The Sacramentality of Inter-religious Friendship

Johann M. Vento, Ph.D.

In dialogue with Miroslav Volf’s and Ryan McAnnally-Linz’s extended treatment of inter-religious friendship in Christian perspective, I offer this brief response highlighting the concept of sacramenality in Christian theology as yet another resource within the tradition that can be mined in a Christian understanding of inter-religious friendship. Volf and McAnnally-Linz have given us an illuminating survey of biblical and philosophical material that could be marshaled both in arguments advocating inter-religious friendship and those that would hesitate to affirm its possibility or advisability. Their essay culminates in a rich discussion, not only of the possibility, but also the potential goods of inter-religious friendship and its benefits to Christians, which include better understanding of other faiths, better understanding of our own faith, and an enhanced ability to articulate our faith to others.

The concept of sacramentality can add to a discussion of the goods of inter-religious friendship from a Christian perspective by allowing us to affirm that deep, intimate, spiritual inter-religious friendships are sacramental, that is, they are experiences of God’s grace and, as such, transform, heal, and nurture us in the path of holiness. We enter ever more deeply into communion with God through the kind of deep spiritual friendship that the essays in this volume address.

After defining sacrament and sacramentality, I will highlight the medieval theology of spiritual friendship in Aalred of Rievaulx and the contemporary sacramental theology of Bernard Cooke, with his use of friendship as a primary metaphor for sacrament. I will apply these insights to inter-religious friendship as set out by papers in this volume and conclude that indeed, we can call such friendship sacramental. When experience, vocation, and temperament bring an inter-religious friendship into our lives, we are presented with the opportunity to experience God’s saving presence in a profound and transformative way.

Sacraments and Sacramentality

In Christian Theology, we speak both of sacraments, that is, specific liturgical celebrations which are understood by the Church as being means of grace,[1] as well as the more general concept of sacramentality, which describes the capacity of all created material reality to mediate God’s grace. Grace is understood in this case to be God’s gift of Self to creation, God’s communication of God’s Self to us in relationship. The grace communicated to Christians in the sacraments and more broadly in the sacramental potential of all created reality has a Trinitarian character. Christians affirm that God is triune, in God’s Being as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and in God’s action in relationship to the world, in creation, redemption, and ongoing sanctification. When Christians speak of grace, they are speaking of the self-communication of this triune God. The sacraments of the church promise Christians the real presence of Christ and the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. When we speak of the sacraments as liturgical ritual celebrations, or of other church celebrations or other experiences with created reality as sacramental, we are speaking of their capacity to draw us into the life of the Trinity.[2]

Roman Catholic theology speaks of four levels of sacramentality: 1) Creation: all of created reality, by virtue of being created by God, can be used by God to communicate God’s Self, indeed the act of creation itself is an act of self-gift by God; 2) Incarnation: Jesus is understood to be the sacrament par excellence – in the Incarnation, God enters into the creation; 3) The Church is understood to be the sacrament of Christ, bearing Christ’s grace to the world; 4) the liturgical celebrations that the Church call “sacraments.” At the foundation of each of these senses of sacramentality is the affirmation of the goodness of creation and the capacity of all created reality to communicate God to us. Stuff matters. Materiality, not only the symbols of individual sacred rites, i.e. water, bread, wine, but all of created reality bears sacramental potential.

The principle of sacramentality highlights the embodiedness of the spiritual life. Seeking to account for the fact that sacraments, at least Baptism and Eucharist, have always been part of the life of the church, Louis-Marie Chauvet writes “… faith cannot be lived in any other way, including what is most spiritual in it, than in the mediation of the body, the body of society, of a desire, of a tradition, of a history, of an institution, and so on. What is most spiritual always takes place in the most corporeal.”[3] That is, the celebrations of the Christian ritual sacraments have always been part of the way in which Christians have lived out their faith. The principle of sacramentality affirms that human beings live a spiritual life, and experience the presence and self-gift of God, only by means of the mediation of material reality.

