Rock Island, IL
. . . near the fireplace they had read immortal verse from a new illustrated edition of Macbeth which had come to Anthony for review, and had been propped up on the mantelpiece for admiration.
—Charles Williams, The Place of the Lion
Two men, both thirty years old, walk slowly through an old Virginia cemetery, pausing for long stretches at a time, now under a sprawling tree, now atop a mossy marker, now on the sun-washed side of a red-clay slope. They draw on their cigars, hold them at arm’s length, flick the ashes, regard the elegant slow burning, draw on them again. They look about, they point, they fall into long troughs of silence, they occasionally laugh.
Now they set out down the Old Muse road. There is more talk and more silence, another cigar. Turkey buzzards ride the thermals above them.
Whether their behavior seems odd to the onlooker, it is a greater oddity that they should have met and become friends in the first place, this northern jock and this southern bookworm, or that many years after their first stroll through the Virginia countryside they should meet in it again to part ways.
It is difficult to say whether birth doles out to us an equal need for friendship. It most certainly does not dole out an equal capacity for it. Coleridge had both, and the need sometimes crushed the capacity. Dr. Johnson had the capacity. Jonathan and David apparently did. Horatio, never passion’s slave, proved he had it when he said, “you will lose this wager, my Lord,” and for it a sweet Prince held him in his heart of hearts. All of these and all the great friends that song and story bequeath to us knew well what another in that noble lineage understood: “No mind was so good that it did not need another mind to counter and equal it, and to save it from conceit and blindness and bigotry and folly”—so Charles Williams, again from The Place of the Lion.
As for these two young men setting out down the Old Muse road in Virginia, it may be that they had an unremarkable beginning. It may be that their story is a preposterous one. As one of the players in it I have been tempted, mostly in solitude—and with the usual embarrassment—to call it providential.
I mark its beginning (though there’s no saying when a thing begins) with a prompt in Freshman English. The assignment must have required that we compose a theme in the comparative mode, for Dr. Cornelius had called upon a quiet bespectacled student to read from his essay on the differences between the contemplative and active man.
What I heard as this student read was certainly more thoughtful than the locker room banter I knew awaited me later that day. But what I heard also suggested that there might be someone after all who could save me, or try to save me, from conceit and blindness and bigotry and folly. It suggested that my time of being alone might have an end.
There is no way to say this other than to say it, though I will appear the ass for doing so, but as an athlete and a musician I did not wholly succeed in going unnoticed by the soft personnel on campus. But I already harbored a holy devotion to a girl six-hundred miles away, and I didn’t see why there should be a surfeit of girls here. I didn’t need them. I needed male company—something better than crotch-scratching male company. What I lacked was someone to sit shoulder-to-shoulder with and speak to in complete sentences.
There came a Friday later in the term, and I was thinking of driving my ’74 Volkswagen Beetle an hour down the road to hear the Canadian Brass. Intelligence had discovered that this bespectacled classmate had an appetite for something other than Linda Ronstadt and Journey. Would he like to go along?
I learned later with what suspicion he accepted the offer: the only time jocks ever talked to him, at least in high school, was when they wanted help with their homework. But by the time we returned to campus that evening we had not only heard some good brass; we had aired enough private demons, and parted with enough opinions, to think there would be reason to speak again. I do in fact remember his saying these words exactly: “I’d like to talk to you sometime.” The words lingered, echoed, reverberated. Power forwards seldom said this sort of thing—except to mini-skirted cheerleaders with lip gloss and big hair.
Not much later I visited him in his rooms. He brewed some tea and put on some baroque music while I read the spines of the books on his bookshelf. Soon we were sipping Earl Grey and talking about books. The cloud of aloneness—as distinct from loneliness, for that is another matter—was lifting from two heads at once. A white egg was cracking from the inside. Something was hatching. The name for it in English is “friendship.”
Mary Wollstonecraft was wrong to call it “the most holy bond of society,” but she was not altogether wrong. Friendship may not be solemnized by sacraments, but there is something sacred in it. It does have its attendant rituals, rituals that dignify and rites that sanctify it. It, too, should not be entered upon lightly.
This bespectacled classmate was a reader of immense appetite. I learned to my astonishment that he could read almost a book a day—eighty or ninety over the course of a summer break—whereas I plodded along, two minutes per page, no matter the book. I delighted to know someone who by my lights had read so much; perhaps he marveled at being drawn to someone who by comparison had read so little.
I don’t think it is too much to say that Lewis’s The Four Loves provided a kind of hermeneutic by which we would understand this thing we had entered. Lewis had taught us an important distinction: “Lovers are normally face to face, absorbed in each other; Friends, side by side, absorbed in some common interest.”
And now we were about to witness something else: “It is when two such persons discover one another,” Lewis had said, “when, whether with immense difficulties and semi-articulate fumblings or with what would seem to us amazing and elliptical speed, they share their vision—it is then that Friendship is born. And instantly they stand together in an immense solitude.”
That solitude is a palpable necessity to friendship. There must to some extent be a drawing away. Seldom can you talk to the whole pub, and never for very long. Mostly you must go off to your corner and work on the point you were making yesterday about negative capability or the apophasis or Brahms’ first symphony. The pints will help so long as the rule of not-too-much be observed. They will preserve the solitude, wall it off. Pints are on the side of friendship.
