What Is Spiritual Friendship?

Fr. John Crossin, OSFSA key benefit members of the St. Francis de Sales Association enjoy is the opportunity to develop and maintain life-long spiritual friendships. Fr. John W. Crossin, an Oblate of St. Francis de Sales (OSFS) and former executive director of the Washington Theological Consortium, wrote and spoke extensively on the topic of spiritual friendship and shared his insights with us in the following series of essays. Fr. Crossin passed on to the next life on May 12, 2023.

The Experience of Friendship

Salesian FriendshipWe experience a joy in friendship. Friends enjoy spending time together. Going to a fall football game together—wearing the right color, cheering in unison, sharing hot dogs, and celebrating victory—speaks of the joy of being with friends.
There is a strong emotional quality to friendship.

We like being with our friends. Friendship with another person involves a certain indefinable attraction.

Friendships may have a particular focus. We may have sports or music in common. We get together with these friends to go to the game or the concert. We discuss the subtleties of the second movement of the symphony or the energy in the bass guitar. We share advice on picks for the fantasy football draft or the best seats for Saturday’s game.

Friendships often grow over meals. Leisurely meals with a little good food, conversation about the day just past, occasional laughter and reflections on the foibles of life (others’ foibles and our own) build the bonds of life. In conversation we begin to reveal whom we are by what we say and by how we act toward the other.

All of us have experiences of friendship. Some are of friendships gone awry and ended. Many others are of the formative power of relationships. Good friendships influence us deeply.

There is a certain mystery to friendship. Friendship is hard to define. Yet it is a common human experience intrinsic to our humanity.

The St. Francis de Sales Association values friendship highly. The rule of the Association states that “Our call to the same spiritual family will encourage us to form mutual friendships ...” We believe that God put good friends in our lives.

John W. Crossin, OSFS

1. The Experience of Friendship  |  2. Kinds of Friendship  |  3. Spiritual Friendship  |  4. Discerning God's Plan
5. Healing Relationships  |  6. Patience in Friendship  |  7. Gratitude


Kinds of Friendship

Salesian FriendshipThere are different kinds of friendship. Friendships involve different levels of communication and sharing. Friendships can be tremendously enriching. Each friendship may have a different focus and depth. All have elements of attraction and joy. Some friendships are between men or between women; others are between a man and a woman. Today some people focus on groups of friends as well as on individual friendships. Our Salesian tradition concerns itself with all these types of friendship.

Some friends are colleagues at work. We share a common interest in our profession or occupation. We often talk about topics related to this work. We may go out right after work on occasion to continue our conversation or to honor a colleague. But we rarely carry the relationship home.

Other people are friends for a lifetime. My friend George and I grew up together. Even as adults living hundreds of miles apart, we stayed in touch several times a year. The first wedding I witnessed as a priest, over thirty years ago, was of George and his wife Jean. I always laughed at George’s jokes. Recently, God called George to eternal life—and at his funeral we recalled many of George’s jokes and his positive attitude to life.

Friends can have a lifelong influence. No two friendships are the same. Two personalities blend together in unique ways.

Our true friends are those who encourage us to be our best selves. I have encouraged a number of friends over the years to continue their education. Several of these doubted their intellectual abilities. They did not see very clearly what was quite evident to me. Their subsequent success belied their doubt. They have, in turn, encouraged me to try new things--such as teaching a new course in pastoral practice or becoming a chaplain in the association.

Sometimes a friend can see us more clearly than we see ourselves.

John W. Crossin, OSFS

1. The Experience of Friendship  |  2. Kinds of Friendship  |  3. Spiritual Friendship  |  4. Discerning God's Plan
5. Healing Relationships  |  6. Patience in Friendship  |  7. Gratitude



Spiritual Friendship

friendship_1Last spring semester I mentioned Spiritual Friendship in a course I was teaching on spirituality. One of the students shared with me that he had never heard the term. He was intrigued with the concept—it seemed to describe one of his relationships.

Spiritual friends are friends with whom we feel we can share our spiritual concerns. These relationships may emerge gradually.

We build our relationships on trust. Slowly we might move from sharing outside events, like football games or concerts, to familiar events like meals, to inner events like the stories of our lives.

Spiritual Friends offer us encouragement, not only to use our talents but also to be our best selves. Virtues are nourished in relationships. We often learn to be patient or gentle or humble from the example and encouragement of friends.

Friends keep us in their prayers. They also become part of our own daily round of prayerful conversation with God.

In prayer, we discern the good qualities in our Spiritual Friends that we would like, in some small way, to make our own.  In our inner conversation we say: “If I could only have fifty percent of her patience….”

