For those who live in this world and desire to embrace the
virtues, it is necessary to unite together in holy friendship. (St. Francis de Sales)
A faithful friend is a sturdy shelter; he who finds one finds
a treasure. A faithful friend is beyond price, no sum can
balance his worth. A faithful friend is a life-saving
remedy, such as he who fears God finds; for he who
fears God behaves accordingly, and his friend will be
like himself. (Sirach 6:14-17)
Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down
his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I
command you. (Matthew 15:13, 14)
Have you ever had a Catholic tell you that he has a good friend who disagrees with the Church on abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality, and embryonic stem cell research? When this happens to me, I always ask, “How do the two of you deal with such serious disagreements?” And the reply I usually get goes something like this: “Oh, we just don’t talk about those things. We know we are going to disagree and maybe get into an argument, so we avoid those kinds of discussions.”
But if two people disagree over actions that are intrinsically evil, how can they possibly be close friends? Perhaps the answer to this question is that the definition of what constitutes a friend is departmentalized, one secular and one spiritual. At the secular level, friends are people who have similar interests. For example, they may enjoy sports or playing cards or shopping or working on cars. They get along well and enjoy the other’s company.
Yet this is a shallow friendship. The most important questions are never broached. There are no serious discussions about the purpose of life and what happens after death. Decisions are never based upon God’s laws. Heaven is winning the Super Bowl or buying a new home; hell is anything that makes life more difficult.
In contrast, a spiritual friendship is deep and fruitful. Both parties lead a God-centered life. They often discuss the need to discern and follow the will of God. Important life decisions are based upon their effects on one’s place in eternity. Also, prayer is a common characteristic of such a friendship. Heaven is living eternally within the love of the Holy Trinity; hell is living eternally without love of any kind.
To gain a better insight into spiritual friendship, let’s take a closer look at the three quotations above.
St. Francis de Sales recognized that, until they die, Catholics must live in this world. Unfortunately, the zeitgeist of this world pulls us away from God. To counter this gravitational pull toward sin, de Sales called for unity in “holy friendship.” The old adage about strength in numbers applies here. If we surround ourselves with dedicated, devout Catholics, we increase our chances of remaining true to the Church. Sometimes we will call on our friends for prayer or encouragement during difficult times. At other times, out of love, they will admonish us when we begin to think or act in an unholy manner.
The words from Sirach build upon this idea of holy friendship. Notice that a friend is described as a “sturdy shelter.” What an apt description of someone who can protect us from the buffeting storms of this world! Also, Sirach describes such a friend as a “life-saving remedy.” Just as a drug can cure us of a life-threatening disease, the words and actions of a holy friend can save us from a soul-threatening malignancy. And notice that a true friend has a proper fear of God and, because of that, lives in a manner that reflects that reverence. Then Sirach draws the conclusion that such a friend will “be like himself,” clearly indicating the unity of a spiritual friendship.
Our last words, from Jesus, contain two important elements. First, true friends are willing to die for each other, if necessary. Second, Jesus will not see us as his friends unless we do as he has commanded. Although the love of Jesus led him to die for us, friendship with him is not a one-way street. We cannot be a friend of Jesus unless we unequivocally obey him. And that means obeying his Church. Thus, it is impossible for a true Catholic to have a “friend” who is an enemy of Christ. Such a person will inevitably damage the true Catholic’s faith.
Of course, this is not a call to be cruel or insensitive to these people. We continue to love them and do all in our power to bring them into full membership in the Church. But, at the same time, we would be wise to contemplate these words from Psalm 26:3-5:
For your kindness is before my eyes,
and I walk in your truth.
I stay not with worthless men,
nor do I consort with hypocrites.
I hate the assembly of evildoers,
and with the wicked I will not stay.