Aristotle writes that friendship is “one of the most indispensable requirements of life” (451), and he does not overstate its importance. While this topic holds many possibilities and complications, this little essay will consider friendship as it relates to seminarians in their formation for the Catholic priesthood. The first part will survey what some, and only some, important thinkers have said about friendship. The second part will offer some practical comments.
Part I: Some Large Ideas about Friendship
Aristotle’s Three Foundations for Friendship: Usefulness, Enjoyment and Goodness
Aristotle’s discussion of friendship in the Nicomachean Ethics (Ch. VIII) forms the starting point for basically every discussion of friendship in the West. Beginning with goodwill and mutuality, he defines friendship as a matter of mutual goodwill. We can direct our goodwill toward many and wish them good, but just because I feel goodwill toward another does not make the other person a friend. The goodwill must be mutual. If the other person does not recognize and return the goodwill, there is no friendship, even though we may dearly wish for it. Friendship depends upon mutuality.
This mutual goodwill has large and ample boundaries. It includes mutual care, mutual respect, a desire for the other’s happiness, a sharing of opinions and ideas in conversation, a trust that brings self-disclosure and shared experiences. Some friends carefully define and limit these boundaries, while other people continually expand beyond the initial expectations. These are often gathered into the larger idea of love, but friendship is only one of the possible love relationships.
For better or for worse, we are born into a family. While people sometimes reject these relationships, they remain a fact that cannot be changed. For most of us, the fact of family ties becomes our initial experience of love and a continuing source of a love upon which we can depend unconditionally because of the fact of family. While some friends may become like or even more than brothers and sisters, friendship is created and must be continually recreated, or it will come to an end. We can say, “I was once his friend,” but we cannot say, “I was once his brother.” An important difference.
Likewise, friendship is different than marriage in which a man and a woman join themselves in love by a public vow to one another before God and the community. Marriage stands as a public and legal institution that protects the primacy and exclusivity of this relationship of love. Friendship is not a public or legal institution, but a private relationship that depends upon the goodwill and character of the friends. Though friendship may reveal and promote a fierce loyalty and love, it depends upon the ongoing goodwill of the people. Married people who do not feel any affection for each other are still married. Friends who no longer share mutual goodwill (for whatever reason) are no longer friends.
Aristotle defines three sources for the goodwill of friendship: usefulness, enjoyment or goodness.
Sometimes people recognize what the other can do for them, how they can be mutually useful to one another. We find this in work and business relationships. A certain amount of reciprocal goodwill helps an office work together, and so I may find myself anxious to return a favor because of what you have done for me. Likewise, in choosing a plumber, I may ask a plumber-friend or a friend of a friend to do the work because I expect their goodwill to make a difference in the quality and honesty of the work.
People get themselves into trouble when they mistake goodwill for usefulness. No matter how much goodwill the plumber has, I expect the job to be done competently. Better a skilled plumber than an incompetent friend when it comes to plumbing. In these situations, justice, Aristotle’s beloved virtue, has more to offer. Still, all things being equal, we prefer to engage with people with whom we already have some basis for mutual goodwill.
Some people provide an endless flow of witty and interesting conversation. We enjoy being with them because we can count on a good time. So Aristotle names enjoyment as the second source of friendship, and he believes that this defines friendship especially for the young, “since the young guide their lives by emotion and for the most part pursue what is pleasant to themselves and the object of the moment” (iii.5; 461).
Aristotle objects to this type of friendship because its regard for another is not grounded in “the good,” and so these friendships of pleasure depend upon the flow of the pleasing conversation and the like, but when it stops or ceases to please, so does the friendship.
According to Aristotle, of course, “the perfect form of friendship is that between the good, and those who resemble each other in virtue.” Since virtue is a permanent quality, “it is those who wish the good of their friends for their friends’ sake who are friends in the full sense, since they love each other for themselves and not accidentally” (iii.6; 461).
Aristotle believes such friendship rare because such people are rare. Such friendship also requires close interaction over time (iii.8). While they may find each other useful and enjoyable, the foundation of their friendship is virtue and goodness. In nurturing these friendships, one should look for the good, for what transcends the moment and serves not just me, but my friend and others as well.
