by The Rev. Charles Allen
Throughout the centuries one of the most consistent themes running through the history of Christianity has been the driving power of friendships. Whether it be the friendship between Jesus and his disciples ("I will not now call you servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doth. But I have called you friends - John 15:15), between Paul and Timothy, Clare and Francis of Assisi or Ignatius Loyola and Francis Xavier, the affection existing between friends has done much to enrich our religion.
While it is not a pleasant way to begin a discussion of friendship, we must admit that most friendships have been strengthened because of common suffering. Soldiers returning from the battlefield will always speak angrily of the ugliness of war and yet, in the same breath, they will talk with warmth about the friends that they made. People, who were initially perfect strangers, having passed together through a terrible storm, an earthquake, or some other natural disaster, will suddenly feel themselves to be the closest of friends and years later will sit and reminisce about their shared experiences.
There should be no need to describe in detail the personal rejections which strengthened the friendship of Jesus and his disciples, the dangerous travels that brought Paul and Timothy together, and the struggles to found religious orders that unite Clare and Francis and also Loyola and Xavier. Suffering is not something that any of us like, but one of the interesting fruits of suffering is strengthened friendships.
If there is a second quality of friendship, it is communication. As a member of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) I cannot help but be moved by the wonderful letters which exist between Loyola and Xavier. St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, was probably the most prolific letter writers of the sixteenth century. Over and over again in his exhortations to the members of his young religious order he encouraged them to strengthen the unity of the order through letter writing. Every time I grumble about writing a Christmas card, a note of condolence to a friend who has lost a loved one, or a thank you note, I remember the importance that letter writing has had in preserving the friendships that I have experienced in my religious life.
Finally, a truly good friend is one for whom we are willing to make sacrifices. If all of our friends come to us thanks to parties, trips, good times and happy moments then we had better ask ourselves "how many true friends do I really have?"
On the loneliness of Golgotha Jesus learned how many friends he really had. As Thomas a Kempis in the Imitation of Christ puts it so well: "There are many who are willing to sit at the banquet table of the Lord, but very few who will stand by his cross."
The true friend is the one who is willing to be with us in the most difficult of times. Over and over again we should challenge ourselves by asking: "Am I a good enough friend to others to stand by them in their darkest moments?"
We all like to pride ourselves on the number of friends that we have. As we move through each day constantly uplifted by the presence of good friends, we should remember just how many of them have grown close to us through common suffering, how many of them have been good enough to communicate with us, and how many of them have been willing to make sacrifices that we might be happy.
May we all revel, like the disciples, in the friendship of Jesus Christ, who calls us not servants but friends.