Friendship & the Mystery of Personhood

Feast of St. Gregory of Nyssa

Adam_and_Eve_Scenes_Square.jpegWITH THE conjoined truths of the Trinity and Incarnation in mind, Christians may aptly consider how it is that the Triune God enlightens us through one of His created and recreated icons of Love – human communion, as seen particularly in the form known to us as Friendship. Though the world of human relationships is all-too-familiar, a close look at human fellowship discloses that here things are stranger, deeper, more “mystical” than we had expected! “True mysticism is to discover the extraordinary in the ordinary,” is the insight of the French theologian Olivier Clément. After all, are we not always remarking upon the oddness of our encounters with other persons – “How wise that baby’s eyes look!” “Doesn’t she look strangely like her father?” “It is bizarre, as though we have always known each other…” “I never knew he had it in him!” Indeed, just when we feel that we have understood someone, or ‘nailed down’ their personality in our mind, we discover some new strength, weakness, endearing quality of frustrating quirk that we never expected.

This means that though we share together in the human mode of existence, there is a definite sense in which every human being I know is remarkably and pleasingly “other” to me. Indeed, because I am ultimately God’s creature, and not my own, there is also a sense in which I remain, so to speak, bracingly “other” even to myself. As one who is in the process of becoming (cf. 2 Cor. 2:13), I can hardly understand all that I am to be. As a complex being in which God has brought together spirit, soul, and body (1 Thess. 5:23), I am continually startled to find, within myself, that which binds me to other creatures.

We are not speaking only about the estrangement between human beings, or the barrier to self-understanding, that comes as a result of the Fall. Certainly prejudice and blindness regarding other human beings, and even within our own psyche, mark our fallen existence. The answer to such human barriers and blindness comes when we acknowledge the kind of truths uttered by, among others, the Latin poet Terence: Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto (“I am a human being: I consider nothing human alien to me.”). Yet I am not speaking about walls that come from sin and estrangement. Rather, I would like us to consider that delightful “otherness,” that intriguing depth in the mate which is an essential ingredient of true human communion – as anyone who has been in love, or had their first baby, or joined a church, or found their “kindred spirit” discovers. There are whole worlds to discover within any one whom we love, and within ourselves, too. And that mysterious reality is made even more complex by our fallen condition. St. (Pseudo-) Macarius, spiritual theologian of the fourth century, puts it thus:

Within the heart are unfathomable depths. . . . It is but a small vessel: and yet dragons and lions are there, and there poisonous creatures and all the treasures of wickedness; rough, uneven paths are there, and gaping chasms. There likewise is God, there are the angels, there life and the Kingdom, there light and the Apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasures of grace: all things are there.
            ~The Fifty Spiritual Homilies, Homiliy 15.32

St. Macarius is not implying that the spiritual life is simply “a state of mind,” as if there were no independent existence of God, angels, and the New Jerusalem: that would be a concept only possible in our psychologically-oriented and solipsistic age. Rather, he is remarking upon the distinctive nature of human existence, the fact that our all-wise God has created us as mediating, or “go-between” creatures, who each and together portray a “microcosm” of reality.

A glance back at Genesis, at the foundational first Act of the human drama, reminds us of this. God creates the world, and then crowns it with His masterpiece: “So God created Adam in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” We are one, yet we are male and female. We are in the image of God, yet we are corporeal, sexual beings along with the animals. And God blesses this state of affairs, giving the command to both be fruitful and to wisely govern the rest of creation. The sixth day ends on a high note. Not only does God note that it was good: it was very good (1:31). For in the human being, God has made a creature that is, as C. S. Lewis has put it, “amphibious” – at home in the realm of matter and in the realm of spirit. The great act of the Incarnation, in which God assumed humanity, offers the highest confirmation of this wonderful mode of being.


