Friday, April 16, 2010

A Necessary Separation (Individual Friendships in the World)


Some writers on spirituality caution against individual friendships. For instance, in Chapter Four of The Way of Perfection, St. Teresa of Avila states, "For the love of the Lord, refrain from making individual friendships, however holy, for even among brothers and sisters such things are apt to be poisonous and I can see no advantage in them . . . " She elaborates on why this is so.

St. Francis de Sales in Introduction to the Devout Life, however, explains that this admonition is meant to apply to religious and not to persons living in the world:
"Do you, my child, love every one with the pure love of charity, but have no friendship save with those whose intercourse is good and true, and the purer the bond which unites you so much higher will your friendship be. If your intercourse is based on science it is praiseworthy, still more if it arises from a participation in goodness, prudence, justice and the like; but if the bond of your mutual liking be charity, devotion and Christian perfection, God knows how very precious a friendship it is! Precious because it comes from God, because it tends to God, because God is the link that binds you, because it will last for ever in Him. Truly it is a blessed thing to love on earth as we hope to love in Heaven, and to begin that friendship here which is to endure for ever there. I am not now speaking of simple charity, a love due to all mankind, but of that spiritual friendship which binds souls together, leading them to share devotions and spiritual interests, so as to have but one mind between them. Such as these may well cry out, 'Behold, how good and joyful a thing it is, brethren, to dwell together in unity!' Even so, for the 'precious ointment' of devotion trickles continually from one heart to the other, so that truly we may say that to such friendship the Lord promises His Blessing and life for evermore. To my mind all other friendship is but as a shadow with respect to this, its links mere fragile glass compared to the golden bond of true devotion. Do you form no other friendships. I say 'form,' because you have no right to cast aside or neglect the natural bonds which draw you to relations, connections, benefactors or neighbors. My rules apply to those you deliberately choose to make. There are some who will tell you that you should avoid all special affection or friendship, as likely to engross the heart, distract the mind, excite jealousy, and what not. But they are confusing things. They have read in the works of saintly and devout writers that individual friendships and special intimacies are a great hindrance in the religious life, and therefore they suppose it to be the same with all the world, which is not at all the case. Whereas in a well-regulated community every one’s aim is true devotion, there is no need for individual intercourse, which might exceed due limits;—in the world those who aim at a devout life require to be united one with another by a holy friendship, which excites, stimulates and encourages them in well-doing. Just as men traversing a plain have no need to hold one another up, as they have who are amid slippery mountain paths, so religious do not need the stay of individual friendships; but those who are living in the world require such for strength and comfort amid the difficulties which beset them. In the world all have not one aim, one mind, and therefore we must take to us congenial friends, nor is there any undue partiality in such attachments, which are but as the separation of good from evil, the sheep from the goats, the bee from the drone—a necessary separation.

"No one can deny that our Dear Lord loved S. John, Lazarus, Martha, Magdalene, with a specially tender friendship, since we are told so in Holy Scripture; and we know that S. Paul dearly loved S. Mark, S. Petronilla, as S. Paul Timothy and Thecla. S. Gregory Nazianzen boasts continually of his friendship with the great S. Basil, of which he says: 'It seemed as though with two bodies we had but one soul, and if we may not believe those who say that all things are in all else, at least one must affirm that we were two in one, and one in two —the only object that both had being to grow in holiness, and to mold our present life to our future hopes, thereby forsaking this mortal world before our death.' And S. Augustine says that S. Ambrose loved S. Monica by reason of her many virtues, and that she in return loved him as an Angel of God.

"What need to affirm so unquestionable a fact! S. Jerome, S. Augustine, S. Gregory, S. Bernard, and all the most notable servants of God, have had special friendships, which in nowise hindered their perfection. S. Paul, in describing evil men, says that they were 'without natural affection,' i.e. without friendship. And S. Thomas, in common with other philosophers, acknowledges that friendship is a virtue, and he certainly means individual friendships, because he says that we cannot bestow perfect friendship on many persons. So we see that the highest grace does not lie in being without friendships, but in having none which are not good, holy and true."

As should be obvious from the foregoing, St. Francis de Sales is not advocating the formation or preservation of friendships with romantic or sexual overtones (sometimes euphemistically referred to as "special friendships"). And, St. Teresa condemns such friendships even more vigorously than individual friendships in general.

Source:
St. Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, Part III, Chapter XIX.

Image:
Vermeer's "Christ in the House of Martha and Mary", from Wikimedia Commons. In the public domain.

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