Generally speaking, Aristotle represents the classical ideal of ancient Greece, and Cicero communicates this ideal to the Latin and Christian world in his Laelius de Amicitia. Some would argue that he adds little or nothing to Aristotle, but Cicero gives these ideas great force in just the way he writes, and so his De Amicitia had an important impact on both Augustine and Aelred, as we shall see.
Like Aristotle, Cicero concerns himself primarily with perfect friendship and defines friendship as “a perfect conformity of opinions upon all religious and civil subjects, united with the highest degree of mutual esteem and affection” (De Amicitia, 6). The idea of “perfect conformity” sets a high bar for friendship, and one may even question whether it is necessary or even desirable—a question we shall return to later in this essay.
Basil the Great and the Lord’s Great Command to Love
Rather than friendship, the Bible mainly uses the metaphors of family—father, mother, brother, sister—to describe our relationships to one another and to God. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus calls upon us not only to love our neighbor as ourselves, but even to love our enemies (Matt 5:43-44). According to this command, love must not be preferential or selective. As a result, Basil the Great, in an ascetical discourse for monks, makes the command to love all an absolute:
The law of charity does not allow particular friendship or exclusive groups in community life, for particular affections inevitably work great harm to communal union. Consequently, all should regard one another with equal affection and one and the same degree of charity should prevail in the entire group.
Although St. Basil’s command for “equal affection” honors the law of love found in the New Testament, it runs contrary to our human experience, which reveals a range of affection. The ideal, as expressed here, seems artificial. In part, St. Basil insists on this ideal because he recognizes how “particular friendships,” as he calls them, can divide a community and cause some to feel like insiders and others like outsiders.
Still, this solution goes against the grain. Realistically, members of a community must recognize that they will be closer to some than others. At the same time, a spirit of openness and charity must prevail to avoid divisions. Even though it is unreasonable to expect to be a good friend of everyone, our friendships should be open to including others. When we experience being excluded, we understand St. Basil’s insistence.
St. Augustine and the Joining of Human Friendship to the Divine
While St. Basil represents the radical Christian command to love all as oneself, St. Augustine joins the tradition of Aristotle and Cicero to the Christian call to love. Although Augustine did not write an essay specifically on friendship, he deals with the topic throughout his writings, as Sr. Marie Aquinas McNamara, OP, has demonstrated in her book Friends and Friendship for Saint Augustine. She sees the summary of Augustine’s conception of the love of Christian friendship in his words: “He loves his friend truly who loves God in him, either because God is in him or in order that he may be in him.”
Love for Augustine becomes the very reason for friendship and its primary duty (222). Sr. Marie argues that the hallmarks of Augustine’s understanding of love are a tested confidence in the friend, an honesty that makes the friendship stronger, and prayer: “Wishing all good things for each other and knowing God to be their greatest good, friends do all they can to bring each other closer to God” (226).
For Augustine, then, the Christian understanding of love does not run counter to the classical ideal, but rather completes it. Well aware of human frailty, Augustine recognizes that our own heart is hidden from ourselves and so we are at a loss to explain it completely to another. Moreover, being human, we continually confront our own finitude and also that of others. We must not judge others or expect more than is humanly possible. Only with patience and understanding can we preserve our friendships and “guard the unity of mutual friends” (230).
Though the classical ideal limited friendship to a few, Augustine wished to extend its reach to as many as possible. Augustine then gives friendship the same reach as Christian love. He recognizes that it goes out more readily to some, more slowly to others, but it reaches even our enemies, for whom we are commanded to pray.” In this way, Augustine holds together the classical and Christian ideals of friendship.
