This is a revised draft of a talk given in DCCatholic’s Summer Theology on Tap series on July 15, 2014.
God is Friendship
Good evening to you all. I first want to thank you for coming to this event and thank you for coming together. Among my favorite scripture passages is Psalm 133, which opens with the acclamation, “How good and how pleasing it is, where people dwell as one” (Ps 133:1). And tonight we can affirm the truth of this statement. There is an intrinsic value and a beauty when people gather in hospitality and openness to friendship. Perhaps there may also be a bit of uncertainty and even awkwardness as we make introductions and small talk, but there is also a real joy. And if we are open to this, we can feel it.
We all have heard it said before, that God is love. But what if we were to look at it slightly differently? What if we were to say, “God is friendship”? If God is love, and friendship is a type of love, then we should also say God is friendship. And this makes sense, doesn’t it? For God is not some static and solitary figure, but rather God is Trinity, the communion of three persons in one, in which each person shares his life with one another and with all of us. In the Gospel, Jesus tells us that when two or three are gathered, he is there in their midst (Mt 18:20). This was not some predication that the ghostly apparition of Jesus will magically appear, but rather that in the very act of communion, God is present. So let us affirm how good, how pleasing, it is when brothers and sisters dwell as one. How beautiful it is when we can come together in unity, because when we do, God is here.
Connecting with One Another
We live in Washington DC, which is one of the most connected cities in the country, if not the world. Wherever we go, when we meet people, we try to find mutual contacts. We exchange business cards, we attend meetings and conferences solely for the purpose of building our networks. Our city revolves around these connections; if you do not know someone, good luck trying to get a meeting with him or her.
We have become adept at building these networks in this new social age. When you meet someone in the professional setting, what is the first thing you do when you get back to your computer (or you look at your phone)? You add them to your LinkedIn account. Or if it is in a non-professional setting such as a happy hour like tonight, you Facebook them. There is a whole set of protocols and unwritten rules governing these interactions, but once you are connected, then you can access who they know, thus creating this incredible and intricate web of virtual relationships that potentially mirrors our actual lives. As we are becoming more interconnected, the world is becoming smaller. As the saying goes, we are all only about six degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon, right?
Yet despite this level of connectivity, many of us still have a desire for something more substantial, even if we cannot quite express what we mean by this. But we realize that there is a real danger in being caught in a plethora of superficial connections, both on social media and in real life, that can distract us from having authentic friendships.
Different Types of Friendship
In my Philosophy 101 class, I learned that according to Aristotle, there are three main types of friendships: friendships based upon utility, friendships based upon pleasure, and friendships based upon goodness and virtue (Nicomachean Ethics, Book VIII). In modern terms, we could think of these categories this way: friends of utility would be our coworkers and colleagues, people with whom we are in certain political parties or associations, with whom we share common professional goals, people who we are connected with on LinkedIn. Then, friendships of pleasure would be persons with whom we attend happy hours, play co-rec sports, go on hikes,persons with whom we simply relax–in other words, our Facebook friends. And then the final category of friends, according to Aristotle, are the best, but also a bit a difficult to describe: friends who are virtuous in themselves and recognize and appreciates the goodness of the others. They are friends simply because there is an intrinsic goodness in companionship and sharing their virtue with another. The key difference between the friendship of virtue and the other two types is that the former endures, while those latter ones are often dissolved once the object of pleasure or utility disappears.
Yet these categories are at once useful and deceptive, because there can be a temptation to demean the friendships of utility and pleasure and say that these are not real friends. But in reality, these are often the friendships which are the most present and meaningful in our lives. And in contrast, we have all had coworkers who have not been our friends and who have made our jobs and lives unbearable at times. So it is important that we not confuse friendships of utility with those people who simply use and manipulate.
