Tuesday, September 21, 2021

How Do Friendships Endure? by a Monk of Pluscarden Abbey

Here is an essay on the nature of friendship by a monk of the community of Pluscarden Abbey in Scotland, reproduced with permission from the Pentecost edition of their magazine, Pluscarden Benedictines. Friendship is an important aspect of the life of Benedictine monks, who are, in principle, bound to live in community with the same people for may well turn out to be several decades. As such, their lives as celibates in long-lasting and stable communities puts them in a position to consider the nature of human friendship and its relation to friendship with God. The bond that unites the community is the noble call of their common work of the worship of God, the opus Dei.

This essay is similar in theme, but at the same time in stark contrast to the series of three, I posted recently on the pictorial allegories of love as described in the Song of Songs: part 1, part 2, and part 3. Whereas the Song is a romantic and passionate love poem in which spousal love is portrayed as analogous to and participating in our love of God and God’s love for us, caritas, our wise Benedictine focuses on friendship (philia, amicitia), in which is there is no romantic component, and makes the argument that this too, if authentic, is a participation in ‘divine friendship’, which is an alternative way of referring to that same caritas. Caritas is a love which is simultaneously multi-faceted, superabundant and yet, paradoxically simple. Friendships, as with the spousal relationship in marriage, are therefore a training ground for heaven.

