On the Gift of Spiritual Friendship
"A faithful friend is a sturdy shelter: he that has found one has found a treasure." (Sirach 6:14)
A spiritual friend is a great gift of God. God does not intend for any of us to be alone. Jesus tells us He will be with us always. He exhorts us to love one another, and gives the promise in Matthew 18:20, that when two or three are gathered in His name, there He is in the midst of them, a figure of the Trinity. Threaded throughout the Scriptures are types of holy friendship; Jesus Himself had very many friends. Examples of spiritual friendship abound in Catholic tradition as well. In the Roman Catholic calendar, January 2 is the feast of two great doctors of the Church, Sts. Basil the Great and Gregory Nazianzen, memorialized together because of their great friendship.
St. Gregory Nazianzen, writing of his friendship with St. Basil, told of how they were reunited after separation, "as if by plan, for God so arranged it." God does arrange our finding great friends with whom we can share the journey towards Heaven. A spiritual friend desires our greatest good, which is salvation. Each friend empties themselves of self-centeredness and pride, and assists the other by shared prayer and encouragement. To stay the true path of righteousness is especially difficult in our very secular society. Assaults against our Catholic faith are numerous. How comforting and sweet it is to have a friend who understands and is fighting the battle with us, for us, alongside us! We are not alone!
God might place the right person in our path, but it is up to us to nurture and develop that spiritual friendship, which is of a higher order than natural friendship. Praying together brings Jesus right into the relationship. No one desires our greatest good more than He does. Invite Him into the friendship. Accompany one another towards Him. Share openly with one another, both the sorrows and the joys of life. A true spiritual friend will share and lighten the burdens and increase the consolations that Providence allows.
Great things are accomplished when spiritual friends set out to do God's holy will. The friendship becomes a movement of His will. It is a model of Christian love and the "pure reciprocity" of God, as described by twelfth century monk, St. Aelred. In spiritual friendship, the friends are completely equal; there is no competition, nor superiority. The friendship itself is an important element in the relationship, with each carrying the other always in their heart and prayers, encouraging one another, even rebuking in charity when necessary.
St. Jane de Chantal and St. Francis de Sales shared a deep spiritual friendship that was instrumental for her founding of the Visitation order for women, with over eighty communities established by the time of St. Jane's death. The two saints saw one another in dreams before their actual meeting, illustrating the direct hand of God in their friendship. St. Francis described the love of spiritual friends as a sort of nudge from God into relationship which mirrors that of our relationship with Him and contributes to the coming of the kingdom of God on Earth.
Sts. Clare and Francis of Assisi shared a similar spiritual friendship which Pope Benedict XVI called "a powerful incentive to advance on the path of perfection...which divine Grace purifies and transfigures." The spiritual friendship of St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila helped each of them in their earthly missions as well as their ascent towards God.
If you have a spiritual friend, thank God for this gift and nurture it. If you are lonely for one, humbly petition Him for this grace and He will provide the "elixir of life" (Sirach 6:16). It may be that you already have the foundation of a spiritual friendship with someone in your life, but need to recognize and develop its fruits. Dying to self for a friend is part of what we are called to do as Christians, and is a sign of growth in faith and truth. As the struggle to live an authentic Christian life in a darkening world becomes more challenging, a spiritual friend can be the source of mutual encouragement and assistance that makes all the difference.
January 19, 2015