The beloved cardinal wrote that strong friendships are a source and test of virtue.
As the years go on, it’s easy to let friendships drop by the wayside. It’s tempting to think that work and family life is enough to meet all social and emotional needs. But it’s worth making the extra effort to prioritize time with friends. There are even spiritual benefits to building and maintaining strong friendships — so much so that a number of saints have written of them.
One saint who championed friendship in particular was John Henry Cardinal Newman, whose canonization on October 13 is a momentous occasion for the Church. This brilliant writer and theologian continues to affect the lives of countless Catholics almost 130 years after he died. A high-ranking Anglican bishop, Newman couldn’t resist his growing interest in Catholicism, and finally “swam the Tiber” in 1847 after 22 years as an Anglican clergyman. He took a special interest in university education, and his legacy lives on today at “Newman centers” — Catholic student centers at secular campuses around the world.
Here are four reasons John Henry Newman encouraged strong friendships that can help motivate you to do the same:
1. Befriending and loving those closest to us teaches us to love all people.
“The best preparation for loving the world at large, and loving it duly and wisely, is to cultivate an intimate friendship and affection towards those who are immediately about us,” Newman wrote in his sermon “Love of Relations and Friends.”
God, he said, grounds “what is good and true in religion and morals, on the basis of our good natural feelings.” As we act toward our friends and family, so we learn to act toward God and humanity in general. This idea of Newman’s is similar to Mother Teresa’s famous comment that working for world peace should begin with loving one’s family.
2. Befriending and loving other people takes practice, and the more effort we make to love our friends, the better we can learn to love God.
“Love is a habit, and cannot be attained without actual practice,” Newman wrote. He offered the following examples of ways that friendship forms the heart to be devout and truly charitable:
- Trying to love our relations and friends
- Submitting to their wishes, though contrary to our own
- Bearing with their infirmities
- Overcoming their occasional waywardness by kindness
- Dwelling on their excellences, and trying to copy them
3. Love of friends and relations gives “form and direction” to the “love of mankind at large, making it intelligent and discriminating.”
When a person does not have particular close friends, they may easily make errors in judgment when trying to do good on a broad scale, because their goodwill is not grounded in reality.
“Men of ambitious and ardent minds,” he wrote, “are especially exposed to the temptation of sacrificing individual to general good in their plans of charity.” This temptation is far less likely, however, when “men cultivate the private charities,” that is, have a circle of good, close friends and family.
4. Close friendship offers a chance to “exercise Christian love” to a point of “perfection” Newman wrote.
Practicing charity in close relationships, as between spouses or roommates or friends, is “a special test of our virtue.”
Many friends, upon living together, “find it difficult to restrain their tempers and keep on terms,” he wrote. But “the Saints of God” bear patiently with each other, as they have “the love of God seated deep in their hearts;” thus “a faithful indestructible friendship” at close quarters “is a lively token of the presence of divine grace in them.”
This weekend, text a friend to come over and watch a football game or to grab drinks after work or after the kids are in bed. It takes a bit of extra effort, but it’s always worth it.
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