In 1985, two historians traveled through Turkey and the Middle East together. They started the trip as friends; they came home as sisters.
Their bond of spiritual sisterhood was forged in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Here, over what is believed to be the tomb of Jesus, the Syrian Orthodox Patriarch Mar Dionysius Behnam Jajaweh told Robin Darling Young and Susan Ashbrook Harvey to join their right hands, which he “wrapped in a portion of his garment,” as Young later recalled. “He pronounced a series of prayers over us, told us that we were united as sisters and admonished us not to quarrel. Ours was a sisterhood stronger than blood, confirmed in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, he said, and since it was a spiritual union, it would last beyond the grave.”
As Catholics gather in Panama for World Youth Day (Jan 22 – 27), these contemporary pilgrims might look to the two scholars’ example as they consider how to bring the pilgrimage home—and how its reviving work may deepen their friendships.
Claudia Rapp, whose 2016 study Brother-Making in Late Antiquity and Byzantium explored the forms of “adoptive brotherhood” and sisterhood found in Eastern Christianity, asked Archbishop Jajaweh about the ritual he performed with the two women. He said that this was a Syrian Orthodox custom, not found in other traditions (although such rituals did exist in other churches in earlier times). “Those who come on pilgrimage to the holy land,” the archbishop wrote, “do because of strong faith; they want to take part in this tradition of becoming brothers and sisters with each other to serve as a remembrance, as a blessing, as a way of getting to know each [other] and as a means to take a significant step in one’s personal life history. …They pray together saying (for example): ‘O Lord Jesus, make your grave the basis of spiritual brotherhood and faith-filled love among us so that we may live in you not only during our pilgrimage to your thresholds and the stages of your salvation only, but that we may carry the blessing of your grave with us to our homes and countries and we may act in accordance with the memories and impressions of this visit and that we may correspond to each other as brothers and sisters in your holy name.’”
Although when Rapp asked about the ritual in 2010 she was told that “no such practices exist today,” her work reveals a long and beautiful history, perhaps springing from monastic practices in which two (or sometimes three or four) monks would share their spiritual journey, even sharing the same cell or desert refuge. “Pilgrimage is essentially a displaced monastic experience with an expiration date,” Rapp notes, “and—like monasticism—is bound to transform human relations.”
“Brother-making” in the East has some common features with the vows of friendship and “wedded brothers” in Western Christianity, as explored by, for example, Alan Bray in his 2003 study The Friend. But adelphopoeisis or “brother-making” likely arose in the monastic world, and can link more than two people as kin. (Archbishop Jajaweh mentions uniting “two or ten” at the Holy Sepulchre.)
Monks who lived in pairs, Rapp says, found in one another “a joint purpose, shared living arrangements, mutual spiritual support, and the expectation that their bond would last into the afterlife.” And these bonds between monks, she argues, were imitated by laypeople who took up the practice of brother-making. Such friends or spiritual siblings were sometimes called “yoke-pairs,” like oxen toiling for the same Master—a term used for spouses as well as for pairs of men whose love for God was lived out together.
“Family” is narrower for us than it was in the Christian past. We rarely experience the kinship obligations which once came with godparenthood—let alone covenants of lifelong friendship like those made by David and Jonathan, or adoptive brotherhood and sisterhood.
Rapp’s work—like Bray’s, and like St. Aelred of Rievaulx’s lovely dialogues Spiritual Friendship—delineate the problems which can come with extending kinship to friends. Jealousy, conflict between friend and spouse, the opportunistic use of friendship for social advantage (the Byzantine Empire’s version of “networking”), even hiding adultery under cover of spiritual siblinghood are all attested by the historical record. And yet I can’t help but feel that these problems of obligation are better than our modern problems of isolation.
Nor have we replaced the beauty of these bonds. Prayers for making brothers or sisters include phrases like, “Lord our God… these your servants who love one another with spiritual love have come to your holy church to be blessed by you: Grant them faith without shame, love without suspicion, and just as you granted your peace to your holy disciples, grant also to them everything that they ask for their salvation and grant them eternal life.” Another adds, “Grant them the blessing of the spirit and strengthen them to serve and be subservient to one another in the fear of God.” If at World Youth Day you find one of your companions causing you to reflect, as still another brother-making prayer quotes, “Behold how good and delightful it is when brothers live together”—consider whether that person may become like a sibling, “not bound by nature, but by faith.” In this friendship your pilgrimage may continue for the rest of your life.