While the writer’s focus is primarily (though not exclusively) on deep and lasting friendships, my thoughts ran as I read it to the significance of superficial and temporary friendships. One thing that the last 18 months of enforced wearing of face-hiding masks and social isolation has taught me is how important regular and superficial contact with people is. For the most part, in the time of COVID, I have managed to maintain in some form at least my close friendships, but the number of regular face-to-face contacts with strangers has reduced dramatically, and I can feel the difference. Saying, ‘hello’ to strangers or to a person only seen in that one context regularly, say at the checkout of the local store, and who then returns the greeting with a smile, has a part to play in relieving loneliness too. Perhaps even these simple short interactions can also be small but significant occasions that lead us and others to heaven!
Photos by Peter Chalmers
There is a scene in the film About a Boy in which a couple asks the protagonist, played by Hugh Grant, to be godfather to their new baby girl. Grant plays an aging pop star who is drifting in life, and has for years been living off the royalties of the only hit single of his career. Though capable of personal charm, he is a cynic who claims he delights in a life of selfishness and irresponsibility in his personal relationships. At the beginning of the story, when asked to be a godfather he immediately refuses. The parents respond by suggesting that maybe he has hidden depths to his personality and that taking on this responsibility might help to bring them out. ‘Now that’s where you’re wrong,’ he replies, ‘I really am this shallow.’
However, in the course of the film, he meets a boy who draws him into friendship by stimulating his latent instincts to be a father. This in turn opens him up to other deeper and more satisfying loving relationships that he previously claimed he did not need. Its ring of truth for me was that it was not presented as a story of transition from misery to ecstasy, but rather, from relative contentedness to a far richer and more joyful life: from grayscale to glorious technicolor. It’s not that the friendships he had were nothing, rather, they were not enough, and he didn’t realize it until one of them developed into the life-changing friendship between himself and the boy.
I am not suggesting that shallowness and superficiality are all we need in our personal interactions, but I am going to say that shallow and superficial human interactions are underrated! Most of us need the full spectrum ranging from superficial and temporary to deep and permanent; one might say that God’s love is a single utterance that draws all loves, grey and colored, into itself.
Here then, is the essay.
How do friendships endure? It is certainly an interesting question. Both classical philosophy and St Thomas Aquinas applied the term friendship (philia, amicitia) to a wider range of human relationships than we are used to doing. Or rather, to be more precise, the Greek and Latin words which they used covered a wider range of meanings. Still, these terms obviously included our ordinary friendships. I cannot help but think of my best friend Paul in this context. We have known each other for over twenty years now. Our friendship endures and thrives, even though twelve years ago I entered a contemplative Benedictine monastery, while he has since become a husband and a father of four. That, plus a busy professional life, consumes more than 100% of his physical, mental and spiritual energies. We see each other a couple of times a year, at best, and yet the bond between us is stronger than ever, I would say. Why is this? Basing myself solely on Aristotle, I could already say a great deal: true human friendship is based on virtue, on worth; there has to be a certain equality between friends and the attachment must be mutual, but once it exists, friendship provides an ideal setting for growth in virtue; this growth in its turn strengthens the bond, and so it goes...
For St Thomas, this is how we prepare “the ground” for charity, which alone can carry us to God and life everlasting. Still, Aquinas would obviously want me to move beyond these basic truths and see my natural love for a friend itself as (with the help of grace) charity – so not just a mere setting for something greater, but the privileged means of achieving life everlasting. This is how we make our way to heaven: “not by bodily movements but by the soul's affections”, by enlarging the scope and the intensity of our human loves (2a2ae.24,4). Even though there can be no “natural” equality between God and man, charity (what God is in his essence and that thing “with which” we love him in our turn) is a kind of friendship! Charity “is our friendship for God arising from our sharing in eternal happiness” (2a2ae.24,2). It “is not based principally on human virtue, but on the divine goodness” 10 (2a2ae.23,3), expressed in “his sharing his happiness with us”.
In this present life, we can only experience it within our souls where “we have intercourse with God and the angels, though imperfectly” (2a2ae.23,1). My friendship with Paul then is ultimately a participation in this “divine friendship” – a unique virtue, the highest of all virtues, which alone “attains God himself so as to rest in him without looking for any gain” (2a2ae.23,6). Let me take a few steps back and start again. I could say that my friendship with Paul has endured because somehow we found each other equal in worth (more or less), and we mutually affirmed one another with (more or less again) the same intensity. Before that could happen, “life” somehow had to throw us together. We started off as what people would call “colleagues” nowadays (as students in the same department of the University of Warsaw) and teammates (representing our university in volleyball), not friends as such. But Aristotle would already apply the term philia to both of these fairly superficial connections, and St Thomas took up this broad understanding: “the chief concern of any friendship is with the main source of that shared good on which it is based” (2a2ae.26,2).
In other words, any shared good can become the basis of an amicitia. Yet I had studied and played volleyball with dozens, if not hundreds of people over those five years, and the vast majority of these “friendships” lasted only as long as the shared good on which they were based lasted, that is, only as long as we had the same preoccupations. Moreover, I had been in relationships with women which, at the time, seemed deeper and stronger than anything else in my life – but they all ended. Not so with Paul. Our friendship has survived all sorts of losses of lesser goods over the years. Why? Because we found each other good somehow, I think.
Man always aims at some good, Aristotle would say, even when in the middle of making a complete mess of his life. We love and desire “goodness” naturally, wherever we see it, even when we are deluded and the good is only apparent. So I can love the genuine good that comes with playing volleyball and, by extension, “love” all those who share this experience with me, especially when they are on my team and play well. But it is 11 slightly different when it comes to good people as such, because the “shared good” is hardly separable from them. What is more, it is also hardly separable from me, as I want to be good too. Not in some flat, moralistic sense; I just want to be a good instance of man, or even simply a good me. What happens when I see a man who appears good? “There are two things that we love in friendship,” wrote Aquinas, “our friend himself, for whom we desire good things; and the very good itself that we desire for him” (2a2ae.25,2). This “very good” in the case of people has to do with virtue, according to the classical tradition: a good man is a virtuous man; his virtue constitutes his worth as a man.
Our friendship began because Paul’s goodness somehow manifested itself to me through the dispositions which constitute his character, and vice versa – though back then we would never think of it this way. It endured because these dispositions are stable, repeatedly manifest themselves in what he does, and so they tend to strengthen the initial affirmation. This provides an ideal setting for growth in virtue for both of us; these “two things that we love in friendship” – we love them more and more, as the “two loves” and the two friends reinforce one another. St Thomas went further by placing friendship in the grandest of all possible schemes of things – “within” the theological virtue of charity, which then, in its turn, takes it right “into” God. I am able to love other people, including my friend Paul, because God loved me first – and that, for Aquinas, is specifically by sharing his eternal happiness with me. This is how God's love manifested itself, this is “God's virtue”, so to speak, through which I am able to know what he is like, to know his “character”.
Astoundingly, since eternal life is what I have in common with God now, I am able to have a personal relationship with a Being utterly beyond my reach otherwise. And this, in turn, enables me to love others (with various types of love and degrees of intensity), even my personal enemies and grave sinners, ultimately as also belonging to God, as his (potential) friends. Love, says Aquinas, “derives its species from its object, but its intensity from the lover” (2a2ae.26,7). Therefore, I will naturally desire greater good for 12 people whom I consider nearer to God, but the nearer the person is to me, the more intense this desire. No two relationships in my life will be the same then; their quality will depend on people's nearness to God and their nearness to me. Or perhaps, more precisely, on my inevitably skewed perceptions of these “nearnesses”. So really, in the final analysis, my friendship with Paul endures because, to a large extent, it has eternal life as the shared good on which it is based. Consequently, our friendship provides us with an ideal setting not merely for further growth in virtue, though it does – it is rather a training ground for heaven. In eternity “the entire order of love will be determined with reference to God, so that the closer another is to God the more dearly will we love him and see him as our own,” says St Thomas (2a2ae.26,13). In other words, the closeness to God will be the same as nearness to me. There is therefore no form of amicitia better than true friendship in approximating what will go on in heaven.
This is the best “simulator” available, if you like. But it does not stop at this, there is one more final consolation: Paul and I will still be friends “up there”, according to Aquinas (providing we both make it, of course, one can never presume that). True, closeness to God will be by far the most important factor in determining the order of our loves in heaven, but our earthly attachments will survive also – grace does not supplant nature, it perfects nature.

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