Friends can also pray together.  Sometimes I ask the couples on Engaged Encounter weekends whether they pray together. They often respond with a puzzled look. Sometime they respond that they go to mass together—which I heartily commend. But many don’t seem to have gotten to the point where they realize that the special type of friendship that they share can have its deepest roots in prayer. The couple has the deepest friendship when they are spiritually close.

In Catholic Christian thinking, spiritual friendships are about becoming holy. Thus they are about loving. The holy person is the loving person.

Our deepest friendships are spiritual. They are about loving God and all the neighbors put in our path by God. Love reaches out. We build a network of friends who seek to do the good. The Association is such a network.

John W. Crossin, OSFS

1. The Experience of Friendship  |  2. Kinds of Friendship  |  3. Spiritual Friendship  |  4. Discerning God's Plan
5. Healing Relationships  |  6. Patience in Friendship  |  7. Gratitude



Discerning God's Plan

Salesian smiles go along with the spiritual friendshipWith a true friend we can share our hopes and discouragements. It is comforting to have an understanding ear to hear our concerns both spoken--and unspoken. It is good to have a person who can serve as a “sounding board” to whom we can vocalize our ideas that seem new or unusual.

Often I clarify my own thinking by sharing my thoughts with a spiritual friend. In speaking to someone, my thoughts have a way of moving out of their “jumble’ into clarity. In conversation, my thoughts which are often circling round and round, repeating themselves over and over, become clear. This seems like a minor miracle.

Sometimes a friend will say—did you ever think of this aspect? Usually it is something I forgot to consider. I rely on the wisdom of others. My spiritual friends remind me, for example, that I can only embrace so many projects at one time. I should not over-commit myself. I must be honest and say that I don’t always follow this good advice.

Friends are of great importance as we seek to discern God’s will. There are, of course, several criteria for discerning God’s will for our lives. The process involve taking a good look at factors both external [e.g. do I have the financial resources to pursue this course of action?] and internal [e.g. do I have a sense of peace when I envision this proposed course of action?]. In discernment we are seeking to make a wise judgment often between two good options. The decision is not completely clear—thus we need to make a judgment.

The wisdom of others is crucial for discernment.  Sometimes a friend sees us more clearly than we see ourselves. His or her advice can be a treasure. In the major decisions of life—such as marriage, ordination, and employment—we best consult the wisdom of our spiritual friends. They often see us –our strengths, weaknesses, personalities and circumstances—more clearly than we see ourselves.

Friends help us to see God’s will. At times they speak God’s word to us.

John W. Crossin, OSFS

1. The Experience of Friendship 2. Kinds of Friendship  |  3. Spiritual Friendship  |  4. Discerning God's Plan
5. Healing Relationships  |  6. Patience in Friendship  |  7. Gratitude




Healing Relationships

Salesian Associates in Puerto RicoFriends do not expect us to be perfect-nor do we expect them to be. Sometimes we will share our mistakes and even our deeper faults with one another. This can be a great aid in the healing process in the varied situations of our lives.

Friends sometimes have serious differences of opinion with each other. This is to be expected. A vigorous discussion can help us to clarify our opinions and appreciate the insights of our friends.

Occasionally, friends will actually offend one another. Our deeper faults and our sinfulness can affect our friendships.

Forgiveness is appropriate to friendship. None of us will be perfect in this life. We all have sinful patterns of acting. We need to accept that this is true even in our closest relationships.

The need to acknowledge the offense comes first. Denial comes easily to all of us. "Nothing really happened" or ‘it wasn't that important" we say to ourselves.

Acknowledging the fault is the hardest thing to do. Asking forgiveness is second. Both require a considerable amount of humility. I always remember a friend of mine who asked for forgiveness from her teenage son. I thought that this was remarkable. She said that in this instance she was wrong and should practice what she preached! I admired her humility.

We can pray to the Spirit for healing once we come to acknowledge the problem. Divine grace can bring about healing. This may involve bringing the situation into our daily prayer and letting the Spirit speak to us.

  • Sometimes we need to acknowledge our fault in the Sacrament of Penance.
  • In the Eucharist we can experience the mercy of Christ as we pray together with the community for forgiveness.
  • Healing is a process. We should try to be patient with our own feelings or those of our friend. Healing can take time.

We will eventually need to have a conversation about what is troubling our relationship. We may need to ask for forgiveness. Sensitivity and honesty are necessary. Humility and patience are virtues that come to the fore. Personal reconciliation is not a loss of memory but rather a letting go of the past.