Aelred of Rievaulx’s Spiritual Friendship
In Friendship and Community, Brian Patrick McGuire carefully traces the development of friendship in the monastic tradition, and he calls the Cistercian Reform, which began in 1100, “the Age of Friendship.” This culminates with Blessed Aelred of Rievaulx, whose two most famous works are The Mirror of Charity and Spiritual Friendship, written at the request of St. Bernard. Like Augustine, Aelred depends heavily on Cicero for his inspiration:
Spiritual friendship, which is what we mean by true friendship, should be desired not with a view to any worldly good nor for any reason extrinsic to itself, but from the worthiness of its own nature, and the feeling of the human heart, so that it offers no advantage or reward other than itself. (Spiritual Friendship, I.45)
This friendship excludes every vice and becomes the holiest of goals for Blessed Aelred (II.9). The marks of this friendship are four (III.61):
- intention—intention, by which he means what the other wants from the relationship
- discretio—discernment, which allows a friend to grasp what is at stake and what needs to be done
- patientia—patience, which allows one to be corrected and to stand fast in adversity
All of these must be tested and proved true to arrive at a true friendship. Even so, the most basic truth of friendship for Blessed Aelred was its spiritual reality. As McGuire says:
Aelred provides the fullest medieval unification of the two great commandments of love. In his life and writings, he sees nothing to fear when one sets forth on the path of friendship with other members of the monastic community. Because God is also friendship, loving the friend in the context of community means also loving God. (298)
Thomas Aquinas and Friendship with God
Although Aristotle saw many problems arising when those who were not equal sought to become friends, Thomas Aquinas argues for a friendship between those most unequal—a friendship between ourselves and God. Paul Wadell has argued that friendship stands at the very center of the life of God because “the perfect mutuality of love between Father and Son is the Spirit of Love.” The Trinity, then, is a friendship between Father, Son and Spirit.
This life of love is perfect and, therefore, God’s beatitude or happiness is perfect. God offers this love (caritas) to us and thereby offers us friendship, which gives us a share in the eternal happiness of God. This love, as Thomas says, is “infused by the Holy Spirit, who is the love of the Father and the Son.” God has initiated this friendship by the free gift of love. According to Thomas, grace plays the crucial role that allows us to transcend our human limitations and to participate in the supernatural and so to become friends with God (124-126).
The importance of participating in this friendship of God, as Wadell points out, “is to be changed according to it, gradually to be remade according to the Spirit of Love” (127). For Thomas, this “is the task and fullness of the Christian moral life” (127) and so brings us perfect happiness and union with God, which is “the highest possible development proper to a human being” (128). Friendship with God, then, is not a luxury, but the crucial activity in our becoming fully and truly human.
A Reflection on the Tradition
A further exploration would take us on to Emmanuel Kant and Søren Kierkegaard, but this abbreviated survey provides enough to begin thinking about friendship. Taking their lead from Aristotle, these writers focus on the ideal of friendship and so hold friends to an exceedingly high standard, which is closely linked to the perfection of love. While this clarifies what lies at the heart of friendship, much of what we call friendship lacks this clarity and simplicity. Moreover, the freight of love in our culture can overload what we take as ordinary friendship.
Some people designate many people as friends—people with whom they would never go with on a vacation or disclose much about themselves personally. Still, they call them friends and are happy to give them their business, chat with them after church or come to aid in real need. For these people, friendship embraces a wide range of people.
Other people are more careful about whom they name as their friends. Even so, these people do not measure up to the ideal presented by Aristotle and the rest. Indeed, Aristotle has such high standards that he says candidly that friendship in its “fullest and best form” is rare (8.8.7-8). While that may well be true, most of us have to find friends with those who are not “absolutely good,” and the people who make friends with “me” find themselves in the same boat. Most of us are still in process, and good friends can help to make us better persons.
If we wait to find “absolutely good” people to be our friends, we would have to become “absolutely good” ourselves. The best friend that we can be is the person that we are becoming. While we have a right to expect the same from our friends, more than that is a blessing. While we should strive to be better, Blessed Aelred’s insistence on patience may prove crucial.
Although Aristotle classifies “useful friendships” as less than ideal, many people value friends because they are useful—especially as someone to whom we can talk to openly. Good friends know us well, and so are not surprised when we say this or that. Good friends have a history and so a context in which to understand us. If we come up short, they make allowances or offer some counsel or just name the problem.
When they tell us a hard truth, the best part of ourselves knows we must listen because a friend cares about us. Sometimes they just listen to us go on about something until we can figure it out for ourselves. They also create a comfortable space where we can be ourselves, because we are both known and accepted as we are. The masks that we wear for others can be hung on the wall. And we do the same for them.
Friends, then, are different than spiritual directors or psychological counselors. Those relationships are not mutual. The spiritual directors and counselors maintain a professional distance that allows them to offer us an objectivity along with their expertise. They keep their own issues to themselves. Friendship, on the other hand, depends on the mutual give and take that allows people to share experiences together.
