Love and Friendship
ALICE VON HILDEBRAND
Catholic News Agency
August 19, 2006
There is a type of love which is possible only between man and woman and usually leads to marriage–a relationship characterized by the fact that both the intentio unionis (desire to be united with the beloved) and the intentio benevolentiae (desire to do good to the loved one) are fully actualized. “Thou art mine; I am yours.” There is a similar climax of union between man and woman in holy friendship not leading to marriage; both partners being bound by a vow of either virginity or celibacy. One can then speak of a “marriage of souls.” But my theme is to shed some light on the beautiful type of union called “friendship”. It obviously differs from the one mentioned above because it can be actualized between two men, between two women, between men and women and between old and young. Such relationships, which are precious gifts, are characterized by their emphasis on the intentio benevolentiae. Moreover, whereas in relationships between men and women leading to marriage, love is fully centered on this one person at the exclusion of all others, “che sola a me par donna” (she, for me, the only woman)–to quote the beautiful words of Petrarca. The fact that one can have a multiplicity of friends, each one of them experienced as a gift, does not exclude a hierarchy among them. This multiplicity of positive, beautiful relationships deserves our special attention—this will be the theme of this brief essay.
We find the most sublime friendships illuminated in the lives of many saints. I shall limit myself to two: St. Augustine, referring to the depth of his affection for Nebridius (“dulcis amicus meus” (my sweet friend) Confessions IX.iii) invites us to compare this sublime bond with the one that the teenaged Augustine experienced with a young friend in his hometown, and which was brutally ruptured by the latter’s death.
It made St. Augustine’s heart “black with grief” (Confessions IV.iv). His grief was so deep that no words could adequately express his despair: he missed one single person and the world was in total darkness. This experience was never forgotten by St. Augustine and helped him perceive the madness of loving creatures, forgetting that they are but creatures. “O dementiam nescientem diligere homines humaniter” (What madness, to love a man as something more than human). (IV.vii) This taste of an inappropriate attachment, as always in St. Augustine, was going to bear fruits and enrich his understanding of the nature of true friendship. It is typical of saints that whatever they have experienced—good or evil—is baptized and enriches their lives. How tragic that many of us willingly deprive ourselves of the most beautiful experiences because we refuse to learn to truly love. Yet the madness that St. Augustine experienced potentially threatens all of us. The pagan cure offered by Buddha is, to my mind, a very sad one: not to give one’s heart to anybody. “He who has one hundred loves, has one hundred sorrows; he who has fifty loves, has fifty sorrows; he who has one love, has one sorrow. He who does not love is free from sorrow.” What a very sad, truly tragic solution: not to love anybody or anything–that is to eliminate the heart and totally depersonalize the human person.
As always, my experiences in the classroom have taught me so much that I cannot help but wish that my teaching had been as enriching to my students as their errors have enriched my mind. I recall one student, who proudly declared herself to be both an atheist and a relativist, while taking my course on ethics made a point of objecting loudly to anything I said. She was clearly allergic to the notion of conscience, this mysterious voice chiding us when we did something wrong. She was one of those students who enters the classroom with the firm intention of teaching the course herself and whose presence gives their teachers a taste of purgatory—and possibly teaches them patience. One day after class, she rushed to my office and started sobbing. When she calmed down a bit she told me that she was fighting against despair: her little dog had died. How typically tragic: she who had systematically opposed the existence of anything intrinsically good and true had, through her love for an animal, tacitly acknowledged that there are things worth loving. I forgot what I told her, but obviously I seized this opportunity to invite her to re-examine her philosophy. I once heard an elderly woman proclaiming that she had never loved anybody in her life except her dog; “The only one who had been faithful to me!”
Alas, all that a dog can offer, and does offer is “a dog’s love.” How tragic is the human condition: often refusing to seek or to accept God and the rich array of objective values, and then starving, turns to anything which guarantees some immediate satisfaction.
