top of page

The Canons of Friendship

ALICE VON HILDEBRAND Crisis Magazine May, 2006

Friendship is the remnant of paradise. Aristotle sees it as a virtue, and one's behavior toward one's friends tells us a great deal about a person's character. That great friendships are rare is a sad fact that has been powerfully expressed in the words of Ovid: Donec eris felix, multos numerabis amicos. Tempora si fuerunt nubila, solus eris. "As long as you were happy, you counted many friends. As soon as the sky was covered, you found yourself alone." The beauty of true friendship—even if it is a rare jewel—shines all the more brightly because it may be the exception. "A friend loves at all times," Proverbs 17 tells us.

St. Augustine—whose heart was as warm as his mind was bright—spoke beautifully about friendship. Friends love one another; they share one another's joys and sorrows. "They enkindle themselves and they inflame one another." They find joy in being together to share ideas and enrich one another by exchanging their experiences. As a teenager, Augustine developed a warm friendship with a boy of his age. The bond was sweet, and Augustine could not live without him. The young man became sick and, after falling unconscious, was baptized. Augustine was convinced that once his friend recovered, he would keep his distance from Christianity. But to his amazement, the very opposite happened; when Augustine started joking about his baptism, the young man warned severely that if Augustine wished to remain his friend, he should stop saying such things. Soon afterwards, the sickness came back with a vengeance and the friend died.

Augustine tells us that his heart was "black with grief." He could not conceive how he could live without the one with whom he had developed such a profound bond. He wept, suffered, and shed abundant tears, but these were unbaptized tears. Years later, when Augustine wrote the Confessions, he remarked: "O madness which does not know how to love men as men should be loved." Deeply rooted in the Faith, Augustine perceived that any true friendship or human love should be rooted in God. It is only in Him that true love can blossom.

The wound healed slowly, but it did heal. Later Augustine was blessed with several true friendships; two names stand out, Alypius and Nebridius. When the latter died, Augustine wrote these gripping words, "Nor do I think that he is so inebriated by the fountain of wisdom as to become forgetful of me, for you, O Lord, of whom he drinks, are mindful of me." Augustine finally knew true friendships because they were rooted in Him who is the source of all love.

Friends share the same interests; but more than that, they are so interested in the welfare of the friend that they truly share his joys and sorrows. A French author, Jean de Rotrou, wrote, "L’ami qui souffres eulf ait une injure á l'autre" (the friend who suffers alone insults the other). He is referring to the fact that friendship means more than enjoying one another's presence or exchanging ideas. There are moments when a friend is in need: One's concern about the other, one's willingness to help—if help can be given—will tell us how deep, how profound the friendship is. Ovid's words point to the fact that many so-called friendships are in fact no friendships at all. To my mind, the term "business friendship" is a misnomer. As long as two persons have the same interest they will be much together, enjoy each other's company, and fall into the illusion that they truly care for one another. But in fact, it is only a facade and will collapse as soon as their interests diverge.

The true friend is one who, when the skies are dark, will be there to give his support, to share his friend's worries, and, if he can, to help him. To help a friend in need is a source of joy for the true friend.

But how much should one be willing to sacrifice for his friend? Money? Time? Suffering? "There is no greater love than to give one’s life for one's friend." When is this required? Is it ever required? Here, some distinctions are called for. Since one can need help in very different ways, each case calls for a different response.

There are people who, knowing the goodness and generosity of their friends, are tempted to abuse their friendship. They cry for help for insignificant reasons and do not hesitate to appeal to their friends' generosity for things that, in fact, they could easily manage on their own. The true friend should show his friendship by never troubling the other unnecessarily.

The situation of the one whose help is requested is different; when warmed by love, the heart of a friend always has a "superactual" readiness to help his friends. When, however, he realizes that by acquiescence to a request he will actually "spoil" his friend, he should turn down the request. But—and this is crucial—this refusal should be done lovingly.

There are cases, however, in which a person will appeal to his friend's help because he is objectively in a difficult situation: sickness, old age, some emergency. In such cases, there is a discrepancy between the effort (or sacrifice) required and the greatness of the need (to take someone to the hospital in an emergency, to baby-sit for a mother who has several children and one of them must urgently be taken to the doctor). Not to ask for help in such cases, even though friends have repeatedly told them that they would be happy to help, is to "sin" against friendship.