At all ages, but especially when we are young, such friendships can both save and enslave us. Rarely do they enslave, I think, though I have seen this happen, especially with young women for whom the line between phileo and eros blurs. I expect this blurring is what Cara, Lord Marchmain’s mistress in Brideshead Revisited, had in mind when she said of the intense friendship between Sebastian and Charles Ryder: “I know of these romantic friendships of the English and the Germans. They are not Latin. I think they are very good if they do not go on too long.”
Ours must have been Latin rather than Teutonic. We were young men with the usual heat in our veins–or what my friend later called an “unfortunate biological urge”–and all-too aware of it. (“Eros,” Lewis said, “will have naked bodies; Friendship naked personalities.”)
But whatever the descent of this friendship, it would be brief in the manner we knew it; it would not enjoy the benefit of proximity. I would not be able to abide another season in the locker room. Running with a different set of teammates from the one I’d grown up with, playing as a mercenary before alien crowds—none of it satisfied. It was all stage props and lighting. And musicians turned out to be more vicious and competitive than athletes. I had had enough of music theory and man-to-man defense alike. Plus—nay, above all—there was a girl who was way too far away. Friendship might endure a breach in proximity; eros would not. I left school at the end of the year. From then on the friendship would have to survive in letters.
We probably taught ourselves to write by writing letters. We both thought highly of the form, the ars dictaminis, and sometimes gave ourselves rather more to letter-writing than to the demands of our formal education. But our education went into the letters, which ran the gamut of books, theological disputes, other friendships, some forming, some detonating. These letters passed between us for a dozen or so years, during which time we hardly ever spoke and rarely saw each other.
He stood in my wedding and at length took a seminary degree. My wife and I attended his ordination in that same Virginia valley where he and I would later sit among the tombstones, looking back on what friendship had given and proximity had denied us. I returned to Virginia to visit him once again while he was serving as an Anglican curate. He was taking brief care of an old farmhouse in the countryside. We walked along the creek and through the pastures, talking or not talking, until darkness sent us back to the house, where by the fire we partook of the grape—the wine lifted us a hair’s breadth above the earth—and read to each other in the cracking light. I made my first acquaintance that night with Lanterns on the Levee: he read the chapter titled “Sewanee.” A particular prospect from earlier in the day reminded me of the summer farm and the childhood that Dylan Thomas had commemorated, once below a time. I found a copy of his poems in the house and read “Fern Hill.” There was a rumor in the house and a legend in the area that a ghost, one “Mrs. Agnew,” inhabited the premises, but she did not appear before such odd fellows as imbibed and read by the fire that night.
I fly over a good bit of history (in much of which I do my part to destroy good friendships I ought to have preserved) to bring this narrative to the moment when Antony, as he was now called (having taken that name at his chrismation into Orthodoxy), was preparing to undergo a monastic obedience. Over a break during the final year of his second stint in seminary he had made a pilgrimage to Mt. Athos and was now determined to return there permanently once he’d finished school.
From Florida to Greece—with a northern jock as his sponsor into the ancient faith. Unremarkable? Improbable. Preposterous.
“We think we have chosen our peers,” Lewis wrote. “In reality, a few years’ difference in the dates of our births, a few more miles between certain houses, the choice of one university instead of another, posting to different regiments, the accident of a topic being raised or not raised at a first meeting—any of these chances might have kept us apart. But, for a Christian, there are, strictly speaking, no chances.”
We are now in that Virginia cemetery, for, improbably, I now live in that same valley where several years ago he had been a curate. We are going over the past in somber tones. And now, with wandering steps and slow, we are walking down the Old Muse road. He is having his last cigar. The buzzards soar above, look down. Antony, to whom an Athonite abbot will soon give yet another name, has been saying his good-byes and divesting himself of his worldly goods. He has stopped in Fincastle to take his leave of my wife and me. A friend in Brookline now has his stereo. His brother will get his car. His library will stay here with me.
When the last moment comes I say “good bye, old friend.” The moniker is familiar to us. We first used it ironically, a decade ago; now it is fitting.
It isn’t clear to either of us that we will see each other again here in this vale of sorrows, nor is it troublesome. We’ve hardly ever seen each other.
But we will. I will make a pilgrimage to Mt. Athos. My old friend with a new name and a very long beard will greet me on the dock as I step off the boat. His abbot will have released him from his work while I am there so that we can walk and talk again.
He takes me straight to the monastery graveyard, where his first duty had been to exhume the bones of dead brothers, wash them, and place them in the charnel house. I see the piles of femurs, the skulls on shelves, line upon line of them, reminding us of the one important fact of life: that it ends. Later that night we will share a little scotch in my cell. I’ve brought it along for old time’s sake. He will send me away with two bottles of monastery wine and two bottles of monastic white lightening, which in a year’s time I will serve after my elder son’s baptism.
After the walks and the prayers and the early (and endless) services and a few days’ worth of talk we must take our leave again, and this time it may well be for good. Proximity, we have learned, is mere, but a nice touch. My name will be on his lips, his on mine, as before the saints in the dark and holy places on either side of this swiftly spinning sphere flames flicker and fragrant smoke rises, until at last one of us must utter the sad words, “out, out, brief candle.”