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Monday, August 25, 2008

RevGal Book Pals: Joan Chittister's The Friendship of Women

Last spring I audited a seminar titled “Images of Mary Magdalene”. We began with the canonical gospels (stretching my Greek to the limit) and moved into the contemporaneous non-canoncial works - or the remnants of them uncovered at Nag Hammadi. (We ended with the films The Last Temptation of Christ and Jesus of Montreal!) The course began by asking us to write what we knew about Mary Magdalene, and many of us were surprised by how much of what we were certain of, was not attested to in any of the primary sources.

Joan Chittister’s book “The Friendship of Women: The Hidden Tradition of the Bible” focuses a less scholarly eye on the women of the Bible, the scriptures provide a point of departure for a series of reflections on the many facets of friendship. As a Benedictine nun and prioress, she brings a strong formation within a community of women to this book. While she does not explicitly recount her own experiences of living within such a community of faith, I suspect it enables her to see clearly not only the strengths that some aspects of friendship have, but their perils as well.

The book begins by positing that the spiritual and philosophical aspects of the friendship of women have been historically neglected. Taking community to be central to who we are as believers - even hermits base their vocation in the ascetic rejection of the “good” of community - she hopes we can grow spiritually from a clearer understanding of the gifts of friendship.
We’re among friends here - so let’s talk!

The most obvious question is which of the aspects of friendship did you find most appealing? Or revealing? The two reflections on Elizabeth (acceptance) and Ruth (availability) drew me in. The friends who walked with me through the death of my first husband, accepting where I was - were the women who I “[exposed my heart] to in the hope of finding healing hands”. Last week another friend asked me to read a draft of his essay on availability. Ruth gave me another way to read it.

I found I needed to have the scriptures in hand when reading each of the reflections (the back of the book gives the key references), that my memories of each woman were not enough to let me extract everything I could from the book. This may be my Ignatian bent coming into play, I want to start with scriptures, then walk in the door. I will admit that the looseness of the interpretation bothered me from time to time. (Would I really say that after having read this?) If you re-read the scriptures, did this enhance your reading of the book? Did it bother you how much was read into the scriptures?

Do you think there are essential difference between the friendships of women for each other, and male-female or male-male friendships? The author seems to suggest this is the case, but reaching into my own experiences, I found that all of the characteristics applied to the women, also applied to at least one of my male friendships.

What else struck you about the book? Would you recommend it to a friend?! I’ll be checking in from time to time to see where the discussion is going…


  1. The book arrived on Friday. I'm reading it today. I'll be back later to add to the conversation :)

  2. While reading this book, I did see how Chittister used the scriptures as a springboard to reflect upon the different aspects of friendship.

    I guess I did not look upon the book from the standpoint of which frienship aspect I found mos appealing as I looked at each personality that Chittister presented and thought of the different friends I have and how they fit into my life and maybe, just maybe, how I might be a part of their life. I gave thought to the ones who I can call in the middle of the night, the ones who are the ones I "play with", and the ones who are my friends of comfort.

    Would I recommend it to a friend? I think I would recommend it to a group of women for a group study to reflect upon friendships and relationships.

    Thank you for leading in this discussion and I look forward to hearing other folks' thoughts.

  3. I haven't read this one, but I'm looking forward to the discussion. Six years in girls' boarding schools, two in a women's college,and the past 21 years in relationship with a close-knit group of friends -- I would say that friendship with women has been a pivotal foundation of my life. And I think that Joan Chittister is terrific.

  4. Stopping back to say that someway into this book I'm thinking that I don't really get it - or maybe I expected something else from this.

    the introduction is terrific -it asks what exactly is a friend? and then goes on to use women in the bible to show us

    In the story of Lydia one thought really leapt out at me "It is so easy to think that we have friends and know how to be a friend when all we have are contacts ...It is so easy to think we have a relationship with someone when all we really have is more or less time for idle conversation with people we see often, but keep at a distance always".

    I believe this to be so true of society today. So true of church today. And I wonder how we - as RevGals in the real live communities in which we live -can start to undo this so that we live more authentically and holisticly. How in fact we can cultivate friends - at the deepest of levels.

    But I also find myself looking again at the RevGals as a whole. I think the desire to find "women like us" (in ministry and in need of friendship - and not to forget men who are supportive of us) was at least part of what was behind the founding of this community here ...

  5. seethroughfaith - I tickled that you are "live blogging" this book. It wasn't quite what I expected either, I have to admit. I think it might be a better springboard for conversation (as Cathy recommends), than for individual reflection.

    The big question might be how can we support friendships, create spaces where they can flourish, within our own communities.

  6. Michelle, it did bother me how much was read into some of the scriptures, but that's a hilarious conclusion given that I do the same thing myself!
    I'm afraid the archetypes of friendship set up in the book didn't necessarily resonate with my preconceived notions of some of the women, particularly Martha and Esther.
    I've got to go out to appointments, but I'll be back with quotes later. Thanks for the good start to the discussion, Michelle and all responders.

  7. I too found some of the extrapolation of character to be a bit of a stretch...but I was mostly willing to go along with it.

