The Word Among Us

September 2014 Issue

A Life-Saving Medicine

Words from the Masters on Friendship

A Life-Saving Medicine: Words from the Masters on Friendship

Christians in every age have written much on the blessings and challenges of friendships based on the love of Christ.

In the excerpts below, we have chosen three figures from different times whose writings have been especially important. Aelred of Rievaulx was a Cistercian abbot in England in the twelfth century and a good friend of St. Bernard of Clairvaux. St. Francis de Sales was a bishop and spiritual writer in France in the seventeenth century whose book, An Introduction to the Devout Life, is considered a spiritual classic. Finally, St. Gregory of Nazianzen was a fourth-century archbishop in Constantinople who is revered in the Orthodox Church as one of the “Three Holy Hierarchs.” May the words of these followers of Jesus give us a greater desire for the fellowship they describe.

The Blessings of Friendship
Aelred of Rievaulx

Scarcely any happiness whatever can exist among mankind without friendship, and a man is to be compared to a beast if he has no one to rejoice with him in adversity, no one to whom to unburden his mind if any annoyance crosses his path or with whom to share some unusually sublime or illuminating inspiration. “Woe to him that is alone, for when he falls, he has none to lift him up” (Ecclesiastes 4:10). He is entirely alone who is without a friend.

But what happiness, what security, what joy to have someone to whom you dare to speak on terms of equality as to another self; one to whom you need have no fear to confess your failings; one to whom you can unblushingly make known what progress you have made in the spiritual life; one to whom you can entrust all the secrets of your heart and before whom you can place all your plans! What, therefore, is more pleasant than so to unite to oneself the spirit of another and of two to form one, that no boasting is thereafter to be feared, no suspicion to be dreaded, no correction of one by the other to cause pain, no praise on the part of one to bring a charge of adulation from the other.

“A friend,” says the Wise Man, “is the medicine of life” (Sirach 6:16). Excellent, indeed, is that saying. For medicine is not more powerful or more effective for our wounds in all our temporal needs than the possession of a friend who meets every misfortune joyfully, so that, as the Apostle says, shoulder to shoulder, they bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2). Even more, each one carries his own injuries even more lightly than that of his friend. Friendship, therefore, heightens the joys of prosperity and mitigates the sorrows of adversity by dividing and sharing them. Hence, the best medicine in life is a friend. . . .

And so it is that the rich prize friendship as their glory, the exiles as their native land, the poor as their wealth, the sick as their medicine, the dead as their life, the strong as their prize. So great are the distinction, memory, praise, and affection that accompany friends that their lives are considered worthy of praise and their death rated as precious. And a thing even more excellent than all these considerations, friendship is a stage bordering upon that perfection which consists in the love and knowledge of God, so that from being a friend of his fellow man, man becomes the friend of God, according to the words of the Savior in the gospel: “I will not call you servants, but my friends” (John 15:15).

Aelred of Rievaulx, Spiritual Friendship, 2:9-14.

Friendship among the Imperfect
St. Francis de Sales

We must put into practice the words which our Savior used to say, as the Ancients have taught us: Be good exchangers and bankers; that is, do not take false money with the good, nor low quality gold along with the fine; separate the precious from the worthless (Jeremiah 15:19).

Yes, for there is scarcely anyone without some imperfection. Why should we receive indiscriminately the stains and imperfections of the friend along with his friendship? Certainly we must love him in spite of his imperfection. But we must neither love nor receive his imperfection, because friendship demands the communication of what is good and not evil. Those who sift the gravel of the river Tagus separate the gold which they find in it, to carry it away with them, and leave the sand on the river bank. In the same way, those who commune in a good friendship ought to separate the sand of imperfections and should not allow it to enter their spirit. . . .

Husbands, wives, children, friends have a great esteem for their friends, their fathers, their husbands and their wives. We see that due to this, they acquire, either through compliance or by imitation, a thousand little evil dispositions and inclinations by communication in friendship which they have for one another. This should not be so, since everyone has enough of one’s own evil inclinations without overloading oneself with those of others. Not only does friendship require it, but on the contrary, it obliges us to help one another in ridding ourselves of all kinds of imperfections. Without doubt we must gently bear our friend’s imperfections not to sustain him in them, much less to transfer them to ourselves.

I am speaking only of imperfections. As to sins, we should neither tolerate nor encourage them in a friend. It is either a feeble or a wicked friendship that sees a friend perish and does not help him. . . .

True and living friendship cannot endure in the midst of sins. It is said that the salamander extinguishes the fire in which it lives, and sin ruins the friendship in which it lodges itself. If it is just a passing sin, friendship puts it to flight at once by correction. But if sin stays and settles down, immediately friendship perishes because it can be kept up only by true virtue. Then how much less should we sin for the sake of friendship!

St. Francis De Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, Part 3, Chapter 22.

“We Wanted to Be Christians Together”
St. Gregory Nazianzen’s Friendship with St. Basil the Great.

Basil and I were both in Athens. We had come, like streams of a river, from the same source in our native land, had separated from each other in pursuit of learning, and were now united again as if by plan, for God so arranged it.

I was not alone at that time in my regard for my friend, the great Basil. I knew his irreproachable conduct and the maturity and wisdom of his conversation. 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. . . .

Such was the prelude to our friendship, the kindling of that flame that was to bind us together. In this way we began to feel affection for each other. When, in the course of time, we acknowledged our friendship and recognized that our ambition was a life of Christian perfection, we became everything to each other: we shared the same lodging, the same table, the same desires, the same goal. Our love for each other grew daily warmer and deeper.

Our single object and ambition was virtue and a life of hope in the blessings that are to come; we wanted to withdraw from this world before we departed from it. With this end in view, we ordered our lives and all our actions. We followed the guidance of God’s law and spurred each other on to virtue. If it is not too boastful to say, we found in each other a standard and rule for discerning right from wrong.

Different men have different names, which they owe to their parents or to themselves, that is, to their own pursuits and achievements. But our great pursuit, the great name we wanted, was to be Christians, to be called Christians.

Gregory of Nazainzen: Oration 43: In Praise of Basil the Great.
Excerpted from The Liturgy of the Hours, ©1974,
the International Committee on English in the Liturgy, Inc.
All rights reserved.