Nothing in human life is hungered for with more holiness, nothing is sought with more utility, nothing is found with more difficulty, nothing is experienced with more pleasure, and nothing is possessed with more fruitfulness (72).
That’s a twelfth century take on friendship. It comes from a work called Spiritual Friendship, by Saint Aelred, the Abbot of Rievaulx Abbey in England. He adds, “Friendship bears fruit in our present life and in the next.”
According to Saint Aelred, we owe love to all human beings, but friendship should be offered only to those who, quite literally, make our lives worth living. Indeed, for Aelred, friendship is of God. “A friend is called the guardian of love, or, as some would prefer, the guardian of the soul…Hence even the philosophers of this world placed friendship not among the accidents of mortal life but among the virtues that are eternal” (59).
With that in mind, return to this well known scene.
As he was walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter, and his brother Andrew, casting a net into the sea; they were fishermen. He said to them, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” At once they left their nets and followed him (4: 18-19).
We hear these words, from the Gospel of Saint Matthew, as the apostolic call of Christ’s first disciples. They are that, but Peter and Andrew—and after them James and John—would not immediately have taken them as such. They would have heard someone offering them his friendship.
That Christ drew friends to himself is no small matter for our faith, because, more than anything else, its apostolic foundation is based upon the intimacy that these men shared with their friend Jesus.
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom
a light has shone (9:1)
As they would come to understand these words of Isaiah, the “great light” wasn’t a new interpretation of the Torah. It wasn’t a new moral teaching, a new cosmology, or even a new insight into humanity’s deepest questions. In fact, the “light” wasn’t a teaching at all. It was a person. And what they had to share with the world wasn’t an authority founded upon intellect. It was established by their intimacy with Christ. They were his friends.
That’s why, today, we speak of bishops being successors to the apostles, but we do not call them apostles. Apostolic intimacy with Christ can’t be copied. “In the office of the apostles there is one aspect that cannot be transmitted: to be the chosen witnesses of the Lord’s Resurrection and so the foundation stones of the Church” (Catechism #860).
This isn’t to denigrate the role of intelligence, or the need to explicate and defend our faith in doctrinal terms. It is, however, to point out that all of this is done in the service of intimacy, not intellect. Christ isn’t a Buddha, who comes with a profound teaching about human life. He isn’t a Mohammed or a Moses, who transmits a revelation from heaven.
Indeed, the truly scandalous thing about our Christian faith is that Christ presents himself, intimacy with him—his friendship—as the saving reality that alone makes all the difference. He doesn’t claim that he teaches the way, the truth, and the life. He asserts, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (Jn 14: 6). As C.S. Lewis once so aptly put it,
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.” That is the one thing we must not say. A man who said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to (Mere Christianity, 53)
And of course the import of this for us is that we are ever to ask ourselves, not, in the first place, whether or not we believe in the truth of Christ—the demons do as much—but whether we truly love him. Are we his friends? Like those first apostles, those first companions, can we claim that in Jesus we have found a friend, someone who, as Saint Aelred teaches, makes life itself worth living?
Isaiah 8: 23-9:3 1 Corinthians 1: 10-13, 17 Matthew 4: 12-23