In the second part of this essay, I want to offer some practical observations that I initially generated off the top of my head. I do not claim that they are complete in any way. They are meant only to be helpful.
Part II: Some Statements about Friendship (in no particular order):
- We minister to everyone, but we choose our friends.
People who feel called to the ministry of the Church have a great desire to help and care for people, yet there are some things that we, as ministers, cannot do for others. Sometimes people come to us in need of friendship, and they want us to become their friends. However, friendship is not a ministry, and no one can demand it from us. As a minister or priest of the Church, I must minister to everyone who comes and offer them the ministry of Christ as best I can. They have a right to my Christian love, but this is not the same as friendship.
Often, people will tell us their personal story because they trust us, and we should listen as well as we can and respond appropriately. However, this does not mean that we must or should share our lives with them in the same way. Indeed, if we are ministering to them, we would transgress the boundaries of ministry. They have come to receive whatever the Church can offer them through our ministry. However, we should not complicate their lives with our problems. Here there is a very clear issue of boundaries.
With peers—fellow seminarians or priests—the situation can be more complicated, because we typically reach new levels of friendship by sharing more and more with each other. Even so, no one has a right to my self-revelation. They may invite me, but I may refuse if I do not feel comfortable for whatever reason. My self-revelation should be my gift to another. Just because a peer has shared himself does not mean that I must do the same. If a peer would insist on it, one should become very wary, for this is a type of manipulation that has no place in friendship, which is marked by a mutual give and take.
Certainly, we find people in the course of our ministry to whom we are drawn, and we may, in fact, become friends with them. Perhaps the most important fact in these cases is simply the recognition that I am becoming friends with a person in this ministerial context. At that point, I need to ask whether I can be true to my role as a minister while developing this friendship.
As a seminarian or priest, my first responsibility must be to my vocation. For priests, the general rule runs that you should not be friends with your parishioners. It is a good rule. However, where a parish is distant from family and other friends, it may not be very practical. Still, one should proceed with care.
Some people like to be friends with the priest or seminarian; it is a sign of status. If this is too much the case, then it becomes a bit awkward. Other people, however, are able to respect our vocation while allowing us to be ourselves as well. These people are a grace. Even so, as a public person (and a priest, and even a seminarian, is always a public person), you must ask yourself how others will interpret this. While public opinion is not the only consideration, it cannot be ignored, both for our sake and for that of the other person.
Often, friendship with married people involves a friendship with both people, but sometimes we find ourselves closer to one than the other. Still, we should be on good terms with the other, and the boundaries of the friendship should be absolutely transparent to everyone. If everyone is not comfortable, then it may be that you have to let that friendship recede.
- Hospitality can provide the beginning of a new and different friendship.
Hospitality requires more than the offer of food and shelter; it demands an openness to the stranger, to those who come from the outside. The ancient world held hospitality as a great law, and it became a particular mark of the Benedictine Rule, which calls for the guest to be received as Christ (RB 53.1; Matt 25:43). Hospitality does not fear the unknown, but stands ready to meet Christ.
Some people receive our hospitality thankfully and go on their way. For others, the gracious gift of hospitality becomes the beginning of new friendship, perhaps someone we would not have chosen. We become too comfortable with our old, predictable friendship, and new friends stir the pot. So hospitality, with its openness to the stranger, holds the possibilities for a different friendship.
- Often friendship grows slowly and builds over time, but sometimes it just appears.
Sometimes, we meet a person and immediately take a liking to them, and they to us. This is surely one of the happiest experiences we can have. Even so, people need space and time to take in the many facets of the other person. Some personalities make a good, initial impression, but are found to be self-absorbed the more we are with them. As Blessed Aelred emphasizes, friendships must be tested because they depend on trust, and only time provides the space for trust to grow.
Some of the best friendships actually get off to a slow start. The other person seemed, at first, too different to become close, and so we consider them just acquaintances. However, one day we realize that this different person has come to mean more to us than we expected, that they have, in fact, become a friend.
- You can’t force friendship.
Sometimes you want to be good friends with someone, but they do not want to—for whatever reason, which is their prerogative. So you are not good friends. While people may find this hard to accept, it is just part of the reality of making friends. Certainly, we can ask ourselves if there is something that we need to change in ourselves, and we can try again. However, if it does not click, we just need to move on.
