A Lenten reflection on the theme of friendship by Fr Bob Eccles OP
Our brother Timothy wrote a book called originally, Je vous appelle amis. It was translated into English as ‘I call you friends.’ Timothy was appealing to those verses of Chapter 15 of St John’s gospel where at the Last Supper, Jesus says, no one has greater love than this, than to lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends, if you do as I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing. I call you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. Those verses appealed to Timothy and his sense of gratitude for the Order and good friends.
Another brother, Herbert, on giving the habit once to new novices at Oxford, told them they’d best find friends, brothers to accompany you and support you. Later on they might well find themselves in places where friends were missing, and suffer loneliness and isolation. They might have to struggle to overcome that. But their first youthful steps in the Order should give them the experience of godly friendship that is at the heart of the tradition. If it turns out you can’t make any friends, he said, better try somewhere else: not all at once and immediately, but sooner rather than later.
Neither brother was riding his personal hobby horse, that’s just the stuff and stock of the great tradition, the one shared by Ailred and Thomas, Catherine and the great Teresa and all the way back to Ambrose, Augustine and Cassian. When Christ calls, he calls into community and friendship. When an elected leader in our Order is given a companion, a socius, or when the preachers are sent two by two, it’s not to have a reporter at your elbow – in good Scots a clype – but so that the twosome may body out the gospel they preach by their mutual exchange in charity. One should have someone to care for ones’ vocation, says brother Bruno the present successor of St Dominic. Not that the two need be talkative. Heureux deux amis qui savent se taire ensemble. Happy two friends who can be quiet together. Happy the pair who can be lost in contemplation of what is holy, what is good. Even hermits gather friends, it’s what they are good at.
Is this useful for Lent as well? Is it useful for anybody? Sometimes we get the impression that for many of the faithful, the Christian life is a lonely journey. Lent in particular – climbing the holy mountain of Easter all by oneself, maybe gritting one’s teeth for there are no more cakes and ale. Does the Lenten exercise find us all alone in what the prayers call, our Christian warfare? The English Cistercian Ailred in his conversations about friendship – good Lenten reading, along with Timothy – warns us that if we have no friends, we cannot know God, for God is friendship. This is the basis of that spiritual companionship that belongs to the great tradition. Everyone is invited to discover it. And nothing is more worthwhile, say the Fathers, than to become the friend of God.
It was in friendship that Simon Peter finally allowed Jesus to wash his feet at the Last Supper. He accepted that intimate gesture that only someone close could be allowed to do. Or that your slave might be ordered to do, and as slaves in that world were of no consequence feelings weren’t involved. Peter put up a resistance – he didn’t give in without a struggle! Is that any old fact passed down from two thousand years ago? Or is it true to a familiar mindset? Dominicans and their friends, notoriously, give themselves to looking after other people. Telling the gospel, the good news, and being good news then. We are not always so good at asking, who do I allow to look after me, to care for me? Who is there who listens to me? If there is no-one at all it is dangerous; the first step perhaps to getting lost. Perhaps if we put up a bubble over our heads and wait to see if a face appears, we shall know. Who can I share my puzzles and conundrums with? Who has the same hopes and views at heart? It’s written, bear one another’s burdens and so fulfil the law of Christ.
When we begin Lent we hear in Scripture of Jesus’ solitary suffering in the desert, but as we go on the scene is peopled, we meet Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, Moses and Elijah, Peter James and John, many more, the friends of God. Je vous appelle amis. Do we allow the Lenten gospel to call us into friendship? No call to obedience makes sense until it does. No appeal to conscience lets us get on, unless our conscience is formed in the forming of a common mind. We are no longer servants under the Law, but children under grace, and if children then heirs – adopted sons and daughters in the Son. Don’t we see how the model proposed here is not that of a solitary model of obedience, like a lone soldier defending the last ditch, but that of the family that grows together to its maturity: to use St Paul’s language again, the fullness of maturity that is Christ’s? How can I resolve those moral quandaries and pitfalls that sometimes have no obvious outcome? As Thomas, Ailred, Catherine and Teresa say in chorus, and this is their original theme, I get by with a little help from my friends. It’s traditional advice as Lent begins to go find yourself a confessor. But even more traditional, go find a godly friend. And no-one has a friend without having more than one.