Intimate companion: The truths in etymology

By Guest Blogger Joe Fessenden

Halloween with one of my closest friends

Perhaps you don’t know this, but I’m a bit of a nerd. It’s okay; I can admit it. I am. One of my aspects of nerd is learning from whence certain words came. That is a knowledge that often leads to truths and deeper understandings than the words, as they are used in common society, convey.


The word ‘intimate’ has gotten a bad reputation in recent years, not so much because it’s a bad word, but because we have narrowed its meaning so much that it generally indicates sexual intimacy. Unfortunately, that’s only one use of the word, and it is, I think, one of the weakest uses. Applied to sexuality, intimacy is an accident, not the nature of the act. It is simply the fact that sexual activity invites intimacy in the true sense that we have come to use the word like that.

‘Intimate’ is related to the Latin word timeo. ‘Timeo‘ is the same Latin root that gives us words like ‘timid’; it means fear. Stop and consider for a moment. This means that intimacy is to let someone into your fear. It is, first and foremost, an expression of trust for another person. It is the act of letting someone in where you are afraid, of letting another see your fear, of sharing that fear. In all of these, it is the trust that the openness that this involves will not be used to hurt you.


In a lot of ways, this is the word that has been rolling around my head waiting for me to get around to writing. Look at the word; what do you think it means? If you happen to have a good Latin background (or Spanish or another Romance language), you can probably work it out.

Like ‘intimate,’ Companion betrays Latin roots: cum (with) and pan (bread). A companion is a person with whom you share bread. There ya go! Break out the Wonder Bread and start sharing!

It still goes deeper than that, though. In our day, we have become somewhat jaded to the real significance of eating bread with someone. As Christians, we can reflect on the significance of the “breaking of the bread,” but there’s another angle I want to invite you to think about.

This thought became clearer to me as I read through a book I was assigned to read for a spirituality class in the seminary, Journey Back to Eden. It is a memoir of a Benedictine monk who spends a year living with the Coptic monks in the deserts of Egypt. In the course of the book, he tells this story of events that unfolded when the jeep he was driving died in the middle of the desert (I’m significantly abridging it, but click the link and buy the book – it’s well worth the read).

I walked quite a distance looking for some help or a resting place in the shade when, finally, I noticed a goat… I followed the animal from a distance until it led me to the tents of its owner in an encampment of the Bedouins of the tribe of Muzeina. I presented myself at the first tent, where the father of the dwelling, burly and larger than life, lavishly welcomed me in the custom so typical of the Arab world. He sat me down on pillows, and, with the precious water of his house, washed my feet and my hands and gave me to drink. [Editor’s note: Let’s remember that the Bedouins live in the middle of the desert! They can’t just turn on the faucet. This is the water that they collected at their last visit to an oasis as their whole water supply.]

Part of the hospitality of the father of the tent-dwellers was  to pour out at my feet the equivalent of a bushel of cakes of bread! … Since water is scarce in the desert, they must do all of their baking during those relatively few times when they are close to a generous supply of water. They make a lot of bread and carry it with them as they travel. To prevent it from becoming stale on the journey, they bake their bread with a thick, hermetically sealed crust, which keeps the inside moist and fresh. Once a cake of bread is opened, it must be eaten more or less all at once, because it cannot be saved. No plastic wrap, no tinfoil, no tupperware here. Their means of preservation is a thick crust in its integrity. Once broken, all the contents must be eaten or they will be lost.

The father…picked up one of the cakes of bread at my feet and broke it open for me. I scooped out the insides and ate the delicious bread. Even as I was eating the first cake, he broke another and put it before me. I thanked him and said that I had had enough, now, but he urged me to a third one, even though I was only nibbling the second.

This story goes on until the author tells that the father “took one cake after the other from all that were lying before me – all of the bread of his family – and broke each one open in front of my face.” This Bedouin man had made this stranger from an American Benedictine monastery his companion – even despite the American’s resistance. The act of breaking the bread wasn’t just an empty gesture, nor was it a vague offer to be polite as is so much of our interaction in the world today. Instead, it was an offer that engendered making the bread available in a way that it was truly a gift, not just a token. The bread would no longer be edible in a matter of hours, so it was not an offer to look good without actually risking anything.

Intimate Companions—Friends

I think that, if we are to really understand what a friend is in life, then this is a definition that will take us a long way. A friend, if a true friend, is an intimate companion. It is in this fact that friendship is something lasting rather than ephemeral. A friend is someone who we trust enough to give every bit of power to tear us down, but who doesn’t; a friend is one who we will share everything we have and are, our whole supply of bread and water.

God never expected us to make our journey on earth alone. Even the most hermit-like of monks are part of a community – even if that community is only expressed as the Christian community. I don’t know about you, but I know that I’m nowhere near holy enough to make it through life without intimate  companions. Jesus serves as one, but there are times that His love has to be expressed in human language, and, for those times, there is the love and support from human intimate companions.

Over the last several years, I’ve had to spend a lot of time looking over my companions in life: sometimes intimate, sometimes merely acquaintances. Some people I thought were to be intimate companions, but I turned out mistaken. Others, I thought were simply a ship – a person – passing in the night, but somehow (often even the unlikeliest of people) grew into intimate companions in my own journey through life.

In one of my other entries, I brought up a Swahili proverb that I read quoted by Arthur Ashe in his autobiography, Days of Grace, “Hold on to your friends with both hands.” One of the most difficult things to discern in life is sometimes who the friends to be held are and who those people are who God never meant to be friends, but who He really did bring into my life for a mere season or a specific purpose. Sometimes, that season or purpose is so close to the heart that it makes it more difficult to discern when the time has come to let go.

Perhaps Aelred of Rievaulx solved this question in part:

I want you to believe these two truths: that no friend ever existed who could harm anyone he had once welcomed into friendship, and that a person who even if injured ceases to cherish someone he has once loved had not tasted the delights of true friendship, because a friend loves always.

Though challenged, though injured, though tossed into the flames, though nailed to a cross, a friend loves always. And as our Jerome says, “a friendship that can end was never true.
Aelred of Rievaulx: Spiritual Friendship

I (we) must hold on to our friends, our intimate companions, with both hands. At the same time, we must let those who never were—or who were never meant to be—go.

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