The Gift of Friendship
After purchasing a house at a sheriff's auction, a Toledo, Ohio, man was understandably excited to move into his new home. When he finally did, however, he was horrified to discover the remains of the previous inhabitant, who had been dead for some time. Apparently, no one had noticed that he was missing or had gone looking for him.
This tragic incident is sadly reflective of our increasingly impersonal society, in which genuine human contact is harder and harder to come by. Such isolation takes its toll. Studies have shown that the fewer human connections we have at home, at work, in the community, and in religious institutions, the more likely we are to get sick, be filled with anxiety, and die prematurely. Conversely, these same studies indicate that the more human connections we have, the more likely we are to enjoy a long and healthy life.
We weren't made to live alone. "No man is an island," as the poet John Donne reminds us. We are made instead for relationships because we have been created in the image of God the Holy Trinity―a communion of three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit―who share one divine life of perfect, boundless love. It follows, then, that we flourish and prosper when nurtured within loving relationships. As Blessed Pope John Paul II has written: "Human beings are not made for solitude ... they grow to the extent that they enter into relationships with others. They need interpersonal relationships that are rich in inner depth, gratuitousness, and self-sacrifice."
Friendships are some of the most important relationships we can have. Jesus himself had many friends. During his earthly ministry, he surrounded himself with disciples and other companions-both men and women. Jesus seeks friendship with us too.
Our human friendships can help us to understand and accept Jesus' offer, as was learned by a woman I know well. Although both talented and beautiful, she is very different from her family, who never really understood her. This knowledge was both painful and frustrating for her, and she never really felt loved and accepted by them for who she is. She felt that they always wanted her to be somebody different, somebody else. She wondered if God thought the same way.
But then someone came into her life who was able to read her like a book and who knew right away what made her tick. This experience of being understood and accepted was a real turning point in her life. She began to feel lovable, empowered, confident, hopeful, and joyful. And she began to realize, maybe for the first time in her life, that Jesus really loved her. She was able to accept Jesus' acceptance of her because she had been accepted by somebody else.
The love of friends, then, can open our eyes to the love of God. Friends can also open our eyes to God's will, as Saint Francis of Assisi once learned. Early in life, he found himself at a crossroads. On the one hand, he thought that perhaps God was calling him to a quiet life of prayer and contemplation. On the other hand, he wondered if God wanted him to be a traveling missionary and preacher of the Gospel. To help decide, he turned to two friends-Saint Clare and Brother Sylvester-whom he asked to pray for him and get back to him. They prayed and then sent a messenger to Saint Francis. When the messenger arrived, Saint Francis asked, "What has my Lord Jesus Christ commanded that I should do?" "That thou go throughout the world to preach," came the reply. Upon hearing these words, Saint Francis jumped up and exclaimed: "Let us be going in the name of God!"
Friends can also challenge us when we fail to live in God's will, as we all sometimes do. On our own, we can be blind to our faults and shortcomings. As Saint John Climacus observed, "God has arranged that no one can see his own faults as clearly as his neighbor does." That's why God invites friends to correct each other―so they can build each other up in love.
God can speak to us through other people; we can hear the voice of Christ through the voices of our friends. And should our friends challenge us, it would be wise for us to listen, because they might be acting as the very mouthpiece of the Holy Spirit. And when that happens, we should be grateful instead of defensive and humble instead of proud. Pride says, "There's nothing wrong with me!" But humility says, "I'm still a work in progress."
Speaking though our friends, Jesus can say: "Be open to challenge; be receptive to constructive criticism; don't resist charitable correction!" Acceptance of criticism says to God that we're open to grow. And when we're open to grow, God can fill us with his grace.
Different friends can be a blessing to us in different ways. Catholic author Robert Wicks proposes that we need four distinct types of people in our lives: First, we need "prophets" who ask the question: "What guides and shapes the decisions you make?" Second, we require "cheerleaders" who support us when the going gets rough. Third, "harassers" are necessary to tease us so we don't take ourselves too seriously. Fourth, we need "spiritual guides" who encourage us to find meaning in our lives.v In short, we need people who love us, support us, guide us, challenge us, and make us laugh. We need people with whom we can share our sorrows and our joys, reveal our dreams and heartaches, and express our honest feelings. We need other people in order to be fully human.
And to be fully human is to reflect the God in whose image we are made-a God of relationships, a God of love. Indeed, "God is friendship," observed Saint Aelred of Rievaulx. And true human friendships can help us to live in friendship with the Lord. That's why Saint Thomas Aquinas could conclude: "There is nothing on this earth more to be prized than true friendship."
from When Faith Feels Fragile―Help for the Wary, Weak, and Wandering by R. Scott Hurd pp.119-122