About 150 years before Dante penned the Divine Comedy, the Cistercian monk Aelred of Rievaulx wrote his classic work Spiritual Friendship. One of the main ideas of his treatise is that friendship is essentially the beginning and end of heaven. Friendship is both the original state and the eschatological destiny of charity. Before original sin entered into human experience, friendship and charity were coextensive. Men were friends with everyone they loved. But after the fall, the righteous needed to love everyone but could give their friendship to only a few. The good news, though, is that true friendship, as rare as it is in this world, is nothing less than a foretaste of Paradise. This is captured well in an experience that Aelred speaks about when he writes,
“The day before yesterday as I was walking around the monastery, with the brothers sitting in a most loving circle, I marveled at the leaves, blossoms, and fruits of each single tree as if I were in the fragrant bowers of paradise. Finding not one soul whom I did not love and, I was sure, not one soul by whom I was not loved, I was filled with a joy that surpassed all the delights of the world. Indeed as I felt my spirit flowing into them all and the affection of all coursing through me, I could say with the prophet, “See how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to live in unity” (Ps 133:1).”
The trees of Aelred’s monastery grounds have become the trees of Paradise. Aelred has been born again and sees the world as if for the first time. His joyful wonder, though, is set in the context of that “most loving circle” of friends. It is as if the love of friendship is a portal to Paradise.
We see something like this also in Canto 2 of the Purgatorio. As the sun rises upon the island of Purgatory, the pilgrims disembark from the angel boatman’s skiff and stand upon the shores of Purgatory, “gazing about like those who essay new things.” [lines 53-54] Just before their landing in this new world, these souls travel in a single boat singing together Psalm 113. ““In exitu Israel de Aegypto” all of them were singing together with one voice, with the rest of that psalm as it is written.” [lines 46-48] Notice their “one voice”. Here we see the harmony of friendship. Note also that the entire psalm is sung. Dante here is following the Vulgate Psalter, according to which Psalm 113 ends with the line,
Non mortui laudabunt te, Domine, neque omnes qui descendunt in infernum: sed nos qui vivimus, benedicimus Domino, ex hoc nunc et usque in saeculum.
“The dead do not praise you, Lord, neither do those who descend into the Inferno: but we who live bless the Lord, from this time now and into eternity.” In contrast to the inhabitants of the Inferno who are spoken about in the third-person plural, those who land on the shores of Purgatory “live” and “bless the Lord” in the first-person plural. This is the “we” of friendship, a “we” that finds its highest form of life in communal prayer and worship. The inmates of hell are all alone. The pilgrims of Purgatory are all together. Friendship is an essential part of Purgatory!
These joyful souls are very desirous to make their way up the mountain, and they gather around Dante and Virgil to get directions from them. Virgil makes it known that he and Dante are pilgrims like them. It is as if Virgil is saying, “We’re in this thing together, guys! Let’s go tackle this mountain!” The idea of pilgrimage here evokes a feeling of adventure and group effort, movement and communal change. The pilgrim travels in the hope of actually arriving at his longed-for destination, and he does not travel alone.
Then there is the touching scene in which Dante’s friend Casella wants to give him a hug. Dante is so moved by Casella’s gesture that he beats him to it…only to find his arms passing through Casella! Three times Dante attempts in vain to embrace the shade of Casella. These three futile embraces of the dead find their inter-textual predecessors in Aeneas and Odysseus who attempt to embrace the departed shades of their father and mother, respectively (see Aeneid 6.700-701 and Odyssey 11.206-208). In both Homer and Virgil, the three futile embraces create a sense of utter despair. It is as if death has overcome love. In contrast to these two scenes in pagan literature, though, Christian Dante has Casella smile. The tragedy of paganism has been born again and transformed into a comedy—a divine comedy. For Christianity, there is no final separation between those who truly love each other. Casella says to Dante, “Even as I loved you in my mortal body, so to I love you freed from it…” [lines 88-89] Christian love is stronger than death!
How different the hope of Purgatory is from the despair of the Inferno! Those who enter the Inferno are asked to abandon all hope at the door (Inferno 3.9). There is no progress towards a goal. For them there is nothing but eternal frustration. And they are all alone. In Purgatory, on the other hand, there are no inmates imprisoned in immobility. We find pilgrims making hopeful progress towards Paradise. And, most importantly, these pilgrims travel together. They are all friends. It is as if Purgatory is an anticipation of Paradise itself!
And so it is for us Christian pilgrims journeying through this world. We have friends to help us along the way. There is no greater gift than a true Christian friend who builds us up and doesn’t tear us down, who helps us become a better person and brings us closer to the Lord. And this is ultimately where friendship leads and why it is an anticipation of heaven. If true friendship is based on virtue and goodness, where can virtue and goodness be fully known but in God? Christian friendship is meant to lead us to friendship with God.
Let’s end with another passage from our friend Aelred:
“Thus rising from that holy love with which a friend embraces a friend to that with which a friend embraces Christ, one may take the spiritual fruit of friendship fully and joyfully into the mouth, while looking forward to all abundance in the life to come. When the fear is dispelled that now fills us with dread and anxiety for one another, when the hardship is removed that we must now endure for one another, when, moreover, along with death the sting of death is removed—the sting that so often pierces and distresses us and makes us grieve for one another—then with the beginning of relief from care we shall rejoice in the supreme and eternal good, when the friendship to which on earth we admit but few will pour out over all and flow back to God from all, for God will be all in all.”
Fr. David Tedesche is a priest of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester, NY. He is currently serving as pastor of St. Joseph the Worker Parish. This parish consists of St. Michael’s in Lyons, NY, St. John the Evangelist in Clyde, NY, and St. Patrick’s in Savannah, NY. He also serves as Theological Consultant for Faith Development Ministry for the Diocese of Rochester. He has advanced degrees in Philosophy and Theology and, before entering seminary, was a high school English teacher at Johnsburg Central School in North Creek, NY.