with God, with others, and with ourselves. In order to live to our fullest potential and to be as true to our humanness as possible, we must learn to love in every respect. Teresa and Julian help us to understand firstly, that this is possible, and secondly, how this is possible.