In his Introduction to the Devout Life, St. Francis de Sales writes that “among the passions of the soul, love holds first place.” And he quickly adds that “friendship is the most dangerous of all types of love” and that “friendship is mutual love, and if it is not mutual, it is not friendship.”
There could be no better person to reflect on friendship than de Sales, who was known for his many friendships, particularly his spiritual friendships.
Commenting on the correspondence between St. Francis and his friend St. Jane de Chantel, the pastoral theologian Henri Nouwen writes: “The love of God revealed in Jesus Christ pervades every line of the letters they both wrote.... Francis and Jane show us clearly that the deepest intimacy among people is an intimacy that finds its origin and goal not in the human partner, but in God who gives people to each other in friendship to be incarnate manifestations of the divine love.”
There could be no better person to reflect on friendship than St. Francis de Sales.
There is no better friendship than one based on our love in and for Jesus, who himself represents love, a unique and perduring and salvific kind of love, a love demonstrated one Friday on a cross that became the tree of life. It was a loving cross from which our salvation was won—all out of God’s desire for a loving friendship with us.
Jesus is forever our “companion” along the way of life. The Latin roots of the word, cum pane, mean “with bread,” and we know that Jesus’ companionship is ultimately revealed in the bread of life, the Eucharist. Jesus is still walking with us on that most famous road to Emmaus, where we come to know him in the breaking of the bread. He is also walking with us on the way to Calvary, our little Calvarys that daily reveal themselves to us in our sicknesses, broken relationships, our losses of loved ones and employment and daily loneliness and frustration and ultimately death. There is a Calvary in all our lives, and, happily, Jesus is there with us as we break the bread and are inserted into his loving companionship on the way to the cross and beyond to risen life.
One might ask why de Sales places friendship under the third part of the Introduction, entitled “Instructions on the Practice of Virtues.” He describes friendship as mutual love, and love is a virtue. He challenges the reader to “form friendships, only with those who share virtuous things with you” and who are willing to cultivate virtue. The higher the virtues shared and exchanged with others, the more perfect, according to de Sales, is the friendship. This is what he describes as “true friendship.” It is sharing and having virtues in common.
There is no better friendship than one based on our love in and for Jesus.
“If your mutual and reciprocal exchanges concern charity, devotion and Christian perfection,” the saint writes, “O God, how precious this friendship will be!” It is excellent because it comes from God, leads to God and will endure eternally in God. This kind of friendship is, therefore, a virtue.
Come with me, then, to the Upper Room. It is there that Jesus opened his heart and spoke about friendship, about friendship with him. He told his gathered disciples the night before he died: “You are my friends.... I no longer call you slaves.... I have called you friends because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father.” In fact, he sets forth the test of true friendship: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
Jesus wants to be our friend. But what does that mean? What does friendship mean to us in our busy and distracted world today? Are deep and lasting friendships even possible today? Some would say that friendship is a lost art or that friend has been reduced to merely a word used on Facebook. Is it possible to be friends with a God we do not see if we are increasingly unable to be friends with persons we do see?
Is it possible to be friends with a God we do not see if we are increasingly unable to be friends with persons we do see?
In his opening remarks to young people in Poland a few years ago, Pope Francis spoke of this friendship. He said: “To say that Jesus is alive means to rekindle our enthusiasm in following him, to renew our passionate desire to be his disciples. What better opportunity to renew our friendship with Jesus than by building friendships among yourselves. What better way to build our friendship with Jesus than by sharing him with others!”
This friendship with Jesus does not happen by chance, the pope said in a homily on May 14. Rather, it is our “destiny” and vocation as Christians.
If Jesus wishes to be our friend, it would behoove us to reflect on the model human friendships we have had or continue to have. It might give us some insight into friendship with God and how that friendship could be defined and experienced and grow.
My mom once told me, correctly, I believe, that if I had one genuine and faithful friend, I should consider myself a very lucky person. Proverbs teaches: “Some friends bring ruin on us, but a true friend is more loyal than a brother.” It would seem, then, that true friends are hard to come by. I am not speaking of acquaintances, either. Those are the stuff of Rolodexes or iPhone contact lists. Genuine friendships are different.
Friendship with God, a true model for a spiritual and virtuous human friendship, means walking with him.
I cannot tell you how many spouses have referred to their respective spouse as “my best friend.” That is a good place to begin. St. Thomas Aquinas has written that through conjugal love, the love between a husband and wife, they participate in the “greatest form of friendship.” Pope Francis writes in “The Joy of Love,” speaking of married love, that it is “a union possessing all the traits of a good friendship: concern for the good of the other, reciprocity, intimacy, warmth, stability and the resemblance born of a shared life.”
Friendship is another word for companionship—a one-on-one relationship between two people marked by mutual honesty and openness without any daily fear of reprisals. Friendship requires the ability to listen from the heart to each other. It is not primarily competitive or based on a utilitarian interest. True friendship is a genuine encounter with each other wherever one might be. Friendship is, for sure, tested over time.
Such friendship requires keeping in touch with each other. It requires, and this is often tested, being present in times of need or in times of joy and truly caring for another. It is expressed by unconditional love. After a period of time apart, it means picking up where one left off and not missing a beat. It is true mutual love.
Francis de Sales writes that true “friendship requires close communication between friends, since otherwise it can neither come into existence nor remain in existence.” This is all the more true with respect to our friendship with God.
Friendship with God, a true model for a spiritual and virtuous human friendship, means walking with him, being in God’s presence, shutting everything else out for a time. It is wasting time with God, not unlike wasting time and just being with someone you love. Prayer is kissing God, touching him, a touching of spirits, a conscious awareness of his presence, an intimacy with him, a friendship, a daily appointment.
Our personal, daily encounter with Jesus models for each of us the true understanding of friendship, one based on genuine mutual love. For St. Francis de Sales, moreover, such mutual love, a virtuous relationship, thus describes the true human friendship to which each of us aspires.