I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. (John 15:15)
Friendships can be a source, not only of spiritual growth, but also of great enjoyment and satisfaction — and thus, the ending of a friendship on bad terms can be the cause of considerable pain and sorrow. Arguments, disagreements, or misunderstandings can end relationships that had been life-giving and enriching.
If this has happened to you, take heart; some of the saints had this unhappy experience. The foremost example of friendship’s coming to an end involves Jesus Himself — for one of His own disciples betrayed Him.
When Judas Iscariot led the temple guard into the Garden of Gethsemane to arrest our Lord, Jesus addressed him as “friend” (Matt. 26:50) not ironically or sarcastically, but genuinely and lovingly. The Lord was willing to forgive Judas for what he was doing, but Judas refused; the relationship came to a tragic end — not because Jesus willed it so, but because Judas gave in to despair after his act of betrayal and hanged himself.
Saints & Strained Friendships
Several instances of strained friendships among the saints have been recorded. St. Paul and St. Barnabas were close friends. Indeed, it was Barnabas who introduced Paul to St. Peter and the other Apostles.
Barnabas’s acceptance of Paul helped the other early Christians overcome their suspicion of this former persecutor of the Church, and the two apostles were chosen by the Holy Spirit to go forth together as missionaries. Barnabas had his young cousin St. Mark accompany them; however, during the journey, Mark turned back for some unknown reason (Acts 13:13) which angered Paul. When the two apostles were preparing for another missionary journey, Barnabas again wanted to take Mark along, but Paul, remembering the youth’s earlier inconstancy, would not permit it, and this led to a temporary falling out between the two friends.
In the fourth century, St. Heliodorus met St. Jerome in Italy, and became a disciple and eventually a friend of the great scholar; he even helped finance Jerome’s translation of the Bible into Latin, the common language of the day. (This translation, requested by Pope St. Damasus, became known as the Vulgate.) When Jerome and his disciples went to the Holy Land, Heliodorus followed, although he refused to join them in a life of seclusion in the desert, because he felt that God wasn’t calling him to that lifestyle.
Jerome, who was known for his fierce temper, was very upset by this and rebuked Heliodorus in an impassioned letter. Heliodorus returned to Italy and was appointed bishop of the small town of Altino; from there he demonstrated a generous and forgiving nature by continuing to send financial support to Jerome.
Saints Basil & Gregory
Sometimes personality differences can strain friendships. The classic example of this involves the fourth-century saints Basil and Gregory of Nazianzus.
Basil was outgoing, forceful, and determined; Gregory was sensitive, shy, and retiring. Both men had been ordained priests — Basil very willingly, Gregory very reluctantly — and both retired to a monastery for a time. In 370, Basil was appointed Bishop of Caesarea, and he proved to be well suited for an active role in defending Church teaching against the heresies of the day.
Two years later, he, in turn, appointed his reluctant friend Gregory as Bishop of Sasima. But, instead of going there, Gregory remained in Nazianzus to help his father, who was bishop there (in the early days of the Church, celibacy was not required of clergy). This greatly angered Basil, who was perhaps used to getting his own way in such matters. Eventually, however, the two friends were reconciled, and had this reconciliation not happened during their earthly lives, we can be sure it would have happened in Heaven.
Friendship is a gift from God; indeed, according to St. Aelred of Rievaulx, “God is friendship.” That’s why St. Francis de Sales could say, “Friendships begun in this world will be taken up again, never to be broken off.” This thought may be a consolation if you’re saddened over the end of a once-satisfying friendship; you have the assurance that in the kingdom of God, all broken relationships will be healed and perfected. (If you don’t want to reestablish a relationship with someone, even in Heaven, you had better start praying for a change of heart — for the only way to avoid knowing and loving someone in eternity is for one or both of you to miss out on God’s kingdom.)
Our friends are supposed to help us grow in holiness, and we’re to do the same for them. Helping one another to grow in holiness may sometimes call for fraternal correction, although in this regard, St. Francis Xavier advises, “The better friends you are, the straighter you can talk, but while you are only on nodding terms, be slow to scold.”
Our concern for our friends’ spiritual well-being always involves the risk that they’ll be offended by us or upset with us, but every friendship — even a broken one — can prove to be a blessing when seen from the viewpoint of eternity.
Further Reflection from the Saints
“Particularly when I am worn out by the upsets of the world, I cast myself without reservation on the love of those who are especially close to me. I know that I can safely entrust my thoughts and considerations to those who are aflame with Christian love and have become faithful friends to me. For I am entrusting them not to another human, but to God, in whom they dwell and by whom they are what they are.” — St. Augustine
“For those who live in the world and desire to embrace true virtue, it is necessary to unite together in holy, sacred friendship.” — St. Francis de Sales
“If a person were to suffer insults, beatings, and imprisonment for one of his friends, how distressed he would be to know that his friend remembered nothing of it and did not even want to hear people talk about it. On the other hand, how gratified would he be to know that his friend always spoke tenderly about it and often thanked him for it. Thus Jesus Christ is greatly pleased when we recall with loving gratitude His pains and the sorrows and death that He suffered for us.” — St. Alphonsus Liguori (Each time we are treated badly by a friend, we might ask ourselves how we’ve been treating the greatest Friend of all.)
Something You Might Try
St. Augustine says,
When we are harassed by poverty, saddened by bereavement, ill, or in pain, let good friends visit us. Let them be persons who not only can rejoice with those who rejoice but can weep with those who weep. Let them be persons who know how to give useful advice and how to win us to express our own feelings in conversation.
You should strive to be the good friend Augustine speaks of, even to your former friends — especially when they experience misfortune. This will be a sign of genuine Christian charity on your part, and, in the case of a broken friendship, it may even make reconciliation possible.
It’s important to maintain a charitable spirit toward former friends, even if they act unjustly toward you. When St. Thomas More was condemned to death for refusing to accept the invalid marriage of King Henry VIII, he said to his judges — some of whom had been friends and colleagues:
“As St. Paul held the clothes of those who stoned Stephen to death, and as they are both now friends in Heaven and shall continue there as friends forever, so I truly trust and will most heartily pray, that although your lordships have now here on earth been judges to my condemnation, we may nevertheless hereafter meet in Heaven in everlasting salvation.”
This article is an excerpt from Fr. Esper’s Saintly Solutions to Life’s Common Problems. It is available from Sophia Institute Press.