Certain strands of Christianity, nurtured in monastic culture over centuries, as well as in those spiritualities rooted in the life and practices of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Ignatius of Loyola, among others, emphasized “finding God in all things.” It is exemplified in the famous line from the Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins’ (1884-1889) poem “God’s Grandeur,” which avers, “The world is charged with the Glory of God.”[4] This emphasis of Christian spirituality is by no means universal in Christianity, and comes under deep suspicion from theologies that emphasize the limitations and tendency toward sinfulness of the world and human culture.[5] Indeed, neither emphasis denies either God’s presence in created reality or its limitations, and Hopkins’ own poem alludes to the ways human culture has damaged nature and distanced itself from its capacity to reveal the divine, but it ends with the faith that nevertheless, amidst all the ugliness that human culture has produced and despite our difficulty in discerning it, “there lives the dearest freshness deep down things,” and the presence of God, imaged as a bird, “… over the bent/ World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.”[6]

Sacramentality of Friendship in Aalred of Rievaulx

MacAnnally-Linz and Volf point in their paper to the apparently questionable status of inter-religious friendship. They enumerate some of the attitudes among Christians today that discourage the idea of inter-religious friendship for fear that it might dilute or endanger in some way Christian faith. I see a parallel of sorts between this contemporary debate about inter-religious friendship and Aalred’s defense of friendship against a backdrop of monastic norms that discouraged “particular friendships” as dangerous to the spiritual life and detracting from the love of God. Aalred countered the suspicious attitudes about friendships in monastic life in his day with the firm avowal that friendship is essential to the spiritual life. Friendship allows us to experience love of God. For Aalred, friendship has a sacramental character. Where true spiritual friendship occurs, Christ is present. In and through spiritual friendship, the friends experience grace. [7]

According to Aalred, the experience of spiritual friendship is a foretaste of the complete and perfect experience of love and joy that awaits the Christian in eternal life.[8] Through the love of spiritual friendship we experience now the love and presence of God. Aalred speaks of the love between spiritual friends as “passing over” into the love of God and bringing the friends “into close contact with the sweetness of Christ himself… ”[9] There is a circular relationship among love of friend and love of God whereby the spiritual friendship becomes a vehicle for God’s communication of Self to us: from the experience of spiritual friendship we see that “not too steep or unnatural does the ascent appear from Christ, as the inspiration of the love by which we love our friend, to Christ giving himself to us as our Friend for us to love…”[10]

As MacAnnally-Linz and Volf note, for Aalred, Christ was the third person in a spiritual friendship. For a friendship to qualify as a spiritual friendship, it had to be rooted in Christ. This need not keep us from seeing Aalred’s reflections on spiritual friendship as a rich resource from Christian tradition for constructing a contemporary Christian theology of inter-religious friendship as sacrament. For the inter-religious friendships conceived of in the papers in this volume, while devotion to the divine or ultimate and dedication to a spiritual path are shared among the friends, clearly explicit Christian commitment to Christ is not shared. Aalred was writing in a Christian monastery in the 12th century. His reflections on friendship focused on its possibility and advisability among male monks. He was writing for his milieu. As already noted in this paper, a Christian who calls an experience sacramental, means that by this experience the person receives grace, understood in Trinitarian terms. While the Christian participant will necessarily understand this friendship in this way, it is no less a sacramental experience (from a Christian viewpoint) for either of the participants if the one who is not a Christian understands this friendship and its relation to the divine differently, that is, if one of the many religious differences between them is the concept of God. In this way, the Christian participant in a spiritual inter-religious friendship may identify this experience as rooted in Christ, but mean by that something slightly different than did Aalred who was assuming Christian faith as shared between participants in a spiritual friendship. This volume offers several descriptions of inter-religious spiritual friendships between persons earnestly seeking the highest spiritual good, explicitly supporting and loving one another in this endeavor and through it experiencing something of the divine. Reading Aalred against the backdrop of these descriptions or through the hermeneutic of inter-religious spiritual friendship lived out, these friendships appear as sacramental in a way quite faithful to the spirit of Aalred’s understanding of the effects of spiritual friendship.

