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.