    I do wonder about the continued mentioning of the idea that friendship/relationship is at the heart of what it means to be a woman--I feel like that kind of gender stereotyping isn't helpful in my current worldview/context. While I recognize that men and women have different needs for their friendships, and I recognize that historically women's friendships have been downplayed, and I recognize that there is often a quality to women's friendships that may not be present in mixed gender or men's friendships, I just felt like this was a little too stringent, perhaps. It has to be possible for people in general to be these kinds of friends to each other, right? If we claim that human beings are made for relationship, made for community, then we can't simultaneously claim that women are better at intimate relationships or that women's friendships are more crucial to the family or the community than men's. It just feels weird somehow. I don't think I explained what I'm feeling uncomfortable about very well, but such is the limitation of virtual discussion!

    Having said all of that, I did find myself mentally "cataloguing" my friends and imagining which archetype (as she describes them) my friends fit in and where they might place me.

    and, last but not least (for now anyway)...I think both Chittister and previous commenters are right that we use the word "friend" too loosely sometimes, when what we really have is a large circle of contacts or acquaintances, because friendships take time, energy, investment, and vulnerability. I wonder if social networking sites like facebook (where I have 245 friends! it says every time I log in) help or hinder us in this way.

    For real I have to go to work, but I'll try to check back with thoughts/quotes later...

  8. live blogging :) now there's a thought

    but now time to make dinner - then I'm off out to see MammaMia with my best friend.

    moving beyond the superficial :) that's what true friendship is about.

    earlier today though i was thinking about agape love and phileo ... that of friendship. Usually the prime example given is of Jonathan and David - interested to see if the author touches on that.

    meanwhile on Lydia - I did like the caution that having a dynamic /charistmatic friend (my words) can "open ourselves to new ideas and risk..." but that "the real Lydias, when we find them ... provide the environment , the model, that leads us to think on our own"

    my, we ALL needs sistas like that :)

  9. I think it is cool that Lorna is live blogging with this book. It's a book you can do this with because of its short length.

    I think Lorna brings up some good points about friendships in today's society. From one who has "stayed put" in the same community her entire adult life, she has seen friends come and go (and, on the flip side, I am the one who has never had to leave a host of friends).

    Again, I never really thought about looking at this book from a scholarly aspect, since one, I am not a scholar, nor I know that much about the women of the bible. However, I do think about how the church community can help in facilitating friendships? Especially as our mobile society uproots us every few years. How do those of us who are the "stay puts" in the church help with that?

    Ok, I feel like I am rambling, so best leave it at that.

  10. Just a plug for next month's book - it's Here If You Need Me: A True Story

    I just ordered mine yesterday.

  11. Teri, your thoughts on male/female relationship resound for me today, for reasons I can't write about. I agree with you; 'can't people in general be these sorts of friends for one another?' However, that is not my recent experience.

    My feeling today is that stereotypes are there for a reason...and I am very grateful for my female friends. The chapter on Veronica says, "Men, very often, conduct their friendships side by side, in shared activities, in product development, in group play, in situations that bring no threat to power and demand no emotional vulnerability." This rings true here. Maybe I need to know more men...?

    The item on Veronica and the ministry of presence has been compelling for me, and I've returned to it several times.

    I'm certain that we must be there for one another in the day-to-day times so that we can be authentically present in the crises. To me that's why I participate in the life of my church so fully; Sunday attendance doesn't make me part of the community; it's cleaning up the kitchen after the party where I become real and others do, too.

    Asking for help is also much on my mind: how hard it can be for us, how we refuse/forget to do it. How others are hoping to be asked.

    Thanks for this discussion. It's very timely for me. I'll be back later.

  12. I have read most of the book and found it intriguing. I really had no need for the book to be any kind of an "accurate" reflection of the women, I was content with it being metaphorical or maybe even a mythical reflection about these women.

    That said, it caused me to have a serious reflection of my own on the women in my life, friends and mentors. Occasionally I would associate one friend or another with the mythical women in the book, but mostly I found bits and pieces of my women friends in several of the women this book reflected on.

    Anyway, I can't say that this book has given me any "AhHa!" moments as sometimes happens to me when I read Chittister...but I am enjoying it.

    Thanks, Michelle, for a great intro to the book, and for the discussion.

  13. I guess my conclusion about the book is that in an effort to lift up women's friendships, it actually stereotypes feminine qualities in a way that makes me a little uncomfortable.
    But I do like the questions raised about the difference between contacts and true, deep connections. In terms of RevGalBlogPals, I think there are all sorts of levels of relationship going on, from the most casual contacts to flying sparks that prefigure deeper relationships later, to actual developed connections of depth. I am grateful for the true friendships I have made in the group, and I am always on the lookout for new sparks, too.

  14. I just got in - I went to the movies with my friend to see MamaMia and I was struck there by both the mama and the daughter and their closest friends. And as an aside I laughed most of the way through. This was such a fun film.