- Friends in need may need more than friends, but still they need a friend.
Friends typically play an important role in helping their friends get through tough times. They listen, give advice and mainly provide support. In these situations, we must not assume responsibility for more than we can do. As a friend, we care deeply about them and are willing to make sacrifices for them, but we have given up our objective eye. Sometimes we serve our friends by helping them get in touch with others who can offer them an objective eye or some needed expertise.
Even so, the test of friendship is often adversity, and good friends see their friends through difficult times. Good friends are faithful. Just being there is important, and we may need to act on behalf of our friend as we can. When things are tough, people are not always themselves, and people remember their friends during the hard times.
- The boundaries of chastity and celibacy should always be clear to everyone involved.
Unfortunately, our society tends to imagine all relationships moving toward some sexual expression. This creates a climate of suspicion that can make everyone uptight. When the boundaries of celibate chastity are clear, then everyone can relax and be themselves. Indeed, a number of people seek out seminarians and priests as friends, because the clear boundaries bring great freedom and trust. These boundaries have concrete implications, which should become second nature.
When boundaries are not clear, people become defensive, suspicious and withdrawn. Seminarians and priests always have the responsibility of making sure the boundaries are clear. Being as clear as we can about our own sexuality is the foundation stone here. This understanding provides us with the ability to direct and moderate this fundamental force within ourselves as we seek to form chaste, celibate and life-giving relationship with others.
- Strong feeling comes with friendship, but men often have a hard time acknowledging and expressing these feelings.
Friendship often evokes a strong sense of esteem and care, of admiration and love. At moments, we rightly feel the strength of these emotions and seek appropriate ways to express them. Typically, women find it easier to give “a little hug” that expresses friendship. Men generally have a more difficult time both acknowledging and expressing these feelings, especially with other men.
Among those called to ministry and priesthood, one finds many sensitive and caring men who, because of their formation, are in touch with their feelings and give them greater value. American culture, unlike Mediterranean cultures, does not offer much range for expressing these feelings. The fear of appearing effeminate or homosexual plays a role in this as well. As a result, seminarians and priests can find it difficult to identify appropriate ways to express these deeper feelings.
While it is more common for American men to embrace these days, much depends on whether I, as a man, feel comfortable with these expressions and whether everyone is clear about what is being communicated. A warm handshake and smile may express the moment better than an awkward embrace. Still, a nice, strong, manly embrace can communicate much if everyone on board.
Sometimes men express their deep regard for one another by teasing each other. This can be gentle fun, but it can also develop into a buried hostility “all in good fun.” While some of this is part of the male ethos, at times it is important for men to express their regard for one another directly. There are ways to express feelings without becoming gushy. Telling others directly why we appreciate and value them is always appropriate.
Marking important events with cards, keeping in touch by phone or inviting others to share something—these have their place, and they should bring appreciation and be returned. Whatever the signs, all friends need clear and periodic marks of friendship.
- We often need different friends for different parts of our life.
Seminarians sometimes search for a friend who will share everything with them. Although they would deny it, they are looking for a kind of spouse—someone who is there all the time. Celibates do not have spouses. If a person needs one relationship to anchor them, then they should leave the seminary and pursue that. Even so, this idea of a person who will share everything is very idealistic or mostly unrealistic. Married people typically have friends beyond their spouses, because the other person does not enjoy doing everything their spouse does. They have friends to play golf with or to talk about books or whatever. This is normal.
Celibates often have different friends for different aspects of their life. Certainly, good friends do things with each other just to spend time together. So they go to the art museum or the baseball game and enjoy it because their friend so enjoys the art museum or the baseball game—not because it is their thing. Still it is nice to go to the art museum or the baseball game with someone who shares your enthusiasm, even if they are not your closest friend.
- Some friendships are just for a time, but we should still give ourselves to the moment.
For the philosophers, true friendship endures, and for St. Thomas, this only reaches its fulfillment in eternity. However, some good friendships appear for a time and then recede. Many school friendships fall into this category. When people move on after graduation, the friendship tapers off.
