Working at Friendship

Detail of the Raising of Lazarus: Hunterian Psalter, English c. 1170
Detail of the Raising of Lazarus: Hunterian Psalter, English c. 1170

Today in our monastic calendar is the feast of SS Martha, Mary and Lazarus, about whom I seem to have written a great deal in the past. Typically, I have written about this feast as a feast of friendship and hospitality, noting also that we have our Martha days, when life seems all work, our Mary days, when life seems all bliss and our Lazarus days, when we have to go into the tomb with Jesus and experience resurrection in a new and painful way. Today, however, I would like to think about this feast in relation to the second section of RB 48, On Daily Manual Labour, verses 10 to 21.

The first thing that strikes one about this passage of the Rule is that it is almost wholly concerned with lectio divina, that slow, prayerful reading characteristic of the Benedictine. Why? I think it is a reminder that we have to work at cultivating our friendship with God, just as Martha had to work at serving the Lord when he visited her household in Bethany. Dinner didn’t just happen: it had to be prepared, cooked and served before it could be shared. So, too, with us. We have to prepare ourselves for prayer, concentrate, abandon ourselves to an activity which seems to matter so much to God. It requires effort, even sacrifice, but most of all, it demands fixity of desire and purpose: I want to be friends with God; I will do everything I can to become friends with God.

We don’t become friends with God just by wishing. We have to give him time, not just any old time, but ‘quality time’. We have to lavish time upon him, in fact, lavish love and attention on him, as Mary lavished ointment on the Lord’s feet and sat to listen to his teaching. Others, even those we are closest to or who we think understand us best, are likely to be puzzled by this. We shall be challenged to do something constructive, as Mary was challenged by Martha, but we must hold to our purpose because, in truth, there is no other way of becoming friends of God.

Finally, we must go through the Lazarus experience: feeling that we have been abandoned by God, plunging into a dark place where all we seem to know is death and destruction and hope turns to ashes. This too has to be worked at. There are many surrenders into the hands of God that must be made before we make the final surrender of death; and just as Lazarus had to rely upon his sisters to bring the Lord to his tomb, so there are times when we have to rely upon the prayers and good deeds of others to help us. That is what the Communion of Saints means. It is the great circle of friendship embracing both the living and the dead which draws us into the life of the Trinity.

Deus amicitia est, ‘God is friendship,’ said St Aelred, the great Cistercian writer on Christian friendship. ‘I have called you friends,’ says Jesus in St John’s Gospel. And as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI remarked, quoting Sallust, to like and dislike the same thing is a mark of friendship. Our friendship with God isn’t, first and foremost, about feelings: it is about willing and doing the same things. Both St Benedict’s chapter on work and today’s celebration of SS Martha, Mary and Lazarus may suggest ways in which we can deepen our friendship with God and, incidentally, become better friends with one another.