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That we are created in God’s image means that we should expect to find, in our fellowship with each other, echoes of God’s own communion. Our human relationships are important in themselves, but remain holy and beautiful exactly in proportion that they truly mirror the life of the Trinity, and indeed, point us to the One from whom all communion springs. We can, then, look at the mystery of human relationships from two different “ends” of the equation –

They are contingent upon the God of Love;
They magnify our loving God.

It is in the latter sense that we can understand rightly ordered human liaisons – all true but differing forms of communion – as living icons of God’s nature. Perhaps we get only explicit Biblical warrant for this line of reasoning with regards to the intimate communion of marriage, as in Ephesians 5:31-32, which speaks of the relationship between husband and wife as a mysterion that bespeaks Christ’s love for the Church. However, there are strong signals in various parts of Scripture that lead us to consider other forms of fellowship in the same pattern, as partaking of God’s own vibrant love, and as pointing to this greater mystery. So, all the gospels use the relationship of Father and Son to speak of the ineffable communion between the first and second Persons of the blessed Trinity, the epistles speak about the “household of God” and the gospel of John speaks of the “friendship” between Father and Son. It would seem that when a human being truly communes with another or others, we see not simply a symbol, or metaphor, but a remarkable theological picture, a solid love infused with God’s glory. This picture, wonderful in itself, directs us, as does an icon rightly used, through it to the One who is Real Love in Himself.

Hidden among the cookbooks, relegated there by my embarrassed teen-age daughter, is a small, framed photograph that used to sit beside the bust of Beethoven on our piano. It is the photo of a young girl, perhaps seven years of age, playing the violin with utter abandon. She stands jubilantly, one foot up on the piano stool – good thing her instructor did not see this posture! – like Tevye’s Fiddler on the Roof. The picture is not only a paradigm of ecstasy, but of intimacy as well. For the girl child is dressed only in undies, and has the family’s budgie perched on a rakish angle, a kind of hat to her bobbed hair. Eleven years later, as an adolescent, she perhaps considers the photo a kind of intrusion, a violent capture of a “private” moment in her life. Yet all the details of the frozen scene scream out that this was not private, but a time of communion – though intimate communion for an inside group. Consider the levels of fellowship: rapture with the musician whose music has whisked her away; delight in the bird, who may be chirping along; shared fun with the maternal photographer, who knows what the instructor would say about this unorthodox practice scene, and whose usual place is at the seat of the piano, accompanying her. All this is going on in the living room, the place where the family plays, works, and entertains. In this homely moment, we see a symbol of life at its best, where there is an intersection of numerous relationships, coupled with a shared joy between two family members, and the photographic promise that the joy will overflow to others. Here is a classic example of ecstasy and intimacy: the episode is significant in itself, while it also acts as a pointer, a light, to the One who gives us all this, and more.

It was contemplation of my daughter Alex’s photo, indeed, and remembrance of that poignant moment, that provided the initial catalyst for my full-length study on Ecstasy and Intimacy. God provides many ways to draw us to Himself, one of them being the wonder of human conviviality. We take our cue from God’s own dictum: “It is not good that Adam should be alone.” From this precept, we fruitfully may move on to consider human interconnection as a facet of Christian spirituality, looking especially at the wonder of human friendship.

*Excerpted from address delivered at the Twenty-Fifth Annual Atlantic Theological Conference, June 26-29, 2005

Dr. Edith M. Humphrey is the Wallace F. Orr Professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. The grandmother of five boys and seven girls, she is the author of seven books on the Bible and Orthodoxy.


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  • commented 2018-01-10 13:31:01 -0600
    Does anybody know the source of the Lewis reference to humans being “amphibious”? The idea is thoroughly patristic, e.g., St John of Damascus: “Just as man was created both sensitive and intellectual, so did this most sacred domain [Eden] of his have the twofold aspect of being perceptible both to the senses and to the mind For, while in his body he dwelt in this most sacred and superbly beautiful place, as we have related, spiritually he resided in a loftier and more beautiful place.” ~Orthodox Faith, Bk 2, Ch 11