In her Interior Castle, St. Teresa of Avila makes it clear that even though she does not favor private friendships in the Carmel, she beautifully illumines the nature of true friendship: the partaking of Christ’s love for the friend—a transfigured love, a foretaste of what we shall experience in heaven.
It should be obvious that this type of friendship is the most perfect, but on this earth it should not exclude a wide variety of bonds between creatures that are enriching: a common love for truth,for beauty, for great works of art and a common admiration for noble personalities. But in all cases, the bond of friendship must be based and nourished by some value. I personally would deny the name of friendship for people sharing a common passion for bridge, for fun games, for rock and roll, for anything that does not give us wings, for anything that is “creeping”, and, while entertaining, does not elevate and enrich the so called friends. How beautiful it is when two friends, after having a real talk, leave one another better persons.
Those whose life has been blessed with many friendships realize that while all of them are gifts, there is nevertheless a huge hierarchy among them; all should be gratefully welcome, but one will inevitably perceive that whereas all flowers are loved by a gardener, there is a huge difference between a lily and a daisy. This is not to deny that any tiny little ones should not be gratefully greeted, but the notion of hierarchy—so easily or even purposely ignored today in the name of “democracy”—should never be forgotten in human existence. St. Teresa of Avila in her great book, Interior Castle tells us that in heaven no two persons will have the same degree of glory.
Looking back at my own life, I see it blessed by a rich array of flowers of all types, of all colors, each having its own perfume— all so widely different. This thought can also be expressed differently. The parable of the talents in the Gospel shed more light on this question. We could say that each friendship symbolizes a certain number of talents: ranging from one to ten. It is crucial that this is perceived in our relationship with others—there is a tendency in most of us to demand more than our friend has received and therefore can give. It is made clear in the Gospel that when the Master comes back and exacts accounts from his servants, He will not ask the one who has received only one talent to give Him back two. But He will rightfully be very displeased if the one who has received ten gives Him back only nine. Maybe some friendships break up because one friend, failing to perceive the number of talents his friend has, demands more than what he can give. How unfair to expect the perfume of a lily from a daisy—and yet, the daisy should be appreciated and viewed as a gift of God. Maybe the same thought can also be expressed by saying that some friendships are “static.” We meet someone who shares all the key values whether religious, philosophical or political questions, but this is clearly as far as the friendship can go. It will last for many years, but at the end of one’s life there will be nothing striking between the first day of acquaintance and the final goodbye.
We can detect from the beginning that it is going to be a “static” friendship: offering no potentialities of growth, always friendly but further blossoming is excluded (“nemo dat quod non habet” (No one gives what they don’t have); as opposed to other friendships, rich in promises and characterized by the fact that, to our joy, they keep growing new blossoms.
Once again, life is a rich teacher. I knew two brothers who both loved their mother. When the latter suffered a stroke and was mentally incapacitated, the older brother visited her daily, even if briefly, hoping that, even for a second, she would realize that he was there. He would lovingly hold her hand, thanking her and hoping that in some faint way, she would feel it. Whereas the younger brother—very business like—paid her a visit once, and came out convinced that it was a waste of time for she most probably did not realize that he was present. No doubt the older one was the greater lover for he understood that presence is a gift—whether perceived or not. “I am there at your side, even though you are incapacitated. It is my way of proving that I love you in this crippled state.” Was the younger brother a bad son? No, but his love was not as deep as the love of his sibling. The holy women stayed at the tomb, and Mary Magdalene came early in the morning, assuming that Christ was still there, and fully realizing that a corpse as corpse could not feel her loving presence. She loved more.
One crucial characteristic of friendship is the wish to share: whatever is mine is yours; it could be defined as an “uncalculating exchange of gifts.” How is one to measure whether an enriching religious or spiritual exchange coming from one person is more or less than a most generous and kind help given to an old lady? Not only is it against the genius of friendship to calculate, but moreover our fallen nature always tempts us to misread a situation to our advantage. “I am the greater giver.” This attitude alone shows that his friendship is flawed. When in Beethoven’s great opera, “Fidelio”, we come to the moving scene of Florestan’s liberation from jail by the love of his wife. When he thanks her, her response is classical: she downplays her heroism and views it as very little measured against what she wished to have done for her beloved husband. A person who praises his own generosity is not generous.
