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franciscan - January 1998

© Copyright, The Society of Saint Francis, 1997

Hermit Friendship

by Brother Ramon SSF

Friendship is a simple and homely word. It extends from the shy and cautious approach of a child towards the tiny puppy or kitten asked for as a gift, to the sacrificial offering of one’s life for the sake of a loved friend. The whole spectrum of friendship is suffused by the divine mystery, often not realised or acknowledged, but sometimes breaking through allowing the quality of friendship to shine with the radiance of that love which is at the heart of the created order.

The hermit life is no different to any other in that there is a healthy need for – and joy in – friendship, though seen from a somewhat different perspective. I see a limited number of people in my hermitage, but my relationship with them, including the sisters and brothers of SSF, is within the context of warm friendship and reciprocal learning from one another. But let me begin at the beginning.

Friendship with myself

As I reflect upon the nature of friendship, I find myself returning (as I always do in things profound), to my childhood. It was significant to me that I had no brothers or sisters, and I can remember feeling that I had a ‘store’ of warmth and affection within myself, which sometimes bubbled up in an openness and vitality which needed reciprocation. The source of all this was the joy of simply being alive. It was an interior appreciation and friendship with myself which would not remain enclosed and become stagnant.
I was basically shy and tentative in reaching out to others, so I would cycle down the coast road in Swansea to the Mumbles cliff path. There I would chain the bike and go wandering around the edge of the sea, into the sandy bays, and act out my friendship towards that mystery which I felt was dwelling within and flowing from earth, sea and sky, and particularly within the scariness of the caves.

One must be careful not to read back a more sophisticated and mature reflection into these childhood experiences, but I can say that I found nourishment and encouragement in such wanderings. They imparted not only a deepening appreciation of myself expressed through my senses, but also an enrichment of my inner life as I responded to what I now call the cosmic mystery – and that I certainly experienced in the simplicity and immediacy of childhood.

Perhaps I lay great store by such experience during the first decade of my life because I was lonely. The world of nature, supplemented by the discovery of prose and poetry, enriched my interior life, and gave me great delight ‘within myself’. My school friendships were few but precious, and though I discovered ways to relate and gifts of communication, with an increasing love of people over the years since, it is still true that solitude is precious. I have had more than my share of popularity from my twelfth year, and throughout my life, and friendships are now to be counted not in scores but in hundreds, yet I have a very small circle of intimate friends, and a certain aloneness. This aloneness is God’s gift to me, though at the same time it includes an element of human loneliness and yearning.

Friendship with Others

At twelve years of age two things happened. I had been listening, reading and observing at Sunday School – but one evening I went to a missionary service and heard a group of ‘new missionaries’ in their twenties telling of their call by Christ and their response of love and sacrifice. I was deeply moved, responded emotionally, and had what I call an evangelical experience, in which I recognised and welcomed Jesus Christ as my Saviour, Friend and Brother. It happened in the course of an hour or so, but is as real, as precious and as momentous to this very day.

The other thing that happened was that my teacher at school discovered that I had a gift of story-telling, so that every Friday afternoon I spontaneously told an episode in the story of Tom Thumb’s adventures to my class, and was thereby plunged into the world of communication.

My conversion to Christ gave me backbone, for I was moved to a rough-and-tumble school where bullying was part of the regime. I got beaten and was scared, but I bore witness to Christ and became resilient. The small network of solid friendships became important and beautiful, for I began to share my inner life of spirituality, and this brought together the creation relationships of the first decade with the evangelical gospel of zeal and proclamation.

During teenage years my storytelling became preaching, and though my inward life was secretly the most important, I discovered gifts of leadership and enthusiasm which influenced all around me, and brought me into touch with levels and dimensions of friendship and relationship which would not have been open to a respectable working-class boy without this socio-religious network.

I didn’t think of it like this in those days, but my parents and my sister (who arrived when I was eleven years old) were my friends. We truly loved reciprocally and, though my parents died in 1988, their names David and Edna, together with my dear sister Wendy, stand at the head of my short list of intimate friends.

The physical, intellectual and spiritual elements of friendship run together in a certain wholeness, and the emotional depths of my friendships have involved me in tears of sheer joy and pain, mingled with mystery.

Speaking of friendship with others – and the others must involve the lower order of animals (which has made me vegetarian), the higher orders of the communion of saints and the acknowledgement and fellowship with angels, indeed with all sentient beings – such friendship must involve an ecological vision of wholeness and the painful awareness of my own culpability in the pollution of Mother Earth. In calling earth ‘mother’ I am acknowledging the whole Franciscan dimension of creaturely relationships – loving God in all people, in all creatures. Such spiritual friendship finds God at its source, and this is what I call the divine mystery.

Friendship with the Divine Mystery

The word ‘divine’ indicates the proclamation of the Christian Faith, which is an unfolding of the revelation of God in Christ. And the word ‘mystery’ is increasingly important to me, for I am constantly discovering God’s presence in increasing wonder, perplexity and profundity as the years go by.

Friendship with God is a description which is biblical and experiential, and therefore precious to me, and I continue to call Jesus my Saviour, Friend and Brother.

But there has always been that dimension of mysticism in my spirituality in which the word friendship doesn’t seem sufficient to indicate the mind-blowing reality of union with God in love. I remember being brought to tears when first reading a poem which expresses what I mean. It is Christina Rossetti’s After Communion: (see Theme Prayer).

Because of the profound depth of this mystery of Love I have felt a call into the solitude in which I find God in all things and all things in God. I am open and loving to all my friends (and whatever enemies I may have), and particularly tender to my dearest friends, seeking to share with them all the love and sorrow of God in ourselves and in creation.

But I must admit that there is an inward place in which I dwell in and with God, to which I have access only when I am alone (though there is a mysterious inter-penetration within the communion of saints which I cannot as yet understand or describe). So perhaps I can leave the last word with Ramon Lull, the Franciscan mystic whose name I took because I am enamoured of his life and quest:
‘The lover longed for solitude, and went away to live alone, that he might have the companionship of his Beloved; for amid many people he was lonely.’
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