There is a tendency to say that these friendships were not true and deep to begin with, but that runs contrary to my observations. While some have maintained and developed their friendships after graduation, many have not. The distances and new responsibilities and newer friendships make it hard to continue the relationship. I do not believe that this makes them any less important.
Rather than worry about the future, people should give themselves, as best they can, to whatever friendships appear in the moment, because these constitute our life here in the present. If we attend to the present, the future will take care of itself, whether by providing ways to continue old friendships or by bring us new ones.
Some friendships come to an end, even though we do not move away. People change; new concerns come to the fore. Views on religion or politics or something else may become too divergent to bridge. The little wounds that come from just being alive must be healed up and reconciled, lest they take their toll and undermine the friendship.
Sometimes a friendship breaks because of human frailty or sin, and surely everything should be done to bind up that breach. Still, people may grow apart little by little and realize one day that they are just not as close as they once were. One friend may feel the loss more than the other, and there may well be something to grieve. Some, of course, will want to restore things to their earlier harmony, but usually it becomes a matter of finding some new harmony, if possible, or facing the reality of the present.
Schools have reunions to remember the good times and to catch up. While important, remembering is not the same as being an ordinary friend. Though we may pretend for old time’s sake, we need to accept the present and move on.
- Friends keep confidences.
When someone comes to us for ministry and shares intimate parts of their lives, it is clear that they expect us to keep their self-disclosure confidential. Friends, on the other hand, talk about all kinds of things—some of which are public and some private. We must be able to recognize the difference and keep the confidences of our friends. Breaking confidences with friends at least derails the friendship and may wreck it completely.
Knowing where the line falls can be complicated. Some people are very open and share themselves rather freely. Others are more private and expect that their friends will keep their conversations in confidence. Both approaches can represent a reasonable stance. However, those who like to share themselves freely must be attentive to the wishes of those who are more private. Certainly, we should defend our friends forthrightly, but in general we should let them speak for themselves.
- Since friendship is mutual, both must work at the give and take.
Like all relationships, both parties must give time and attention to maintaining and developing the friendship. This is not a matter of strict justice in which I do something and you do something in return. Still, both must participate. If one person does most of the work, the mutuality is lost, and anger sets in.
While some people are introverts, they can still develop and use social skills. Among some people, the mark of a gentleman includes being a good conversationalist—someone who can ask and show interest in another person’s world, can offer an informed opinion about topics of general interest, and can contribute to the give and take of a conversation.
Conversation reveals more than information; it shows emotion and care. Those who object to casual conversations in the name of seriousness are blind to large pieces of life. At the same time, those who have nothing to say or who talk only about trivialities may wonder why they have no friends. While the talent of conversation serves more than just friendship, it plays a crucial role in the enjoyment of friendship.
Extroverts come by their conversational skills more easily. Listening may prove to be a challenge for some. Indeed, listening demands not only a recognition of what is said, but also how it is said and with what feeling. Only then do we begin to understand what our friend would tell us.
- “Want a friend? Be a friend.”
When I told my brother that I was writing this essay, he quoted me this old Kentucky proverb. Like so many proverbs, it captures so much in so few words. Friendship does not drop out of the sky. It is not a right. It is not owed me. It cannot be bought—though some may try. Rather, goodness recognizes goodness and seeks it out.
Friendship comes in response to the gift I offer freely to whomever comes along. If I am suspicious about everyone and everything, then friendship will come hard. If my friends have to be better than I am, then they will be few, if any. Yes, some friends may disappoint us, even badly, and there is a real sadness in that. Still, if you want a friend, be a friend. For friends are a sign of God’s goodness and grace, and grace abounds.
- Basil the Great, “An Ascetical Discourse” in Ascetical Works, trans. Sr. M. Monica Wagner, CSC (Washington DC: The Catholic University of America Press 1962), 207-215, esp. 213. ↵
- Sr. Marie Aquinas McNamara, OP, Friends and Friendship for Saint Augustine (Staten Island, NY: Alba House, 1964), 223 citing Augustine’s Sermon 361,1. ↵
- Ibid., 232 citing Augustine’s Letter to Proba, Letter 130, CSEL, 54-55. ↵
- Paul Wadell, Friendship and the Moral Life (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989), 122-123. He cites specifically the Summa Theologica II.II.24.2. ↵