You notice I write, valuing our friends. Friendship is an abstraction: it has to be enfleshed in a particular person, so to say, before we really understand what it means. Recently, a friend with cancer wrote me a rather sad little note. She complained, not bitterly or angrily but sadly and regretfully, that one of the things she found hardest about her illness was the falling-off of old friends. Not all her friends, of course, but one or two she had loved most dearly seemed to have no time for her now that she could no longer be the friend she had once been. They did not understand her exhaustion and mistook it for indifference. The limitations of her life irritated them: they were unable to grasp that there were activities she could no longer enjoy, foods she could not eat, events she could not attend. She who had been the life and soul of the party was now a party-pooper. She could no longer give her friends the time she had once delighted to share with them, so now they seemed to have no further use for her. What could she do about it?
I have to admit that my first thought was: nothing. To a much lesser extent than my friend, I have experienced something of the same myself — and it is made much worse because people tend to think that nuns have limitless amounts of time to devote to them. During the last few days, I have been an arch party-pooper myself. In my case, I know that there will come a moment when the nausea and the tiredness lessen and I am capable of being something like my old self. My friend is not so fortunate. For her there seems to be only less and less vitality. Her world seems to be closing in on her, and I am convinced it need not be so.
It is easy to be a friend when all is going well, when we can enjoy time spent together and celebrate all we have in common; but to be a friend in sacrifice, when everything we once shared seems stripped away and, if we’re honest, our friend endlessly disappoints with his/her inability to be what they once were, that is much harder. We say, glibly enough, ‘a friend in need is a friend indeed’ or assure others that ‘we’ll always be there for them,’ but when it comes down to it, I wonder how many of us actually are. I think uncomfortably of the times I have failed my friends, when I’ve been too busy or preoccupied with concerns of my own really to be a friend to another.
To be a friend: that is what matters. The old Germanic roots of the word incorporate ideas of love and freedom — love freely given and asking nothing in return. Is this too high or difficult an ideal to place before us all? It is no accident, surely, that Christ addresses his disciples as his friends, but with this significant addition, ‘if you do what I command you.’ (John 15.14) His commandment is to love one another as he has loved us, with that generous, sacrificial love that seeks the good of the other rather than itself. Perhaps today we might think about our friends, especially those with whom we may have lost contact or who we know are going through a difficult time. Sometimes a brief word, a quick email, is all that is needed to assure the friend of our interest and affection. But it must be selfless, with no do ut des* about it. That is the difference between being a friend and seeking the fruits of friendship. Love asks nothing but to love; and if we truly value our friends, that is precisely what we will do.
* I give, that you may give in return.