February 2007 - Volume 11, Issue 7
We live in a world of mass culture, a world where we are more and more identified by a number and not a name. We have become like refugees plunged into anonymity, adrift in this mass culture. We respond to this anonymity, this sometimes faceless existence, in a way that is common to all of us, one that is inborn in our very being; we make friends, we seek the joy of friendship.
History is full of celebrated friendships. Jesus, for example, had his Apostles and, most especially, his beloved friend, John; St. Francis of Assisi enjoyed the companionship of Brother Leo, and maintained a very special friendship with St. Clare. Plato wrote about the beauty of friendship and Aristotle, in Nicomachian Ethics, tells us that friendship is both necessary and noble and, therefore, to be cultivated. Friendship, indeed, meets a human need: we need to be comforted by the companionship of another. And so we value the time we share with the people we love. While all of us need community in an essential way, we need friendships just as much. Friends complete each other for they share that same profound and ultimately mysterious quality of being human.
To speak of friendship, then, is to speak of a universal value, the need of every human being, recognized as such or not. Within the bonds of friendship, we are able to give to one another two of the most valued qualities of life - joy and laughter. We seek friendship with those who put us at ease, and with whom we are not afraid to be ourselves. We desire friends with whom we can find the space to be ourselves.
The example of Christ provides us with the ultimate confirmation of the value of friendship. It was especially in his relationship with his disciples that Christ elevated friendship to the dignity of a virtue. In John 15:12-15 Jesus says: "This is my commandment: love one another as I love you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friend. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I no longer call you slaves, because a slave does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father."
It is here especially that Jesus equates friendship with love. Love is, indeed, essential for salvation. But Jesus does more than simply invite us to be his friends; he challenges us to extend our friendship to all we come in contact with, in reality, to everyone. This is the kind of friendship and love Christ envisions and calls us to practice. Christ understands friendship as a bond unity his followers together in a community; a bond that is characterized by Christ's own selfless sacrifice of himself. He once again defines and equates this kind of love and friendship: "Love one another as I have loved you. Greater love than this no man has, that he would lay down his life for his friends."
Christ's criteria for friendship are certainly clear. These are the means, the instruments with which we make friends and keep them. Christ teaches us that more than anything else, friendships represent a dimension of profound experience, requiring a constant and faithful commitment to each other; friendships like this can never be taken for granted.
Maintaining a friendship that is authentic demands certain qualities in the participants. There must first be a willingness on the part of each to focus on the other, and not on self; in other words, an authentic relationship of friendship must be one of other-centeredness. Honesty and mutual caring must accompany this other-centeredness which leads, then, to deep trust in the knowledge that true friends are always honest and speak only truth to one another, even when the truth may be a hard and difficult one to accept.
But to desire friendship is one thing; to live it is another. "Living it" may at times be difficult because "living it" implies availability, and availability is not always easy. But availability is one other quality of a true and authentic friendship. And availability implies, in turn, a willingness to listen; to listen, not just to words, but to feelings as well. Friends must allow themselves to feel and care for each other with sensitivity and an awareness which constantly grows in its ability to understand and respond to each other.
Any friendship that we enter into needs time to come to maturity. True friends will always seek to spend time together, with no other purpose than sharing the sheer joy of being together and laughing together.
A true and genuine friendship is truly a foretaste of heaven. Every quality found in an authentic friendship implies a deep and abiding love, which brings with it a deep and abiding joy. And what more can heaven be but coming into the presence of Love itself, and knowing that he is our friend.
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