We live in a lonely age. There are countless ways to stay digitally connected, but we remain one of the loneliest generations in human history. Suicide rates are skyrocketing, mental illness and addiction increases every year, and more and more people live alone. All of the social media accounts people spends hours a day on—I was one of them until I deleted all of them a year ago—point to the deep desire within our hearts to find and foster deep friendships with others. We are made for communion.
There are dozens of quotes about how ‘good friends are hard to find.’ This does tend to be the case throughout our lives. We often trust the wrong people or discover during a period of suffering that many of our friends are of the “fair weather” variety. In our superficial culture that tends towards the shallow, many people do not seem to know how or care to develop any deep lasting relationships with others. These relationships tend towards utility and use, rather than an authentic willing the good of the other. They do not last when the storms of life arise. This is just as true within the Church.
My daughter is currently reading, The Lord of the Rings. She became interested in it late last fall when we watched the movies during a period of illness for me. It then became a passion through the influence of a priest-friend. Being a girl, I am not surprised that her favorite character is Aragorn. My sisters are the same way. Aragorn is strong, courages, mysterious, and rugged. He fights battles and wields swords, most notably Anduril, Flame of the West, the sword of Isildur.
The other more common favorites are Gandalf and Legolas. Once again, understandable and obvious choices. Both exhibit wisdom, strength, and the desire to conquer evil. Frodo, as the ring-bearer, who perseveres to the end is also a good choice. I tell my daughter, however, that my favorite character is Samwise “Sam” Gamgee. Sam is the friend we all want in our heart of hearts, but seldom seem to find in this life.
Sam is stout-hearted, steadfast, and remains alongside Frodo no matter what happens on the way to Mordor and the fires of Mount Doom. When hope seems lost, it is Sam who continues on with, and for, Frodo. He stays with him regardless of the personal cost to himself. He understands the stakes are very high, but he is motivated by a deep love for Frodo who he watches suffer tremendously. He does not flee from this suffering. He enters into it. He takes it upon his own shoulders, even to the point of carrying Frodo:
Sam looked at him and wept in his heart, but no tears came to his dry stinging eyes. ‘I said I’d carry him, if it broke my back,’ he muttered, ‘and I will!’
‘Come, Mr. Frodo!’ he cried. ‘I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you and it as well. So up you get! Come on, Mr. Frodo dear! Sam will give you a ride. Just tell him where to go, and he’ll go.’ As Frodo clung upon his back, arms loosely about his neck, legs clasped firmly under his arms, Sam staggered to his feet; and then to his amazement he felt the burden light.J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, pg 940.
Sam could not carry the Ring of Power for Frodo. That burden belonged to Frodo alone. He could help to carry Frodo along the way, however. This is the secret of Christian friendship. We cannot carry the crosses of others for them, but we can carry them and walk beside them, never wavering because the pain becomes too much. We must remain present to those who are suffering. True friendship demands that we embrace the Cross alongside our friends, not flee from it, nor can we cast off those who would walk beside us in our suffering. We must both give and receive in moments of agony.
Oftentimes, friendship cannot pass the test of suffering because we ourselves are too weak and selfish. We don’t want to have to suffer with someone else. We prefer the comfort of our normal daily lives and do not want the inconvenience of our friend’s suffering. In this case, our selfishness stifles our ability to love and we will be unable to grow in love until we surrender to this aspect of friendship. As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI puts it:
In the end, even the “yes” to love is a source of suffering, because love always requires expropriations of my “I”, in which I allow myself to be pruned and wounded. Love simply cannot exist without this painful renunciation of myself, for otherwise it becomes pure selfishness and thereby ceases to be love.Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi 38.
The other mistake we often make when dealing with the suffering of others is in trying to find answers when there are no answers. Suffering is a mystery that do not understand. I told friends this past summer that there are no answers to why I have had five miscarriages and cannot have anymore children. It is a deep mystery—the most agonizing of my life thus far—that I must simply endure through union with Christ Crucified.
We may not have answers in the face of suffering, but we can be truly present to our friends in their suffering. Sam does not have words of wisdom or answers for Frodo in those final steps towards Mount Doom.
Frodo did not speak, and so Sam struggled on as best he could, having no guidance but the will to climb as high as might be before his strength gave out and his will broke.Ibid, 941.
We are asked to silently endure alongside of our friends. It is through this silence that our love is deepened and expanded because we move beyond words into the deeper silence of the inexhaustible love of God and our neighbor. Words often stifle us. Only a soul truly at rest in Christ who has given themselves away in love can enter into the depths of love that are found in silence. Friendships and deep relationships move into this deep silence: the silence of the Cross.
It is easy to see why this is so hard to find today. We flee from suffering and are seldom silent. We want things to be easy and we want instant gratification. We don’t want to have to go into dark, barren places with our friends the way Sam goes into Mordor with Frodo. This is why so often our friendships and relationships as a whole are shallow, unfulfilling, and leave us lonely. We are made for more. We are made for love and that includes deep relationships with others in Christ, but love requires sacrifice.
I first encountered a friend like Sam when I lived in England a couple of years after I was a 9/11 relief worker. We met at an Evangelical Christian conference through mutual friends. I was a nominally practicing Catholic at the time. She and I shared a tent at the event. That was how we first met. A few months later, I found myself getting in-patient treatment at a London hospital for delayed onset-PTSD. The military’s adage to just keep moving and avoid pain didn’t work out so well for me. I worked myself into the ground in an attempt to ignore the scars of my relief work and the terror of the evacuation I went through on 9/11.
The hospital was a 3-hour drive from where I lived. My friend took over all of my bills and other needs while I was undergoing treatment. She drove down every weekend she could during my month-long stay, and at one point, brought a group of friends down to have dinner with me at a restaurant near the hospital after working all day. She drove 6 hours round trip to have dinner with me. She showed me what true friendship looks like. There in the midst of the stigma—which was incredibly strong in the military at that point—abandonment, and terror I was undergoing, she helped carry me along the Way of the Cross. She was my Sam.
Deep down, we are all looking for a Sam in our lives. We find him first in Christ who ultimately is the only one we can fully rely on. We must also persevere and be Sam to others, even if we do not find a Sam in our own lives. We need to be the steadfast, strong, sacrificial, and deeply loving friend the people around us need. For love to mature, we must learn to give even if we are not fully loved in return. This is to live the love of Christ on the Cross. This is to walk to the very end with those we love. Sam gave everything, even though Frodo could not, because of the burden he carried.
‘I am glad that you are here with me,’ said Frodo. ‘Here at the end of all things, Sam.’ ‘Yes, I am with you, Master,’ said Sam, laying Frodo’s wounded hand gently to his breast. ‘And you’re with me. And the journey’s finished. But after coming all that way I don’t want to give up yet. It’s not like me, somehow, if you understand.’
May we all learn to love as Christ loves and become Sam to those around us.
Photo by Daniele Franchi on Unsplash