A friend who refuses his help even though the effort requested from him is small, and the need of the other is great, simply disqualifies himself as a true friend. The one whose request is rejected should sadly acknowledge that his "friend" has not yet learned the Christian art of true friendship.

There are, of course, exceptions, when the friend whose help is requested must turn down his friend's request—for example, when an equally grave situation has arisen in which he has already committed himself. There are cases in which bilocation is the only possibly solution, but is so rarely available! Once again, the manner of refusing is all-important. It has been said of St. Francis de Sales that when it was not possible for him to accede to a request, he would decline so kindly, so graciously that the other person left him with love and gratitude. To lovingly turn down a legitimate request for legitimate reasons is even heartwarming: One feels that the other would have loved to help, that he is grieved that he cannot help, and that he will pray for the person in need. On the other hand, to yield to a "friend’s" demand, yet make him feel keenly that his request was a nuisance, cannot only be wounding but also makes it difficult to be grateful.

The bonds of friendship involve no "legal" obligation. To the bureaucrat, this is the only type of obligation that he acknowledges. The beauty of friendship is that—even though no such legal bond exists—the friend knows deep in his heart that friendship involves a moral obligation that is no less valid.

The question is: How deep, how profound, how total is one's love for one's friend? How far does the "moral" obligation go? Tell me how much you are willing to sacrifice for your friend, and I will tell you how deep your love is. Even though no one is obliged to sacrifice one's kidney to save another person’s life, some generous people will do so because they love. A newspaper article recently reported that a man whose brother desperately needed a kidney transplant offered one of his own. Through some tragic medical quirk, the receiver survived, but the donor did not. Even though there was no way of knowing that he would die in the operation, the fact that he was willing to take this risk tells us how deeply he loved his brother. No mother, worthy of this sublime name, would hesitate to sacrifice herself for her child. Think of Gianna Molla, who brought her pregnancy to term to save the life of her child. She died shortly after the birth and is now beatified.

In ideal cases, the friend will offer his assistance before being asked to do so. As soon as he learns of the other's plight, he will joyfully run to his assistance. If his help is substantial, the other friend should hesitate before accepting it. Absolutely never should he view it as "his right" and resent when this dramatic help is not offered to him. Alas, our fallen nature tends to make us claim imaginary rights and be resentful when they are not "respected." There are sacrifices that can be offered, but they can never be required.

The way in which a person accepts help reveals a lot about him. Is he grateful? Or does he take favors and sacrifices for granted? I have heard the following remarks from people who have benefited greatly from other people's generosity, "There is nothing special about his helping me. I would, of course, have done the Same for him." Or, "I do appreciate the time that he has devoted to me; but after all, he has nothing to do and is bored." Or, "It was kind of her to take care of my children for a couple of days. But she loves children, so it was not much of a sacrifice for her." Or, "He is just paying back what I have done for him."

One of the great dangers in friendship is to exchange roles as it were. The giver should downplay his sacrifice: "I was happy to do so." And the receiver should carefully refrain from minimizing or demeaning the gift received. From this point of view, the desirable response of the giver should be the very opposite response of the beneficiary. Too often, people reverse these roles. Some givers like to magnify their efforts or their gilts, and the receiver can be tempted to play them down. This is unfortunate, because a generous friend will give with such kindness (and even joy) that it is tempting for the other to say, "But he was just happy to do it."

With his usual mastery, Dickens has superbly etched such a character. Harold Skimpole, in Bleak House, exemplifies the type of person who refuses to provide for his own needs and always manages to find kind souls to pull him out of trouble. His gratitude is skin-deep, and he even manages, in a subtle way to make his donors realize how fortunate they are to be in a position to help someone in need. Skimpole says: "I envy you your power to do what you do. It is what I should revel in myself. I don't feel any vulgar gratitude to you. I almost feel as if you ought to be grateful to me for giving you the opportunity of enjoying the luxury of generosity. I know you like it. For anything I can tell, I may have come into the world expressly for the purpose of increasing your stock of happiness."

Of course, there are also persons who refuse to ask for help even when desperately in need. They hate to feel indebted and much prefer to find themselves in severe hardship rather than turn to their friends. However, once the problem is solved, some of them adroitly (or not so adroitly) hint at the fact that help would have been appreciated had it been offered. This is a subtle and cruel way to make a friend feel that he has failed to live up to the moral obligations of friendships.