Fostering a Beautiful Tapestry of Love
When I reflect on the experiences of my life, I realize that I disagree with Aristotle’s hierarchy of friendship. If God is friendship, then any friendship has the potential to be what we may call authentic. There is a real beauty in the diversity of friendships; each can improve the quality of our life in real and different ways. Henri Nouwen has a beautiful passage on this, in which he writes,
“Each [friend] has his or her own gift for us. When we expect one friend to have all we need, we will always be hypercritical, never completely happy with what he or she does have. One friend may offer us affection, another may stimulate our minds, another may strengthen our souls. The more able we are to receive the different gifts our friends have to give us, the more able we will be to offer our own unique but limited gifts. Thus, friendships create a beautiful tapestry of love” (Bread for the Journey, May 2).
While some may try to put limitations on the number of friends in their lives, it is important to realize that every friend can shape our lives for the better. By opening us to the joys and cares of others, they help us to realize that our lives are not meant solely for ourselves, but for others. They open us up to the presence of God, and to a new, blessed, and more fruitful life.
But friendship is not just something that happens passively; rather it is an act. It requires energy, time, effort, and our presence. And we all have the capability of fostering it. There are a few ways in which we can, if we are intentional: when we meet someone, we need to recognize that he or she is another self, totally independent of your own desires and wants. When we speak with them, we need to actually be interested and actively listen to them. But we also need to be honest, share our own stories, and at times, be vulnerable. And most importantly, we need to remember them. Nothing ends a friendship quite as quickly as forgetting a person’s name. This will require at times more energy on your part and may not offer an immediate return. Yet there is something intrinsic to ourselves that longs to be in communion with others, and we miss it when we it is not there. But we should never complain about a lack of authentic friendship, because we can all create the space to foster it. To paraphrase St. John of the Cross: “Where there is no friendship, put friendship – and you will find friendship.”
Who are our friends?
But we also need to ask ourselves: who are our friends? So often we surround ourselves with people who are like ourselves. Just this morning in the Washington Post (July 15, 2014), there was an article that said that friends share a greater amount of similar genes than with strangers. We often separate ourselves from those who are different from us—just think about the different neighborhoods in Washington DC. I bet very few of us go across the Anacostia River to the Southwest neighborhood, where there is a much greater perceived threat and danger. Rather, we mostly stay in the neighborhoods that we are more comfortable with. But the danger is that we lose sight of the beautiful tapestry of love, which is created by diverse friendships. There is a true potency in friendship that can reach across different divides and bring people together in ways that even kinship does not.
But there can be a real danger in limiting ourselves to friends that mirror us in superficial ways. Any one of us can see this happening already in our Facebook newsfeeds. Whenever we click on or post something, it is recorded, and more similar articles will appear more often. If we are not careful, our newsfeed can become an echo chamber, repeating the things that we already have said. Our ideas are never challenged, only reaffirmed; we become entrenched in our ideologies, and become separated from those who think differently than us. We can already feel the effects of this. If Washington, DC is one of the most connected cities in the country, it is also one of the most divided by political partisanship and income inequality. But this disassociation with and demonization of others different from us undermines the very fabric of society. Even in ancient times, Aristotle recognized this, for he writes, “Society depends on friendship, after all, people will not even take a journey in common with their enemies” (Politics). We must realize, then, that friendship is not just personal, but is also necessary for the cohesion and the common good of our cities.
We also need to realize that friendship is necessary for the Church as well. Pope Francis has really challenged us not to be stuck looking inward upon ourselves. In the conclave prior to his election, he said that a Church which does not go out becomes sickly. It needs to reach out, become diverse, engage the world. We can say the same about us in terms of our friends. Again, friendships open us up to the cares and concerns of others. Engaging in one friendship actually makes us more capable to befriend others, including those who may be different than ourselves.
What can we do?
