One of the greatest goods in this life is friendship. We see the importance of friendship throughout Scripture. Christ Himself developed close friendships with the Apostles and others. He had a truly profound friendship with St. John in particular. He even tells us that there is no love greater than laying down one’s life for his friends (John 15:13).
The greatness of friendship has been articulated down through the ages, including in both the Old and New Testaments, the writings of Aristotle, a moving portrayal in St. Augustine’s Confessions, the works of St. Thomas Aquinas, and by the saints. The saints themselves have shared great friendships amongst themselves, and much to our culture’s shock in its overemphasis on eros, there have been deep holy friendships between men and women grounded in agape as seen in St. Francis and St. Clare, as well as St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane de Chantal, and others.
The problem with friendship in our culture is twofold. First, we allow our friendships to take on too utilitarian of a nature. Rather than focusing on the love we have for the other person, we often only call on people when we need something.
These friendships of utility are considered the lowest by Aristotle for rather obvious reasons. They serve a purpose, but they lack depth and meaning. This is a very common type of friendship. They serve their purpose, but in the end leave us unfulfilled because they lack any real connection between the parties. It is a relationship of usefulness and that’s it.
The second problem, we have placed an inordinate emphasis on eros, or romantic love, to the detriment of other forms of love. Our culture has convinced us that our spouse can completely fulfill us and be all things to us. This has never been the Christian understanding, which is evidenced by both Sacred Scripture and Church history. No person besides Jesus Christ can be all things to us and completely fulfill us. Our spouse is our first and best friend, but in no way are they meant to be our only friend. This type of understanding leads us to cave in on ourselves and to forget the world around us.
Love is meant to make us move outwards from ourselves, and marriage is no different. Marriage is where the principle of subsidiarity is first practiced in order for us to move outwards in our mission of bringing the world into conformation with the Most Holy Trinity.
Another view that many of us have of friendship is that friends are merely for our pleasure or the good feelings they provide. This is another form of friendship Aristotle discusses that is a sort of mid-level friendship. We share common interests with these friends. We socialize with these people and spend time together, but it is merely for pleasure’s sake. Our affections for these friends are grounded in shared interests and commonalities, but do not go beyond this level. These relationships are well and good, but they too leave us desiring more. These friendships do not plumb the depths of reality and God, and they are not designed to help us reach our destiny and eschatological end. They are good in themselves, but a much lesser good than the types of friendships the saints sought after or that Our Lord discusses in the Gospels.
Friendships in communion with Christ
The greatest friendships are those grounded in Christ. We enter into these friendships with people who are also walking the path to holiness and who know that it is Christ who is the center of our lives and the friendship. It is the communion we share in the Holy Eucharist and the life of the Church that draws these friendships into untold depths. As these friendships develop, mystical dimensions may emerge as we begin to see more clearly the reality of God working in our lives, and how through the mystery of solidarity, we are all connected in Christ.
These friendships allow us to see the good and the bad in the other person, but we are able to love these friends as Christ loves. They reveal to us our universal call to love all people as Christ does, but it is in these friendships that we truly learn to live this reality and move outwards in charity. An understanding or knowledge at a deeper level of reality is present that cannot readily be articulated but is known by those people in the relationship. This is the type of friendship many of the saints experienced precisely because they are rightly ordered to our ultimate end in God.
When I think of a contemporary example of this reality, I think of the pictures I have seen of St. John Paul II embracing Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. The love and respect these two men had for one another in Christ is palpable and a beautiful witness to the power and joy of true Christian friendship. The unique bond the two shared is evident, even in photographs.
With this in mind, what are some ways that we can foster deeper friendships with those around us and seek friendships grounded in Christ?
The first thing we need to do is pray for good and holy friendships. We should take this desire in the depths of our hearts to our greatest friend, Christ Jesus. He is the one who knows the inner-workings of our souls and who will provide the people we need to help us on the path to holiness and who we can help on the path as well. I know this to be true because I prayed for years for deep holy friendships. I made some mistakes in choosing the wrong people to trust as friends and was deeply hurt by the betrayal I experienced. During that time, a friend of mine suggested that I study more about friendship to come to a greater understanding of it. I greatly wanted deep, holy, and lasting friendships in Christ. He told me to read St. Aelred of Rielvaux’s Spiritual Friendship as a starting place.
