Fr Billy Swan
In a recent interview on a visit to Madrid, actor Tom Hanks shared his belief that America is suffering from an epidemic of loneliness. But the problem is not just in America. Loneliness is a suffering that hovers over us at any time but appears to have intensified in the Western world in recent decades. The irony in this is that despite us being connected digitally more than ever before, this sense of alienation is growing as close human relationships seem harder to come by. So, while we might have many ‘virtual friends’, they do not and cannot replace real friends whom we encounter in real time – friends who know us, accept us and share that precious bond, without which we are doomed to a lonely existence.
Thankfully, on the joint feast day of Saints Basil the Great and Gregory of Nazianzus, in the Office of Readings, the Church offers us a wonderful testimony to the deep friendship that united these men and offers us sound advice on what a great friendship looks like.
In one of his sermons, Gregory tells us that he and Basil were close friends from their childhood but then they separated physically because of their studies. He went to one place and Basil to another. But now, at the time of writing, Gregory is overjoyed for they were reunited in Athens. Gregory interpreted this reconnection as part of divine providence and a gift from God: ‘We were united again as if by plan, for God so arranged it’. Did you ever feel that a friend was sent into your life for a good reason? Do you believe that meeting friends and making friends is not by chance but is directed by a providential power greater than our own? If so, then you join with Gregory in seeing things that way. Loving and healthy friendships are not our achievement but God’s gift to us. Friends make us better people and are sent by God to make us that way – to encourage us, protect us and sometimes challenge us in a way that says ‘you can do better; you can be better’.
Gregory then names the virtues of his friend Basil – his conduct, his wisdom, his maturity and life-giving conversations. Are we aware of the virtues of our friends? What are they? Can we rejoice in them as if they are our own? Can we speak of them to the person themselves and tell them how much we admire them for these virtues they have? Gregory shares that he wanted others to know and admire Basil too. In this he was successful: ‘I sought to persuade others, to whom he was less well known, to have the same regard for him. Many fell immediately under his spell, for they had already heard of him by reputation and hearsay…he was held in highest honor’. Here was a man who did not cling to his friendship in an exclusive or possessive way but wanted others to enjoy the gift of friendship with Basil too. Here is the antidote to friendships that can become too exclusive and not open enough to include others.
Gregory describes his friendship with Basil as warm and affectionate. He talked about ‘the kindling of that flame that was to bind us together. In this way we began to feel affection for each other’. True friendships are not cold and contractual. There is real affection at the level of the heart of one for the other.
Then Gregory reveals a shared ambition that united them – the pursuit of wisdom: ‘We acknowledged our friendship and recognized that our ambition was a life of true wisdom’. On this foundation followed the rest: ‘We became everything to each other; we shared the same lodging, the same table, the same desires, the same goal’. So too was their friendship living and growing. It wasn’t static: ‘Our love for each other grew daily, warmer and deeper’.
Closely related to their shared love of wisdom was their love of learning. Gregory clarifies that this is something that presents a challenge for any friendship for ‘this is an ambition especially subject to envy’. In our pride we often assert ourselves and claim to know more than others in order to win an argument. In the case of Gregory and Basil there was rivalry between them but not as we expect. They rivaled each other in humble submission to the other: ‘Between us there was no envy. On the contrary we made capital out of rivalry. Our rivalry consisted, not in seeking the first place for oneself, but in yielding it to the other’.
Gregory then beautifully explains why they did this: ‘We looked on the other’s success as his own’. Can we rejoice in the happiness and success of others as if it was our own? If so, then we tie our happiness to people beyond us in a way that makes us share their joy. Gregory describes the bond with Basil as both of them possessing a ‘single spirit’. Here is the recognition that even while they were physically apart, they were united by a powerful spirit that united their hearts. Yet, their unity was not based on feelings or shallow sentiment: ‘Our single object and ambition was virtue and a life of hope in the blessings that are to come’. It is worth naming these virtues that the two friends were committed to pursue: the theological virtues faith, hope and love and the cardinal virtues of justice, courage, prudence and temperance. Do we encourage our friends to grow in these virtues? Do they encourage us?
For St Thomas Aquinas, perfect friendship is not for itself but exists for the growth of virtue (cf. On Ethics, 8, 3). In the words of Gregory, ‘we followed the guidance of God’s law and spurred each other on to virtue’. He then adds: ‘We found in each other a standard and rule for discerning right from wrong’. Do we help each other discern right from wrong or have we forgotten that right and wrong objectively exist? Is it just a case of your truth and mine? The other detail from the friendship between the two saints is that both hoped for the same thing – the blessings that are to come. Both believed that the practice of holiness
and virtue brought happiness in the present life and the fulfilment of that joy in heaven. All of their decisions were directed with this ‘end in view that we ordered our lives and all our actions’.
Gregory concludes the passage by saying that ‘our great pursuit, the great name we wanted, was to be Christians, to be called Christians’. Note here that for these friends in God, to be Christian was their greatest identity. It was not a given or something that ended at their baptism but a life-long pursuit and adventure to truly become Christian in name and in truth.
On the night before he died, Jesus said to his disciples: ‘I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master's business. Instead, I have called you friends, for I have made known to you everything I have learned from my Father’ (John 15:15). A friend shares the secrets of the heart with another friend. This is what Jesus did with us. As his followers, each of us enjoy his friendship; but because of our friendship with him, we become friends of one another too. When we become united to God we become, at the same time, united in God. May all of us be blessed with good friends whom we treasure as gifts from God and may the reward of our friendship with them, be friendship itself.