    Back to the book ...It is interesting isn't it - how we use the word "friends". I really identified with this book (p 22) when it said "clearly to say we've been friends for years" is to say everything/nothing at all. Ouch but yeah ...

    what did others make of the statement in the Deborah section Life is short, and energies are limited. Friendship requires time and care. (so far so good!) To waste these resources on relationships that bring no depth, no vision, is to waste a valuable part of life . I mean I am all for authentic relationships but they all have to start somewhere - and that statement struck me as really ego-centric. Moreover as one who lives as an ex pat here in Finland and serves in a church with a young (and constantly changing) student population I don't feel that befriending (and being befriended) short term is a waste ... but rather that it's about learning to embrace the present.(But of course it's painful to let go time and time again!)

  15. I have had a love-hate affair with the chapter on Esther. I loved the conclusion that we need integrity, courage, willingness to embrace the whole world (like Esther?) ... and I think it was good to read a list of women leaders who have impacted the world (for good)BUT I really react badly to the swooping statement "Women are definitely leaders. But they lead differently"

    erm ..Margaret Thatcher just for one (but many other women in polticis too) you cannot - in all honesty - say and believe that her "goal is [was] not to force people to do anything" ... nor was it "to do what is best for everyone"

    in fact that last statement in ludicrous ... what is best for some is not always best for everyone!

    and as for the rest of p 31...

    not all women leaders "seek to stop the oppression ..or are "friend to everyone involved.


    after reading this I'm not sure I could really recommend this book to anyone -male or female!

  16. I can understand SB's point about stereotyping characteristics...Even though It didn't hit me that way - that the same characteristics she raises up are also the ones that limit us...still, many things do strike me that way(like those tiny swim suits worn at beach volleyball). So, while I thought of them as mythic (ok, maybe a bit of stretch) and SB experienced them as stereotype...both are two sides of the same coin, no?

    Lorna, I so want to see MamaMia, alas I have no friends here (yet) withwhom to see it and my husband won't see it in the theater...

    as to your point about short term friendships - yes, we all have to start somewhere and those friendships of depth rarely (never?) happen until some time and life has, I too think that short friendships can be important in our lives....and sometimes end up coming back and being even more than that...

    well, my thoughts at this point..

  17. Lorna, that was the Esther thing that bothered me, too.

  18. Unfortunately my copy hasn't arrived yet - its not available in UK, so waiting for it to be shipped over via amazon. But I'm really intrigued by the discussion here and eagerly await its arrival.
    I'll try and get ahead for other months.

  19. I am too tired to comment... will do so tomorrow. Classes started back up and I'm not quite in the swing of things...

    but I have read the book and have some thoughts.


  20. Liz I ordered mine secondhand from market place. The postage cost more (especially when you consider it's a very book!) but the overall price was cheaper and the book came in excellent time,(well last Friday!)= and in excellent condition. I'll do this again (if I can) for future books for the Rev Gal discussion.

    Back to the book ...

    I am intrigued by the dedication "It takes a lot of friends to write a book about friendship. I am grateful to all of them." doesn't that seem to be at odds with what Chittister writes in the section on Phoebe?

    I was fascinated by the picture of Martha that the author painted " as she watched Jesus instrust Mary in the Torah" that why she was so sharp with both Jesus and Mary herself about Mary's failing to help with the hospitality? I had never seen it in that light before.

    As for Veronica. I had to choose to put aside my own prejudices here and still failed somewhat - because in her explanation of the use of midrash (which was interesting) I found it galling (if that's the right word for what I felt?) that all her examples of our sketching what MIGHT have happened between the lines of the narrative account, ARE biblical figures - Noah, Abraham, Miriam, Mary ... until we get to Veronica. She isn't named in the NT - indeed there's no record of any woman wiping Jesus' brow - yet of course in Lk 23:27-29 (the ref given at the end of the book) of nameless women being recognised by Jesus for their weeping.

    But what I did resonate with in the portrait of the Veronica-in-friendship was the ability to be with a friend in pain and not offer quick-fix solutions. As women in ministry I think we have a lot to offer - we can as the author puts it "bring the power of affirmation to our pain ... and relieve it by [our] presence.

    But to be fair some men have got that too! Even in the Bible. Think Nehemiah. Think Job's friends (at least at first)(Job 2:12ff)

  21. oops

    erm Liz that should have said very THIN (or light) book.

  22. Having finished the book I have to say I didn't like it :(

    M's question "The big question might be how can we support friendships, create spaces where they can flourish, within our own communities." is where it might be useful and produce good fruits.

    Otherwise I would say the book was contrived, superficial and reinforced sterotypes and was not particularly useful or uplifting overall - though it did have its moments.

    My copy is now registered on with a meagre 4/10 rating from me (4: Only OK. The line between taking it and leaving it is very thin.)

    (I've added a link to this discussion here for any one who reads my copy after me to check out)

    While I wouldn't really recommend this book I do hope that it is read by others and discussed because as many RevGals have commented Friendship of Women could be a great "springboard" for conversation about friendship and its importance not only in 2008 but across the ages (and across gender lines too I might add)

    Thanks for the chance to explore it here. I hope others will add to the conversation later today

  23. Michelle, just wanted to say thanks for posing the questions and getting the discussion started! This book was most interesting and my Daughters of the King group will be using it sometime this fall (I think).


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