I recently spoke about Friendship to the high school youth group of my parish -about 150 students. Later, small group discussions were to focus on the Book of Sirach, Chapter 6, on True Friendship, so I tried to incorporate that. These are my edited notes with some of the images from the juxtaposed slideshow that I had going behind me. Many of the pull quotes here were also in the slide show.
Faithful friends are a sturdy shelter; whoever finds one finds a treasure.
Faithful friends are beyond price, no amount can balance their worth. Sirach 6:14-15
Have you ever had someone say to you, “Be careful, or your face will stick like that!”? Well, my wife said that to my 6 year old son once and his response was, “is that what happened to daddy?” Then my boys were watching Despicable Me and the evil banker came on the screen and my 2 year old said, “he looks like you daddy!” And I’m not even bald yet, though I am getting fat.
So, with that in mind, I, whose face is stuck with this semi-permanent scowl, am going to talk to you about Christian Friendship.
Now how many of you have ever described someone as NICE ? “Oh she is a nice person.” We use “nice” a lot. But “nice” has lost some of its meaning. You might as well say, “Oh, she is breathing,” or, “She has feet.”
“Do you know John?”
“John? Oh yeah John. The guy with the body and the mouth?”
In some ways the word friend or friendship has lost meaning too because we use it so often. It’s a TV show, a book, a meme. It has even become a verb. “He friended me.”
Similarly when we think of friendship we imagine rainbows and puppies and unicorns and all sorts of wonderfulness coming our way. Friends are nice.
But Christian friendship is an action, it is heroic, it is adventurous, it is dangerous. You can get hurt. Friendship is sacrificial because it is about love.
“The truth is, everyone is going to hurt you. You just got to find the ones worth suffering for.” ― Bob Marley
The Patron Saint of Friendship is St. John the Apostle. Christ nicknamed him and his brother James ‘Boanerges’ which means Sons of Thunder! Of the Twelve Apostles, John is the only one who continuously stood by Jesus and never once rejected Him.
I think saccharine notions of Christian friendship disappear when we realize the patron saint of friendship is a ‘Son of Thunder’ who also wrote the Book of Revelation.
Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. John 15:13
Friendship is epic and adventurous, but do not be troubled, there is a place for simplicity and shallowness! Which are not bad things in themselves, only if you stay there in the shallows!
But you have to start in the shallow part, you can’t already be in the deep part, it’s hard to get on board a boat unless you’re standing on the shore, or in the shallow water.
Like a lake or a sea, like the Sea of Galilee, there are gradations of depth and there is a whole ecosystem of friendship.
In America we often think of happiness as the reception of pleasure. Receiving pleasure from food, drinks, sugar, teevee, gadgets, clothes, comfortable furniture… from other people… but true happiness actually requires action.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle said that happiness is an action so it has to be true.
We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not a single act, but a habit. -Aristotle
Similarly friendship is the activity of loving others, not the mere passive reception of pleasure from their company, their jokes, their status etc.
In fact, Aristotle (THE GREATEST PHILOSOPHER EVER), spends more of his time discussing the importance of friendship in his book on Ethics than on any other subject.
Friends have the greatest effect on who you become, on your character.
The good news is that there are different kinds of friends. There are friends of pleasure, friends of usefulness, and friends of excellence. And we will have all types of these friends throughout our lives.
“Oh how mean and ridiculous to categorize friends like that” you may say.
Indeed. But guess who said you can categorize friendship this way? The greatest philosopher in the world! Aristotle!
Now, this does not mean that you need to have an app on your phone where you promote and demote friends (though that is an idea that will probably make money) “Josh just said something really stupid, I am going to demote him from friend of excellence to merely a useful friend because he has a car.”
But you will find one day that the friend who gives you so much pleasure with his or her jokes and stories, is not the friend to talk to about the existential question of whether or not you were truly contrite during your last confession and whether or not your sins were really forgiven, etc.
Or, will that fun friend keep it quiet that you wonder if is it a near occasion of sin to be really, really, ridiculously good looking?
Others are friends, table companions, but they cannot be found in time of affliction. Sirach 6:10
“Table companions” mentioned in here in Sirach are what Aristotle would call friends of pleasure.
A friend of pleasure, for example someone who is great at telling stories and who cracks people up with jokes, might not be the best person in whom to confide. Because guess what makes a funny story?! Your existential crisis!
Friends of usefulness –the word sounds terrible right?- like you’re using someone… but it’s mutual usefulness so it’s okay.
I have friends in business and we are mutually useful to each other. I sell their stuff and they give me stuff to sell. It helps if this relationship is friendly, but I don’t feel it necessary to invite them to my son’s baptism. At trade shows and conventions I have seen the tragic mistake of people confiding too much in their business friends, thinking they were their best friends. It’s not pretty.
There are friends of excellence who are both of these also, useful and pleasurable; and with whom you can discuss the meaning of life, your marriage, your angst, and whether or not your good looks are near occasion for sin…
But these friends are rare and it takes a while to cultivate that friendship.
Those who fear the Lord enjoy stable friendship, for as they are, so will their neighbors be. Sirach 6:17
Fear of the Lord –sounds so Old Testament! (Because it is, and we are in the Bible belt after all…) What I take from this is that both people in the friendship fear the Lord –they have the same values, the same ethical starting point and the same ethical goals. You will have a stable friendship with those you associate with -your neighbors, when those people are ethically (and culturally) aligned with you in principle. You all have the same ethical vocabulary.
You can only have a deep friendship of this sort if you agree on some basic things, which it may take time to discover.
The beauty about something like a desire for truth, a desire to gain heaven, or a desire for complete honesty, is that you will find others who want the same thing and these can become great friends. They may be from other cultures and religions but once people have committed to a love and desire for truth, accidents of birth, race, and culture will only serve to enrich.
