The Gift of Friendship

January is the month for friendship. Today we celebrate the feast of SS Basil the Great and Gregory Nazianzen who were, among other things, close friends; later on we shall celebrate St Aelred of Rievaulx, author of one of the most influential medieval tracts on friendship, De Spirituali Amicitia (On Spiritual Friendship). They show us how creative Christian friendship can be, but since most of us are not in the same league as they were as bishops, theologians, poets or monastic founders, we may be forgiven for thinking our own friendships rather more humdrum, less noteworthy, maybe even less worthy of regard.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Our friends are gifts we should both treasure and celebrate as demonstrating something we might never otherwise know: the ability of human beings to love one another in uncomplicated ways. They show us something of God’s own love. The very word ‘friend’ has interesting Indo-European roots connecting it with both love and freedom. There is indeed something magnificent about bonds of affection entirely free of self-interest or ties of blood; and for Christians, there is the assurance of John’s Gospel, that Christ sees his disciples as friends.

So, why does friendship often seem to go wrong? Why do people who once loved each other as friends end up hating each other as enemies? One reason must be that we have a tendency to selfishness. We want exclusive rights. When we want exclusive rights over another person, things can go very wrong indeed. Instead of freedom and mutual respect we play out a game of dominance and submission. We forget that Christian friendship must always have a Trinitarian aspect, with Christ himself the bond of unity between the friends. One way to avoid falling into the trap of forgetfulness is to pray for our friends, to invite Christ into the time we spend with them. That doesn’t mean we are any less free, or that our friendships take on a pious cast that is death to all spontaneity or ‘silliness’. It simply means that we honour the giver of friendship as we honour our friend.

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6 thoughts on “The Gift of Friendship”

  1. ” While I was still a boy at school, the charm of my companions gave me the greatest pleasure. Among the usual faults that often endanger youth, my mind surrendered wholly to affection and be­ came devoted to love. Nothing seemed sweeter to me, nothing more pleasant, nothing more valuable than to be loved and to love.”
    The man was a genius with a pen.
    Your community chose one of Aelreds writings for my oblation, read by Dame Teresa, it was a very moving experience.

  2. I suspect that friendship to some is a sort of ownership? Or even a mark of status. People believe that having many friends is something to shout from the rooftops.

    We see this sort of competitiveness on social media, where the number of followers is marked out as some sort of celebrity or status, giving you a position of supposed power an influence in Social Media or wider society.

    I find this quite extraordinary. I and my spouse have between us, something like 30 people (singles an couples) that we’d count as close friends, but countless acquaintances, who we greet via cards exchanged at Christmas an Birthdays (if we are able to remember them all). But our closer friends are the ones that we meet often, via phone, email, on facebook (pm) or when possible in the flesh to eat and share together, sharing our experiences, swapping family stories or recalling times past, and the various things that we’ve done and share together.

    It’s good to know and to interact in love with a wide range of people, some who might become friends, some who will remain acquaintances as we can’t have the capacity to get to know hundreds of people or to build close relationships with them all. Much as we might like too.

    Jen has friends that go back to her childhood, because she has remained embedded in her community for most of her life, while I’ve been a traveler with the Army, where mobility and constant changes of unit, location or country were the better part of my adult life from age 17. Sadly, keeping in touch from friends from those days has proven to be virtually impossible, although, people we met jointly, in our later, joint service, have stuck and are part of that close knit group that our our friends now.

    I do occasionally meet one or two at a reunion, or a funeral as with impending age, people die and I get to hear of it through military channels.

    The sad thing about being from a service community, where friendships and close relationships can develop and be sustained in quite dangerous situations, is that so many end up isolated, homeless or in prison. A couple of years ago, a survey of Ex-Service personnel in prison in Kent along, highlighted that nearly 20 percent had been in one of the Armed Forces at some time in their lives. Something happens in the transition from a close, tight knit community in the Armed Forces to civilian life, which causes all sorts of social issues, that isolate and make vulnerable, formerly, strong an fit young men and women.

    Much of it is connected with undetected mental health issues arising from their service experiences, an issue which was in the first world and second world wars, poorly recognised, and people didn’t speak about it a lot. Now, with more awareness of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, it’s a scandal that some, still fall through the net.

    Service charities make great efforts to support the severely injured and their families, and the public has been generous in their support for charities such as ‘Help for Hero’s’ while the mental health charities such as ‘Combat Stress’ struggle to provide services for their clients. Meanwhile the MoD in it’s wisdom, continues to discharge personnel with mental health problems arising from their service, and places them in the care of the NHS, in which, it’s widely acknowledged that Mental Health is the ‘Cinderella’ of health care. Funding is constantly reduced, beds closed and vulnerable people are shipped hundred of miles away to places where a bed might be available.

    This is where friendship can be so helpful to both Ex-Servicemen and elderly or isolated people in general. Providing a place for them to come, to be welcomed is something we as a parish are doing. The initiative has only been running for some four months, but word spreads fast and we have gone from 8 coming on the first time we opened our doors to 52 in the week before Christmas.

    This is agape love at it’s heart and service to others, which Jesus asked us to do. I’ve been privileged to share in this vital ministry to others, and have seen the blossoming of friendships and relationships between people who were strangers, but can now greet each other both with us and when they’re living their day to day lives. Our object isn’t to get them into Church, but to be the listening ear, the welcoming hearth (figuratively speaking) that they can be comfortable and secure and safe beside. A good 30 percent of those who come have been in the Armed Forces, many have been widowed and are living alone with little support.

    God inspired one member of our parish with the idea, but it has inspired many more of us to be part of it. 17 people turned up to support the 52 who came last time around.

    This it offering the friendship and peace of Christ – holding out Jesus’ hand to those in need and seeing it grasped eagerly and readily.

    God be praised.

    • Thank you for such a thoughtful comment, Ernie. One extra point, if I may. You and I are never likely to meet in person, so to say, but I do think we fall into the category of online friends, which is a new kind of friendship — more than acquaintance, but not the close friendship you mention at the beginning of your comment. We are both lucky enough to have had many ordinary friendships over the years that enable us to understand how such friendship can work in an online setting — its limitations and dynamics. However, there are an increasing number of people who don’t and whose online friendships are shot through with unreal expectations. I suspect this may become more of a problem for us in the west as time goes on.

  3. A very timely post for me as at New Year I resolve every year to make more time for my friends and always fail as my life is so frantic (teaching not exactly being a restful profession).

    UK Viewer your comment made me think too – I have to say I always look out for your posts online and want to knowwhat you have to say. It is odd, this online thing – I’m never likely to meet you but there’s a comfortable familiarity in seeing your comments.

    Happy New Year to all!

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