I have known persons who, even though in difficult financial circumstances, prefer paid help than that coming from a friend. After all, they need not thank someone compensated for his services. I have also known some willing to help others but who refuse adamantly to be helped themselves. Once again, they choke on the words "thank you."

Another field in which friendship can derail is when a friend spontaneously does something kind or gives his friend a gift, anticipating that he will be rewarded by a loving acknowledgment. There has been a time in all of our lives when we gave something to a dear person, yet his response was unenthusiastic. We had expected joyful gratitude and were disappointed.

The fact is, there are right moments for giving, and wrong ones. When a person comes home exhausted after a long day at work, it is not the right moment to expect a warm, affectionate response. We should patiently wait for when the other is receptive. Moreover, we should not give a gift for the joy of receiving a warm thank you. We should give because the gift is beneficial to the receiver and refrain from being offended because we did not receive the gratitude we had anticipated. Even in giving one can be self-seeking.

Yet we should still wish that the other shows some gratitude, because gratitude makes the soul beautiful. This precious little word is one of the three golden keys of friendship and marriage. In our world today the sweet music of "thank you" is seldom heard. Years ago, it was so ingrained in the education of children that, as soon as they received a gift, they knew that they had to thank. Today the words are out of fashion. Consumerism has ruined this cord in the human soul; the more we get, the more we want, and the less we appreciate what we receive.

Gratitude is the blessed oil on which friendship and marriage thrive. There is, alas, a danger in taking for granted the numerous tokens of love we receive from those particularly close to us. We get so many of them that they often do not even register. But the words "thank you'' should be the golden thread that, day after day, weaves the precious tapestry of a loving relationship.

If a stranger goes out of his way to help us, we are likely to thank spontaneously; in our society, when this happens, we are pleasantly surprised. But if a loved one does the

same act of kindness, it seems so normal that we fail to say "thank you."

Expressions of gratitude and affection cannot be said or heard too often. Think of the sacred repetitions at Holy Mass. There are many of them (even though some have been eliminated since Vatican II), and they are so deeply meaningful. Domine non sum dignus used to be repeated three times. Can it be repeated too often?

When people live close together (this applies particularly in marriage) and see each other early in the morning and late at night—in moments of great fatigue and moments of tension—it becomes easy to say an impatient word, to be irritated, and to make reproaches to another. Only saints escape such dangers. There is, however, a timeless Christian medicine: to immediately ask for forgiveness.

It is said in Proverbs that the good man falls seven times a day (24:16). Human life is a series of falls. But the crucial question is, When we have fallen, what do we do? To fall is not as bad as refusing to get up when fallen. And to get up is to ask for forgiveness and change defeat into a victory. Noble friendships and happy marriages (they do exist, in spite of the defeatist attitude prevalent today) are characterized by the fact that one is always willing to acknowledge one's fault, one's weakness, and to ask for forgiveness. The holier a person is, the more contrite he will be about the slightest faults. This has been admirably sketched in Dante's Divine Comedy, when he writes, "Come t’è picciol fallo amaro morso" (how little fault to have such bitter force). Which one of us is so hard-hearted as to refuse to forgive someone who is sincerely repentant? In some way, he becomes particularly dear to us.

This leads to the third canon of Christian friendship, the unconditional readiness to forgive. To be unforgiving is to condemn oneself; for God cannot be merciful toward us if we are not merciful toward our neighbors. The words of the Pater Noster should be the object of the Catholic's daily meditation: "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." Once I realize the immensity of my debt toward God, it should become easy to forgive others.

If someone very dear to me offends or wounds me, the pain felt should be mostly because the loved one has stained his beloved soul and offended God; the harm done to oneself should be immediately forgiven, and this very forgiveness will take away the sting of the pain. On the other hand, if a person dear to us wounds another, our grief should be doubled, first because he has hurt his soul and offended God, but also because we should feel the pain inflicted on the other, even if this person is in no way close to us. We should ardently pray that the one dear to us immediately asks for forgiveness, and use a loving fraternal correction to persuade him to do so. The fact is that the holier a friend or spouse is, the more he will be ready to say "thank you," to ask for forgiveness, and to forgive.

Friendship is a precious jewel, and Aristotle was right in viewing it as having the luminous glow of virtue. But what should be said of "holy friendship" rooted in Christ, sharing in His love for the loved one? Those blessed by grace, who live up to the Christian canons of friendship, will have a taste of paradise.


bottom of page