The Sacramentality of Friendship in Bernard Cooke

Contemporary Roman Catholic Theologian Bernard Cooke develops his sacramental theology using human friendship as the centerpiece of his reflection. While it is more traditional to begin a treatment of the sacraments with Baptism and Eucharist, Cooke starts with marriage, and his extended treatment of human friendship leads up to his treatment of marriage.[11] But beyond marriage as a formal sacrament in the churches, human friendship in general is, for Cooke, sacramental. Not merely in the broadest sense of all created reality having the potential to mediate God, friendship holds for him a privileged status, because of its deeply personal nature, as a foundational and indispensible experience of God: “Perhaps the most basic sacrament of God’s saving presence to human life is the sacrament of human love and friendship.”[12] Cooke is taking a broad view of human friendship, which for him includes parental love for children, family life, marriage, and all other forms of what he calls genuine friendship, i.e. relationships characterized by love, trust, intimacy, and fidelity. Human life itself, created in the image and likeness of God, is meant to be a word, a revelation of God to the world, and this is only possible “in proportion to [human beings’] free living in open and loving communion with one another.”[13] Cooke privileges human friendship because it teaches us to trust, which is an endangered ability in our broken, violent, and increasingly anonymous world, and without which we cannot begin to learn to trust God.[14] It nurtures our personal growth in maturity and responsibility, and in faith. Genuine human friendship allows us to create human communities, which in turn allows us to come to understand more fully God’s being in relationship to us. Friendship gives us insight into God’s love for us, and makes it credible, while at the same time, friendship is, in and of itself, an experience of God. Cooke emphasizes that friendship does not merely serve as a metaphor for God’s love for us, but “[r]ather, humans and their relationships are a ‘word’ that is constantly being created by God. In this word, God is made present to us, revealing divine self-hood through the sacramentality of our human experience of one another;”[15] and further, “our experience of being truly personal with and for one another is sacramental; it is a revelation of our humanity at the same time that it is a revelation of God.”[16]

The Sacramentality of Inter-religious Friendship

I would like now to gather up these insights from sacramental theology, and a consideration of the sacramentality of friendship, together with key ideas about the nature of inter-religious friendship from other essays in this volume in order to approach an understanding of the sacramentality of inter-religious friendship from a Christian theological perspective.

I use as data my own experiences of inter-religious friendship as well as the personal experiences so eloquently attested to in the examples given in the papers of this volume. Inter-religious friendship is a very specific form of friendship characterized by sharing of faith, sharing in each others’ liturgical and home-based religious rituals, and entering into deep conversation about the reality of each other’s religious faith and practice with openness and trust. It can be called spiritual friendship, and is, as authors in this volume have noted, perhaps a quite rare experience, possible between persons deeply rooted in their own faith traditions who also find themselves in contexts which allow for the formation of such spiritual bonds with persons deeply rooted in other faith traditions. The foundation of these inter-religious friendships is mutual participation in an intentional spiritual path. They have the divine life, however that is understood by the participants of an inter-religious friendship, ever in focus. These friendships, described as mysterious and profound, are characterized by challenge, work, personal growth, enlivening faith, sweetness, joy, and an ever-deepening experience of God explicitly felt and understood as such. Understood from the perspective of Christian sacramental theology, these relationships are sacramental.

We can affirm that any genuine, deep, spiritual friendship between members of the same religious community can be characterized this way. What does it further the conversation to consider inter-religious friendship as sacramental? Perhaps in some way even more so than spiritual friendships between members of the same faith tradition, because care, concern, and sharing of faith occur precisely across religious boundaries, what we are accustomed to thinking of as alienating differences become sites of bonding, love, and trust. I suggest that even those in inter-religious friendship over a long period of time, on some level continue to be surprised and edified by the experience of union with another and with God across such differences. Thus inter-religious friendships are, for the participants themselves and potentially for their faith communities, powerful sacramental signs and transformative experiences of God, who transcends all of our boundaries and heals all forms of alienation.

