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The Friendship of Women: The Hidden Tradition of the Bible


The Friendship of Women: The Hidden Tradition of the Bible

The introduction of this book is worth the retail price. It's an essay in itself. A sample sentence: "To have a friend is to acknowledge that some part of someone else's life which we have held tenderly, trustingly in our own hands might well die with us." Okay, it's a sentence you may have to read twice. But then you "get it," and you reflectively pause before continuing.

A pleasant complexity in the writing sets THE FRIENDSHIP OF WOMEN above its competition. Chittister's style is more graceful than but reminiscent of the early work of Henri Nouwen, in that she reflects on very personal themes but not in a first-person ("I") voice. As helpful as anecdotes are to ground a book, in this case they would seem superficial. Chittister's descriptions of what we need and want in friendships are framed in a spiritual, rather than a self-help, context. The back cover calls it "the sacred dimension of friendship."

Though this is a book for and about women, Chittister draws heavily on interesting, classic quotes about friendship, most of them written by men, including Ambrose, Aristotle, Augustine, and that's just the beginning of the alphabet. Admittedly, as Chittister notes, men have written most of the classical literature, and Chittister wants to broaden that base.

A Benedictine nun, Chittister has written extensively, often with a hard-hitting and discomforting message, but here her text is, well, comforting. She titles each chapter with the name of a woman who has a role in the biblical story, though two of 12 are extrabiblical --- saints revered by Catholics but virtually unknown to conservative Protestants: Anne (the mother of the Virgin Mary) and Veronica (who showed kindness to Jesus on his road to the cross). As short as this volume is (fewer than 100 pages), it is expanded from an earlier work (published in 2000) that covered only New Testament women. (Old Testament additions are Deborah, Esther, Ruth and Miriam.)

But what do we really know about the friendships of these biblical women? Not much, so Chittister focuses on personality traits found in their stories and relates them to personal relationships. The first half of each chapter reflects generically on the chapter theme, before turning to the biblical story. She acclaims Prisca's sense of self. Esther's leadership abilities. Elizabeth's acceptance of the friend at her door. Miriam's joy.

In a good friend we need Deborah's wisdom. "The Deborahs in our lives know us as well as we know ourselves. The difference is that they also help us see beyond ourselves." To be a good friend we need "the Phoebe dimension of friendship," the "quiet constancy" that "requires us to be self-contained: she became an independent woman, but not self-centered." And Veronica? "With the Veronicas of friendship, it is the staying power that counts." She is the one "to whom a woman turns to understand the gravity of all the trivia of her life."

If you're looking for a book that gets beyond the trivia of friendship, try this one --- for group discussion or for personal help in getting and keeping friendships on track.

Reviewed by Evelyn Bence on April 1, 2006

The Friendship of Women: The Hidden Tradition of the Bible
by Joan Chittister