This desire to share finds its climax in spousal love in which one makes a gift of oneself and gives everything, including their names. But the depth of a friendship can not be measured by the extent of this sharing. One should keep in mind the number of talents that this friendship offers; what is considered generous in a “one talent friendship” would be unsatisfactory for one, or five, or ten talents. No doubt some friendships find a sad ending because one discovers that one friend was a “business friend”; another because one felt entitled in the name of friendship to make constant and illegitimate demands on the other—demands way above the frame this friendship could afford. Once again, do not expect from a daisy what you can rightly expect from a lily. Some people favor the idea that a friend is someone to whom one can say: “Whatever is yours is mine. But do not trespass upon my property!” This does not deserve the noble name of friendship.
Another interesting experience that life has taught me is that people whose position in society (whether social or financial or whatever) made them to be generous donors, never missing a chance to benefit others. This also has its drawbacks: first of all, such people who have “very many friends” are most likely to doubt that they are loved for themselves or for their money. It makes many of them distrustful that a friendship is truly genuine. “He cares for me because of my gifts.” Moreover, such people can find it very difficult to ask for help, small as it might be: they are not used to saying, “Thank you.” It does not come easily to some of them. To be the giver is a pleasant feeling; to ask is an act of humility.
Another key trait of friendship is the trust one has for the friend: to “believe” even when one does not see or when circumstances, allusions by others, or innate mistrust make one doubt of the other’s love or faithfulness. Shakespeare has based some of his very many tragedies on this awareness that the danger of mistrusting is deeply encrusted in our fallen nature. Since original sin, we are all potentially jealous beings. The most prominent one is Othello: his vicious jealousy is unchained by the poisonous words of Iago—one of the most detestable characters in his rich array of scoundrels. We know the tragic end of this drama. But it is far from being the only one: we find a variation in other plays. The one which comes to mind is Cymbeline; Imogen, the lovely daughter of this king, wisely refuses to marry the son of her detestable step-mother Cloten and marries Posthumus—because she loves him. The latter separated by circumstances from his beloved wife, made a most unwise (and to my mind insane) bet that nobody, absolutely nobody, could possibly rob him of her love by unfaithfulness. A very shady character takes up the challenge, and, humiliated by a radical defeat of all his advances, devises a diabolical plan: to hide in her bedroom and once she is asleep be given a chance to see her breast marked by a birthmark. He brings this “trump card” to the husband who, lacking trust, believes him.
Fortunately this drama does not end tragically. Imogen won.
The idea of “giving the loved one credit,” is powerfully developed in my husband’s book, The Nature of Love. Needless to say, this trusting is also crucial in religious life, in moments of darkness, of feeling abandoned by God, of temptation that should be combated with the words: “I do not see, O Lord, but I trust in your love; this very darkness carries a loving message; teach me to read it.” There is such a thing as “the dark night of the soul.” Hard as it is, it is inevitable in the spiritual life, and aims at purifying our love: “I do not see, but it is because I am blind. I do not hear but it is due to my deafness. I do not feel anything but the cause is to be found in my own imperfection.” To truly love is to give oneself unconditionally, but not because of the benefits that accrue from my self donation. That man, this frail creature of an hour, cannot do it on his own should be obvious. Our constant prayer should be: “hasten to my help; without you, I am lost.” But this prayer should not be the fruit of “depression”—a certain resentment that one is so helpless and weak—but rather the acknowledgement that joyfully acknowledging that our own nothingness throws us into the arms of an all powerful and loving God, and exclaim with St. Paul, “I can do all things in Him who strengtheneth me.”
Friendship is one of the lights in our earthly existence and gives us a faint foretaste of the Kingdom of Heaven, where love will reign supreme.