For a decade, Irene and Alyssa shared friendship — as singles, then as newly married women and mothers raising children in a Midwestern Catholic community. But they became close friends only when they also shared their suffering. When Irene was going through a difficult trial more than 15 years ago, she let her guard down and confided in Alyssa. Both women realized they’d been longing for a deeper Christian friendship. (Their names have been changed. They spoke on condition of anonymity.)

Irene said, “It’s higher than just helping someone carry a cross to take their pain as your own. I feel like she does that for me.”

Alyssa agreed: “I think others see that she helps me be a better person. She helped me find the Lord in a moment of despair.”

Bearing one another’s burdens “shoulder to shoulder” is a mark of spiritual friendship, as 12th-century English monk St. Aelred of Rievaulx wrote in his book of the same name.

Drawing on the wisdom of St. Aelred and others, as well as the experiences of Christian friends, what makes a friendship spiritual or Christian? How does it differ from other types of friendship? And how does Christian friendship relate to friendship with God?

Christian friends care for each other, share life and prepare for heaven together. They model virtue and grow in it together, sometimes with a common mission. Unlike other friendships, Christ is a third Person in their cohort, teaching them through his example and their lived experience. As St. Thomas Aquinas said, “There is nothing on this earth more to be prized than true friendship.”

Since they were Jesuit novices in Spokane in 1974, Fathers Robert Spitzer and William Watson shared a love for God and truth, though they often reach conclusions differently. Father Spitzer’s analytical nature and Father Watson’s intuition have proven complementary.

The friends’ vision and love for the truth has strengthened their friendship, said Father Watson, 63, founder and president of Sacred Story Institute in Seattle. “It’s a desire to creatively and in different ways help people access that so they can believe in the Good News.”

Their differences also amuse them. “I might not have missed the 43rd premise in an argument, but I can miss the perfectly obvious,” said Father Spitzer, 65, president of the Magis Center in Garden Grove, California, and host of the EWTN series Father Spitzer’s Universe.

“We definitely appreciate one another’s strengths, and we feel very free to not critique so much as to point to the possible errors of omission in one another’s thinking or, in my case, feeling.”

Christian friends may have complementary gifts, but according to St. Aelred, they must possess loyalty, right intention, discretion and patience, said Redemptorist Father Dennis Billy, a professor at the Mishawaka, Indiana-based Graduate Theological Foundation and staff member at Notre Dame Retreat House in Canandaigua, New York.

Benevolence, actively seeking the other’s well-being and reciprocity also mark Christian friendship, he said.

Friends help each other grow in virtue, and because of virtue, they’re able to share a common purpose in life, said John Cuddeback, a professor at Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia, who writes about friendship at his blog “Bacon From Acorns.”

God reaches out to us through our human friends to prepare us for divine friendship, Cuddeback explained. “Christ offers us his love through our friends and hoping that friendship leads us back to friendship with him.”

Prayer, spiritual direction and study about friendship can help Catholics seeking Christian friendships, Cuddeback said.  

In his Introduction to the Devout Life, St. Francis de Sales advised forming friendships only with those with whom one can share virtuous things. “If your mutual and reciprocal exchanges concern charity, devotion and Christian perfection, O God, how precious this friendship will be!” he wrote. “It will be excellent because it comes from God, excellent because it leads to God, excellent because its bond will endure eternally in God.”

Scripture tells of special friendships Christ had with Sts. John, Martha and Mary Magdalene. Other examples of close Christian friendships include: Sts. Peter and Mark; Sts. Paul and Timothy; and Sts. Gregory Nazianzen and Basil. Of his friendship with St. Basil, St. Gregory wrote: “It seemed that in us there was only a single soul dwelling in two bodies.”

Though they lived in different centuries, Blessed John Henry Newman and Father Henri Nouwen were both theologians and spiritual writers whose close Christian friends deeply affected their lives and helped them grow spiritually.

Cardinal Newman and Father Ambrose St. John were lifelong friends who entered the Catholic Church together in 1845. The friends shared life and were even buried together, a sign some say that their earthly friendship would lead to communion in heaven.

In a sermon entitled, “Love of Relations and Friends,” Cardinal Newman wrote, “The Ancients thought so much of friendship, that they made it a virtue. In a Christian view, it is not quite this; but it is often accidentally a special test of our virtue. … But what is it that can bind two friends together in intimate converse for a course of years but the participation in something that is Unchangeable and essentially Good, and what is this but religion?”

In the 20th century, Father Nouwen had many close friends to whom he wrote thousands of letters.

In his book Love in a Fearful Land: A Guatemalan Story, Father Nouwen wrote, “Friendship has always belonged to the core of my spiritual journey. God has given me many friends, and each of them has played a significant role in my thinking, feeling, thinking and acting.”

These and similar stories are common in good friendships, according to Cuddeback, because “we grow in our ability to live a truly human, and even a truly divine, life together by rolling up our sleeves and holding one anther accountable and striving together.”

Not only do Christian friends know one another, they also look outward — and upward toward God — together, he said.

Fathers Spitzer and Watson share a desire to evangelize. Before establishing their own ministries, they collaborated at two universities, sharing the faith and virtue.

“We not only came alive by giving those students those things, our friendship came alive,” Father Spitzer said. “We were on mission together. Our hearts individually and collectively came alive and made the friendship alive.”

As married women, Alyssa and Irene also share a common mission — caring for their husbands and raising their children in the faith.

Christian friendships ought to “begin in Christ, continue in Christ and be perfected in Christ,” St. Aelred wrote.

Christ-centered friendships resemble a triangle: Each friend has a relationship with Christ, and the bond in Christ’s spirit overflows into their bond with one another, according to Father Billy.

Christian friendship is very much needed, Father Billy said.

“We need to develop in our Church ways to help people look at their relationships and have discretion about whether this is a friendship to invest in.”

Holy, sacred friendship is necessary for those living in the world who want to live in true virtue, St. Francis de Sales wrote. “By this means they encourage, assist and lead one another to perform good deeds.”

Now living in different states, Father Spitzer and Father Watson meet less frequently, but they noted that St. Ignatius, who founded the Society of Jesus, and St. Francis Xavier also were close friends who mostly communicated by letter while St. Francis traveled as a missionary. “We have the kind of friendship that, within a minute of being together, picks up where it left off,” Father Watson said.

Father Spitzer and Father Watson haven’t had new opportunities to tour Montana in a red Pontiac Trans Am, as they did in 2001, but they remain longtime Christian friends on a mission.

Said Father Watson of his Christ-centered friendship with Father Spitzer: “We both know the One who makes everything work.”

Susan Klemond writes from

St. Paul, Minnesota.