Now I am a member of a Catholic lay movement, called the Community of Sant’Egidio. This community began in Rome in 1968, composed of a few high school students who rediscovered the vitality of the Gospel and desired to live it in concrete ways. So they began praying with scripture and went to the slums on the periphery of the city to tutor poor immigrant children. Out of this movement from the Gospel to the margins of society arose this international community, whose members strive to live out the Gospel through prayer, service, dialogue, and friendship, especially with the poor. There was the discovery that the Gospel cannot be lived far from the poor. This friendship with the immigrant children opened up the Community to encounter the other types of poor, including the elderly, persons with disabilities, the homeless, the terminally ill, and prisoners. I have been a member for the past six years, with a special focus on encountering the elderly in nursing homes and the homeless on the streets. In Washington, DC, there is a small group of young adults from Sant’Egidio, who every Friday night go out to the streets to share food, share conversation, share our time, and share our presence with those that we encounter there. We are striving to create a culture of encounter.
Sant’Egidio has been encountering the homeless for over 30 years. We have realized that:
“loneliness and isolation are a condition common to all the homeless. Sometimes they are so oppressive as to leave a human being in a void, without any contact with his or her family, completely cut off from the world in general. Stopping, exchanging some words may seem little in a life full of relations. The homeless, however, speak only to ask for help, and at times to no avail. Nobody calls them by name. Name recognition, on the other hand, attests to the importance of a person as a human being. Greeting someone is a humane and decent thing to do, introducing oneself, asking for a person’s name. Breaking the prison of contempt in which these people are confined—and giving them the respect and recognition to which each and every human being is entitled—is as easy as that. This is the first thing we can do to alleviate the conditions of these unfortunate brothers and sisters of ours” (www.santegidio.org, “Friendship on the Streets”).
Fostering friendship can be the foundation for the careful search for solutions towards a better future, even in situations that appear impossible to change at first. A kind approach, constant dedication, and patience are signs of God’s love for His “little ones” (Matthew 25). At first appearance, it may not seem that we do much. By offering a simple meal, something to drink, and perhaps a blanket or jacket in the winter, we are not mending all the challenges of their lives. But these gestures are concrete signs to show that we are people who care. And they can serve as the starting point to significant relationships with persons who at the beginning, because of long isolation periods, do not always seem inclined to make a contact or accept help. And slowly, through these friendships, we can bring the transformative presence of God to our city and help make it a more human and hospitable place for us all, especially the poor and marginalized.
One issue that is often expressed is the real concern for our safety, especially when we go out to the neighborhoods where the poor live. This concern can stifle our generosity and goodness. It would be naïve to simply gloss over real dangers, but we must also realize that these concerns can serve as excuses to remain in our comfortable lives. There is a real need in the city for our presence, and God is constantly inviting us to serve, to reach out to the marginalized. And this is why it is important to have friends who can join us on our mission. We are better together. Again, we are better together. The disciples did not go out alone, but in pairs. None of us can engage in this work alone, so we must therefore foster friends who can accompany us in serving the marginalized. Eventually, once we faithfully encounter the poor and marginalized, their friendship becomes a call for us, and we realize that the beauty of being with them far surpasses the fear that formerly held us back.
And we must not forget the importance of prayer. Prayer opens us up more fully to the presence of God, assuages our fears, heals our hearts to be generous, and calls down God’s graces upon difficult situations. We all need a community that prays and serves together, a community that will constantly challenge us to go beyond our comforts and complacencies, a community that will form us in love. And by doing this, we can all become artisans of peace, artisans of encounter, artisans of friendship, who can weave this tapestry of love, and who can help others realize how truly beautiful and pleasing it is when brothers and sister can come together and dwell as one.
Charlie Gardner is the Washington Officer for the Community of Sant’Egidio, which is a Catholic lay community dedicated to putting the Gospel into practice through prayer, service, and friendship with the poor. He grew up in St. Louis Missouri, and attended the University of Notre Dame where he received an undergraduate degree in Great Books and Catholic Social Thought and a graduate degree in Theology through the Echo Program.
If you are interested in learning more about the Community of Sant’Egidio and joining us for either evening prayer or service, please email the author, Charlie Gardner, at firstname.lastname@example.org; you can also visit www.santegidiousa.org to see in which cities of the US the Community is already present.
Bibliographic note: A.C. Grayling’s philosophical book, Friendship (Yale University Press, 2013), was extremely helpful in helping me clarify my thoughts and in constructing the narrative of this speech.