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Food for thought

Covenant for a project

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04 September 2021

The basis of a spiritual friendship between a man and a woman


I am fortunate to have a spiritual father, a Jesuit priest, who accompanies me on my path of inner growth, without ever preceding or directing me. He walks with me, and, consequently, when I speak of the spiritual friendship between a man and a woman in the Church, my thoughts immediately and spontaneously turn to my own experience.

As we know, the entire history of the Church is traversed by a widespread fear of women, which has also taken the form of marginalization and discrimination. However, this is not the whole picture of that history, which also includes important examples of fruitful collaboration and working together.

However, when we speak of spiritual friendship, it is necessary to clarify what is meant by the terms friendship and spiritual when referred to the friendship between a man and a woman.

Friendship is an intense and involving relationship in which all dimensions of the person are involved, without any one taking the upper hand. Respect, fidelity, loyalty, esteem, affection and reciprocity are, without a doubt, the fundamental traits that characterize it, and each person, based on his or her concrete experience, could add others. The specification of “spiritual” friendship indicates more a direction, the shared turning towards a goal that transcends both friends, than an underlining feature that excludes other aspects that are included and valued.

The answer to the objection on the alleged impossibility of friendship between the two sexes does not stem so much from a reasoning that affirms its possibility, but rather from the observation of historically concrete examples. See the existential and spiritual vicissitudes of Benedict and Scholastica, Clare and Francis, Sales and de Chantal, von Speyr and von Balthasar and others discussed in this issue.

There are two concepts that, in my opinion, are extremely fruitful in order to go deeper into the understanding of the spiritual friendship between a man and a woman: the first, is that of covenant; and, the second will be, then, that of project.

The concept of covenant takes us directly back to the two accounts of the creation of man and woman in the book of Genesis, which speak to us of two existents differing in sex but equal in dignity (both “imago Dei”) and placed before each other in reciprocity, without those forms of oppression that would later be introduced by sin. In a desire to articulate the covenant between man and woman in its intrinsic dimensions, it is necessary to distinguish between spousality and nuptiality. Spousality is placed on the level of the constitutive structure of the human being and indicates his or her radical relational capacity, that is, to love, both vertically, with God, and horizontally, that is, between man and woman.

Nuptiality, on the other hand, refers to an exclusive, faithful and indissoluble relationship and also invites a profound rethinking of the figures of consecrated virginity and celibacy, beyond mere conjugality.

The second concept to emphasize, regarding the spiritual friendship between man and woman, is that of a project.

As we saw earlier, when we describe the friendship between a man and a woman as spiritual, we emphasize the common orientation towards a shared goal, which can be peculiar to the couple in question, or concern the wider ecclesial sphere.

In both cases, what is central is the commitment to a realization that can only be achieved together, and each of the two friends brings his or her particular, irreplaceable contribution, which the other accepts as a gift given absolutely freely.

The history of the Church bears witness to various fruitful relationships of this kind and each of them has marked, in a more or less visible way, a tangible turning point, from which otherwise unthinkable innovations have sprung.

by Giorgia Salatiello