OF COURSE WE’RE PUZZLED to observe how many conversations begin with comments about the weather. Everybody can see it’s snowing or raining or feel the heat and humidity. What’s actually happening, of course, is the establishing of a commonality – putting ourselves in a shared space. You make a joke in reply, or a factual statement, and edge into conversation, however superficial or deep, gossipy or plaintive.
No matter how introverted or reclusive an individual is, being human requires social interaction. From birth, we require more nurture and protection than other animals do before we are able to move about on our own, much less survive. We learn from each other, and we are highly vulnerable, despite all our acquired knowledge. We are creatures of culture, not inherited instinct. We make bargains and trade. We court and seduce with words as much as our dance steps or glances.
While experiential religion demands individual practice and awareness, few of us undergo its labors and trials all alone. We find mentors and companions along the way, people who have also encountered and value these matters. Even a secluded monk has an abbot or guru; a nun, her mother superior. Confession is part of the practice. What we find of value we feel compelled to pass along.
Our affinity with these spiritual companions has its own intimacy. These friends hold a mirror to ourselves, to point to our shortcomings and prod us to reach for ever greater fidelity to our purpose. They provide harmony and, when we fail, counter self-loathing and blame with compassion and comfort. Ideally, this exists between husband and wife. Sometimes it is found between prayer partners – two people who agree to hold each other in prayer through the week. Much of the life in the monastic confines of the ashram endeavored on this plain, though the bonds broke down quickly outside of it. Whether one-on-one or within the circle of a community of faith, this companionship has the added dimension of spiritual presence and encounter. Sometimes it spans denominations, when the “invisible church” opens in conversation with another or in venturing into a small group along the way, as I have with Mennonites and Brethren. Sometimes it appears in the context of romantic relationship, in the quest for mutual aspirations.
As much as I’d like to say spiritual companionship is forever, the reality often proves otherwise. I’ve seen those who have maintained this through a lifetime, including couples who’ve become connected through the marriages of their children. More often, I’ve found intense periods where paths cross for a year or two and then part.
Typically, the interactions are words spoken together. Sometimes, as in the excerpts that follow, they arise in lengthy correspondence. Who knows what trail will be left from the emails of the Internet.
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