To echo Chauvet, in his reminder that all spiritual experience is lived “in the mediation of the body:” in the body of diverse culture, where believers/practitioners of various faith traditions have opportunities to become genuine friends, to come to know and appreciate each other’s religious practices, to love and respect one another and have genuine, abiding concern for the good of the other – in the body of inter-religious friendship, a word of God is experienced in a unique and profound way.


[1] For Protestant churches, the sacraments are numbered at two: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist. Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions consider these two as well as Confirmation/Chrismation, Reconciliation/Confession, Marriage, Ordination, and Annointing of the Sick/Holy Unction to be sacraments in this sense. The proclamation of the Word of God in liturgy is considered sacramental by Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and many Protestant churches, but it is not considered one of the official sacraments of any of those bodies. See André Birmelé, “The Relationship between Scripture and Sacrament in Lutheran Theology,” in Sacraments: Revelation of the Humanity of God – Engaging the Fundamental Theology of Louis-Marie Chauvet, edited by Philippe Brodeyne and Bruce T. Morrill (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 2008), and Todd Townshend, The Sacramentality of Preaching: Homiletical Uses of Louis-Marie Chauvet’s Theology of Sacramentality (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2009).

[2] Ellen Charry, “Sacraments for the Christian Life,” Christian Century (November 15, 1995), 1076-1079. Trinitarian theology would be another fruitful resource for a consideration of inter-religious friendship, especially the diverse theologies which favor social models of the trinity. For examples, see Leonardo Boff, Holy Trinity, Perfect Community (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis) 2000; Catherine Mowry LaCunga, God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Life (New York: HarperOne) 1993; Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom (Minneapolis: Fortress Press) 1993, Miroslav Volf, After our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans) 1998; and Miroslav Volf and Michael Welker, eds., God’s Life in the Trinity (Minneapolis: Fortress) 2006.

[3] Louis-Marie Chauvet, The Sacraments: The Word of God at the Mercy of the Body (Collegeville, Minnesota, The Liturgical Press, 1997), xii.

[4] Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., Gerard Manley Hopkins: The Major Works, edited by Catherine Phillips (New York: Oxford University Press USA, 2009), 128.

[5] Michael Barnes, “On Finding God in All Things,” in A Sacramental Life: A Festschrift Honoring Bernard Cooke (Marquette, Wisconsin: Marquette University Press, 2003).

[6] Hopkins, 128.

[7] Several commentators have named Aalred’s understanding of spiritual friendship as sacramental, see for instance, Charles Dumont, “Introduction,” Mirror of Charity, Aalred of Rievaulx, trans. Elizabeth Connor (Collegeville, Liturgical, 1990), 33; Marsha Dutton,, “Introduction,” in Spiritual Friendship, Aalred of Rievaulx, trans. Lawrence Bracland, S. J., Cistercian Fathers Series 5 (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2010), 30; and Mary Eugenia Laker, S.S.N.D., translator, Spiritual Friendship, Aalred of Rivaulx (Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 2008), 21.

[8] Laker, Book III, 134.

[9] Ibid., Book III, 127 and 133.

[10] Ibid., 62.

[11] Bernard Cooke, Sacramental and Sacramentality (Mystic, Connecticut: Twenty-Third Publications, 1994). It is worth noting for the purposes of a reflection on inter-religious friendship, that for the Roman Catholic Church, a marriage is only considered a sacrament, in the more narrow sense of a liturgically celebrated means of grace, if it occurs between two baptized persons. Interfaith marriages, while they are understood as sacramental in the broad sense, are not liturgically recognized as formal signs and sacraments of God’s grace. In the discussion of Cooke’s understanding of the sacramentality of friendship, while, he does claim that friendship between Christians is in a “particular way” sacramental, he argues that “all genuine human friendship… is sacramental.” (91)

[12] Ibid. 80.

[13] Ibid., 83.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., 84.