Impressions of Italy and Life: Friends

Living “far from home,” I sometimes ponder the place and importance of friendship in my life. Keeping contact, at least on occasion, with those I hold near and dear is part of the adventure of working in a place that is not exactly home, but where I have been asked to work at present. For the moment Rome is my “home away from home.”

Prayer for family and friends is an important aspect of my daily routine here, part of what Saint Benedict calls the “Opus Dei,” that is, the “Work of God,” usually understood as the Divine Office (the Liturgy of the Hours), but really all that the monk does under God’s watchful care is the “Opus Dei.”

Some would say that friends are easier to get along with and keep if one only sees them on occasion or rarely. Maybe the same goes for some family members as well. This is not to say we should design our lives to be in remote proximity to family and friends, though presumably some people do that. It is simply a frequent reality of life that long distances are inevitable among friends and family. People may nonetheless attempt regular contact with those they love but who are far way, so that bonds established do not disappear.

“Keeping in touch” is much easier to accomplish today than in ages past, of course, and everyone knows the possibilities available today. For me, interaction with family, that is my older brother, younger brother and sister, and friends, primarily takes place via email or WhatsApp. More rarely, it is by a telephone call. I keep in touch with my community, as well, usually by email, sometimes by phone. Among family members, of which I now really only have three, my siblings, we meet up now and then, but not on a regular basis. This year, though, my sister is coming to Rome for the first time!

I also have friends I haven’t seen in many years, but with whom I keep in contact by an occasional or regular exchange of emails. Some friends go back fifty years or more and the journey through life, with its ups and downs for all of them, including serious health issues, loss of loved ones and simply getting older, myself included, has been part of the fodder of our communication.

I am now approaching sixty-five (didn’t Americans used to retire at that age? My father got to!), but slowing down or stopping doesn’t seem to be on the horizon. I accept that fact as I continue to interact with those who are far off as well as those who are near.

Many passages about the reality of friendship, including its place in life and value, are contained in the Bible. These Scripture references are too number to recount here, but one of the best is from the Gospel of John, chapter 15, verse 13: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

The English Cistercian monk and author Saint Aelred of Rievaulx, who lived from 1110 to 1167 AD, wrote a treatise specifically about “spiritual friendship,” a theory of friendship between people as a reflection and model of the relationship between God and each person.

What might a writer of many centuries ago have to say to people today who are encouraged, enriched and blessed with friends in their lives? Aelred of Rievaulx provides a useful Christian view, rooted in Sacred Scripture, of the manner of relating to people in general, both strangers and those we have known for years, whom we consider to be our friends.

For Aelred of Rievaulx, if a relationship helps one to grow in love of God and love of others, it becomes a sign of God’s all-encompassing love in the world, in the present and for eternity. The Holy Trinity is the model for all friendship, says Saint Aelred. Just as there is continuous love among the Three Persons of the Blessed Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, so the interaction or exchange between human beings, created in God’s image and likeness, is a spiritual work of exchange and a great gift to those whom we meet, be they strangers, family members or friends.

A loving manner of relating to others is the basis for all relationships that can be called “spiritual” in the best sense of the word. In the process of cultivating “spiritual friendship,” which obviously is more than just an accumulation of “pals,” we come to experience something of God’s love itself. This is charity at its best. As we know from Saint John the Apostle, “God is love and whoever lives in love lives in God and God in that one” (First Letter of Saint John, chapter 4, verse 16).

Borrowing an idea from the pagan Roman orator Cicero, Saint Aelred defines spiritual friendship as being accompanied by “good will and love.” This notion is perfectly compatible with the Christian understanding of love as well. Aelred of Rievaulx’s theory encapsulates the notion that in genuine love, three are involved, namely, myself, the other person and most importantly, God.

Authentic Christian friendship and love is supposed to “begin in Christ, continue in Christ and be perfected in Christ,” writes Saint Aelred. Hence, “carrying one another’s burdens,” as Saint Paul exhorts the Church in Galatia (chapter 6, verse 2), implies that every follower of Jesus be a person who forgives and continues loving others, even the difficult ones who are part of our life’s journey.

Those who have no friends or are unwilling or unable to relate to others, are in a sad state, says Saint Aelred. Why? Because such persons have no one with whom they can rejoice, share their sorrows or, as he says, “to whom they can unburden their hearts.” Aelred encourages those who profess to be followers of Christ, to be open to relating to others, to making friends, to being a part of a bigger family, either by blood or by choice, but decidedly with other human beings on the path of life. A pet (dog, cat, goldfish) cannot substitute for a human relationship, in other words.

Aelred of Rievaulx points out that people need to be discerning in whom they choose as friends. While it is sometimes said that friendship is a gift and that you do not choose your friends, the reality in the Christian realm is such that friends must be committed to doing good and promoting what is pleasing to God. If that is not taking place, then there needs to be change so that the right order is established.

If our relating to others is rooted in our love for God and the main reference point for all of our activities, then we are prepared to work at relationships, that is, friendship with others, through good times and bad, through joys and sorrows. This same approach applies to family as well as friends.

Christ said, “I no longer call you servants, but friends” (Gospel of Saint John, chapter 15, verse 15), so our interaction with others should be an effort toward friendship, in collaboration with Christ, and willingly accompanying others on their and our journey through life.

In relating to others as mature yet broken members of Christ’s Body, demands are inevitably placed on us, with the goal of bringing to life Christian commitment and community. As the poet John Dunne said, “No man (or woman) is an island.” We belong to God and to one another, the basis of all spiritual friendship.

The teaching of Saint Aelred of Rievaulx is still valid, grounded as it is in fundamental Christian principles. Later saints, such as Francis de Sales and Jeanne de Chantel, Francis and Clare of Assisi, John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, seem to have exemplified the kind of Christ-centered interacting, what we call friendship, that Saint Aelred proposed for follows of Jesus today, for you and for me.