A friendship of excellence and virtue may grow from another type of friendship. You may find yourself leading someone along into a love and desire for deeper Truth, just because you were friendly and cheerful while discussing college basketball… or while working together…
The college fraternity brother with whom you drink beers, a friend of pleasure, may turn into the best man at your wedding or the godfather to your child.
On the other hand, the best friend with whom you discussed the meaning of life while an athlete in high school, may just become an friendly acquaintance after you go off to art school and become a sculptor.
Your spouse, whose beauty sparked the fire which was a mere pleasure at the beginning of your relationship, will grow into a friend of excellence, your best friend. “One soul in two bodies”, as Guess Who? said. Yes, Aristotle!
“Wishing to be friends is quick work, but friendship is a slow ripening fruit.” -Aristotle
You will grow into and out of friendships and someone you thought was a friend of excellence will turn out, in hindsight, on your first Fall break back from college to have been a different kind of friend. Or they will find that you have become a different kind of friend.
Act in a friendly manner (that’s an adverb now, not a noun), or be friendly (an adjective). [A little SAT verbal prep for you, no charge.]
You don’t have to stay friends … And that is okay.
Sometimes personal character solutions require friendship dissolution –breaking bad habits, or developing new interests and good habits means leaving old friends behind. You can be sad about it, you should miss the person… if you don’t miss a friendship, then it wasn’t a friendship, but it is okay to move on. Be sad, but don’t feel guilty.
But how do we get friends in the first place?
Pleasant speech multiplies friends, and gracious lips, friendly greetings. Sirach 6:5
Our disposition will help us find friends. If you have no friends, imitate someone who is friendly until it becomes second nature. Fake it until you make it! To paraphrase the greatest philosopher ever! But you have to imitate what you want to become, develop the habits until it is truly who you are.
“Only friendliness produces friendship.” -G.K. Chesterton
Smile and the world smiles back, as they say.
From Psychology Today:
Each time you smile you throw a little feel-good party in your brain. The act of smiling activates neural messaging that benefits your health and happiness.
For starters, smiling activates the release of neuropeptides that work toward fighting off stress. Neuropeptides are tiny molecules that allow neurons to communicate. They facilitate messaging to the whole body when we are happy, sad, angry, depressed, excited. The feel good neurotransmitters dopamine, endorphins and serotonin are all released when a smile flashes across your face as well. This not only relaxes your body, but it can lower your heart rate and blood pressure. It also stimulates these things in those who see your smile.
Blah blah blah… hashtag science. You feel better and smiles are contagious! You make others feel better. It becomes a virtuous cycle!
Rainbows and unicorn puppy dogs!
Let those who are friendly to you be many, but one in a thousand your confidant. Sirach 6:6
Have some standards people! Always be open to friendship but do not trade quantity for quality, depth for breadth. Be friendly to all, but be friends with your friends and know who is which type of friend…
Never turn away a cheerful person but do not mistake cheerfulness for true friendship. Mistaking a friendly acquaintance for a best friend in whom you confide your dark secrets may lead to gossip (a violation of the Commandment not to bear false witness against your neighbor.”) and who knows what other Mean Girls scenarios… Burn Book!
If disaster comes upon you, they turn against you and hide themselves. Sirach 6:12
Difficult times, tests, will show you who your real friends are… also, your friends’ trials and tests will tell them how much of a friend you are. Do you hide? Do they hide?
We need friends to fill in our imperfections. -G.K. Chesterton
But we need friends to receive our love. And we must be open to receiving love and friendship in turn, we must help fill in the imperfections of others with our gifts and allow them to participate in the virtues of charity and active love by being their friends. Love and Charity can only be done if there is someone to receive it… a Direct Object (more free SAT prep for you, if they even do that on the SAT anymore…)
But what if you have no friends? Or think you have no friends?
You might not. At this time of your life. If you are an introvert, or a “go deep or go home” conversation kind of person, the cultivated immaturity of high school may not be the environment for you to develop excellent friends or deep friendships. But that does not mean others are not having deep friendships, don’t write everyone else off as shallow.
You are obliged to be cheerful and open to friendship yourself. Step up and being willing to be hurt. Practice.
“Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.” –Thich Nhat Hanh
If you have no friends remember Mother Teresa who lived a life dedicated to God and to serving the poorest of the poor. At one point she went through what is called the Dark Night of the soul, a test from God of total abandonment. A dark night that lasted for over 50 years. She persevered through the most lonely of times anyone can experience, she had forsaken the world and loved God and God had forsaken her… And now she will be a saint…
For more than fifty years following her initial visions and locutions, Mother Teresa was wrapped in a dark, pitiless silence.
She only once more heard the voice of God, and she believed the doors of heaven had been closed and bolted against her. The more she longed for some sign of his presence, the more empty and desolate she became.
We always saw her smiling. She had a playful smile, mischievous, as if privy to some secret joke. Especially when she was around children, she beamed with delight. In private, she had a quick, self-deprecating sense of humor, and sometimes doubled over from laughing so hard. So many people who spent time with her came away saying that she was the most joyful person they had ever met.
Look, it’s not all about right now, in high school… though it is a good time to practice!
- Life is an action over a long period of time
- We need friends in order to exercise the virtues of charity and love. These are actions that need an object.
- Love your enemy, make them your friend
- Be open to being hurt
- But “be wise as serpents and innocent as doves”
- Do not try to get friends, try instead to be a friend to others
- Start by being friendly: smile! … endorphins, neuropeptides and all that
Pleasant speech multiplies friends, and gracious lips, multiply friendly greetings.