Christians are called to be people of peace. The grace of the Holy Spirit brings this inner peace. As long as we are human we will be in need of healing. This healing can bring us back to the peace of Christ in ourselves and in our relationships with one another.

Friendships can sometimes become stronger than they were before the reconciliation. The healing process calls us to a deeper level of spiritual maturity.

John W. Crossin, OSFS

1. The Experience of Friendship 2. Kinds of Friendship  |  3. Spiritual Friendship  |  4. Discerning God's Plan
5. Healing Relationships  |  6. Patience in Friendship  |  7. Gratitude



Patience in Friendship

friendship_5In life we are always going either backward or forward. There is no standing still. Though we might not notice the subtle changes in our relationships, they are happening.

Patience is an important virtue for sustaining growth in our relationships and in ourselves.

Daily life provides many opportunities for exercising patience:

  • We sometimes have to wait in line or in traffic. We can take this ‘little bit of time' for a kind word to a neighbor, for some personal reflection or for short interior prayers for friends.
  • Unexpected events-a child's team bus arrives two hours late-provide opportunities to practice patience. Not all of life's events can be planned. Patience goes along with a needed flexibility.
  • Opportunities to practice patience in our spiritual relationship abound. No two people are alike and we have to have patience with one another.

In friendship we can become aware of patterns of thought or action that we wish to change. We may find ourselves admiring a good quality in a friend and wish to emulate it; we may notice that our friend irritates us in some little way or other-and look within ourselves for the cause of the irritation. [I.e. why does this bother me?]

When dealing with ourselves-and not with our computers--change can be slow. It is amazing how resilient our habits can be. For example, some people almost always arrive early-others are late. Such pervasive habits can even be difficult to recognize.

If we wish to change our habits we will need patience first of all with ourselves. All the good resolutions in the world do not make for change. In the beginning our efforts can have more failures than successes. Usually change in habits occurs gradually with daily practice.

Patience requires that we persist, despite some failures, in our attempts to change for the better. Change calls for a decision, for an affective commitment and for self discipline.

A patient friend, one who gently encourages us, can make a big difference.  Friends are particularly important if we are struggling with issues such as negative ways of thinking or acting.

Patience can also come into play in our ‘timing'. We often need to wait for the ‘right time' to begin a new way of acting or to bring up a sensitive topic in a relationship. Here we might pray for divine guidance on what to do and when to speak.

I frequently notice that this ‘divine time' seems slower than my time. God is infinitely patient with us. Despite our faults God sustains us and provides blessings. If we ‘take the long view' we might be more patient with others and with ourselves and not in a hurry.  God's time is the right time.

John W. Crossin, OSFS

1. The Experience of Friendship 2. Kinds of Friendship  |  3. Spiritual Friendship  |  4. Discerning God's Plan
5. Healing Relationships  |  6. Patience in Friendship  |  7. Gratitude


As we come to spiritual maturity, we grow in appreciation of our talents and blessings. We realize that we are not entitled to them. We have not earned them. They are gifts from God.

One danger is that we might take things for granted. We can easily perceive that ‘what we grew up with’ is the norm. Americans who lived through the Great Depression seem to me to be most appreciative of other people and thankful for their support.They are also very careful about conserving and maintaining material possessions. Those of us who grew up in more affluent times seem more likely to take people or possessions for granted.

There is a danger that after awhile we start to take our friends for granted.

My friend Kevin had the contrary attitude. He used to say that ‘It’s all gift.’

Such radical gratitude makes for a positive life. I find that when I focus on gratitude I am much more positive-- and not so dissatisfied with others and with myself. We would do well to count our blessings every day.

Christians live their lives with gratitude.

  • For the Wonders of Creation—The Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins praises God for the uniqueness of each living thing. The creation in all its particulars is a great gift.
  • For the fact that Christ suffered and died for us while we were still sinners. At the Eucharist we give thanks for this gift and the many other blessings we have received.
  • For Friendships—Friends are given to us by God. They are a treasure.

My friend Kevin reminded me—through his life and writing—that even suffering is a ‘gift’. He wrote about his ‘gift of cancer’.  I must say that I, and other of his friends, had trouble with seeing cancer as a ‘gift.’ But his perception challenged all our presuppositions.

Friends do this. They share their deepest spiritual perceptions with us. They challenge our preconceptions. They force us to go deeper.

John W. Crossin, OSFS

1. The Experience of Friendship 2. Kinds of Friendship  |  3. Spiritual Friendship  |  4. Discerning God's Plan
5. Healing Relationships  |  6. Patience in Friendship  |  7. Gratitude