The book itself is a dialogue between St. Aelred and various monks in the monastery with him at the time. He discusses the nature of friendship, including the types of friendships that I mentioned from Aristotle. He would say these are not authentic forms of friendship and that all friendship must be truly ordered and grounded in the Trinitarian life. I think this point can be debated, but I definitely understand his argument when I consider the friendships throughout my own lifetime. More than anything, he emphasizes that holy friendship develops through Christ out of affection and reason, with the latter being the higher force in friendship. He rightly points out that if we do not temper our affections then they can take over reason and we can choose to enjoy the affections of that relationship and neglect our other duties.
All of the saints would agree that prayer is an essential aspect of holy friendships. First, we should take our desires to Our Lord and ask Him to provide people in our lives with whom we can develop long lasting and holy friendships that allow us to walk on the path to holiness together. Second, we should be praying for our friends with great regularity. Part of loving our friends is bringing them to Christ in our prayers and seeking His aid on their behalf. True charity is learned in the school of prayer and praying for our friends helps us to grow in greater love of them and Our Lord.
Be the holy friend you desire
We cannot give to people what we do not ourselves possess. This means that we must be ardently striving to lead lives of holiness through prayer, self-sacrifice, the Sacraments, Scripture, and working to faithfully live out our individual vocations. Holy friendship is fruitful because it comes from selfless love. Christ Himself is our example on the Cross where He pours out every ounce of His blood in loving obedience to the Father and for our sake. We too must become people who pour ourselves out in selfless love to others. We must learn to avoid fostering expectations of other people and allow them to come to their own understanding in these friendships. They develop organically over time, and most of all, in God’s time. We must give freely without expecting something in return. In so doing, we reveal our authentic love for others and our desire to live together in communion with the Most Holy Trinity.
There are inherent virtues in friendships that we should all try to foster. Of course, we should be living the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love, as well as the cardinal virtues of temperance, justice, fortitude, and prudence. In living a life of virtue, we can work by God’s grace to overcome our own character defects, weaknesses, and temptations. This helps us to become less of stumbling block to others and it will allow us to love more freely. This will take a lifetime, but it is something we should be actively living in our daily lives.
Put people first
Besides the cardinal and theological virtues, we must also focus on properly ordering people first in our lives. We are all busy, but in our culture, we have a tendency to place our to do lists over people. I do it. We all do it. There are times when our friendships, even good and holy friendships, will go through a period of distance due to the requirements of our lives. Sickness and major projects are often the things that cause these periods. It is important, however, that we still seek to nourish these friendships in whatever way we can during this time, whether it be through text, email, or a phone call, and we make a concerted effort to spend quality time together again when time permits. We should provide words of encouragement and prayer to keep the friendship fruitful. If we don’t, then we can very easily slip into utilitarian patterns of friendship and the flower of that friendship will wither.
There is also a required vulnerability in deeper friendships, especially those grounded in Christ. When we see others as Christ sees them, we begin to see aspects of the person that they themselves may not be aware of or want others to know. The intuition that can arise in these friendships requires an openness and willingness to allow another person into the deepest parts of ourselves. In our Fallen state, this is difficult for a wide variety of reasons. We have to turn to Christ in trust and learn to abandon ourselves to His plans for our lives, including our friendships. I know from personal experience that friendships grounded in communion with Christ are unimaginable in their glory and the depths are endless. We Americans need to learn to temper our rugged individualism, which is largely counter to the Catholic understanding, and learn to be open to the communion Christ wants to extend to us through holy friendships.
Friendship itself is a temporary state in this life. There is no denying that one day we will all be separated from our friends. While this is most true in death, it is something we all experience when we move away or someone else moves away and the friendship either dissolves or grows distant. Holy friendships do not end in this way–even if two people are divided by great distances–because they are ultimately still in communion with Christ. This is one of the great gifts of truly holy friendships.
Friendship itself will reach its fulfillment and intended glory when we stand re-united before the Beatific Vision. It is then that we will fully see once another as we truly are and be free to love completely while dwelling in communion with the Most Holy Trinity. This is the glorious end that God intends for our friendships, if only we have the courage and charity to open ourselves to so great a gift.