It is easy to neglect our friends as we get busier, but they are essential to our holiness and happiness.
I’ve never been able to forget the unusual advice my husband and I received before our wedding, from the wise and holy priest who presided at our ceremony. One of the best things we could do for our marriage, he told us, is to make time for friends and nurture those relationships through the years.
He turned to my husband and said, “This advice is especially meant for you. I see it all the time; as many men get older, they are so busy with work and family that they tell themselves they don’t have time for friends, and even that they don’t really need friends.” A spouse can’t fill all your needs for community and companionship, he said, and trying to make them fit that role puts undue stress on the relationship. Ironically, your spouse and your marriage actually benefit from your spending time with your friends.
Over the years that we have been married, I’ve started to realize that spending less time with friends isn’t something most men deliberately choose. Unfortunately, our transient culture doesn’t make it easy to make friends, or to keep them once you’ve found them. In the past two years, at least 10 couples we are friends with have moved out of state, including my husband’s two closest friends. Making matters worse, it gets harder and harder to meet new friends as the years go by, and work and family obligations become increasingly time-consuming. As a viral tweet shrewdly stated, “Nobody talks about Jesus’ miracle of having 12 close friends in his 30s.”
Sometimes it feels tempting to just give up on making new friends altogether. What’s the point of investing all that time and effort, just to have someone you care about pack up and leave? But friendship is necessary for human flourishing. Even when it seems awkward or difficult, the effort to get to know people and spend time with them is always worth it.
Building friendships isn’t only about a healthy and thriving life, but also is an essential component of holiness. We see this truth lived out in the many saints who were friends with each other, such as Sts. Cosmas and Damien, Sts. Ignatius of Loyola and Francis Xavier, Sts. Paul and Barnabas, Sts. Augustine and Ambrose, and many others whose names we may not know. We see it even more in the countless monastic communities and religious orders that have existed throughout Church history, in which men or women join together to help each other toward holiness. Rare is the man who does not need friends, both for his emotional and spiritual health. The Church tells us,
The human person needs to live in society. Society is not for him an extraneous addition but a requirement of his nature. Through the exchange with others, mutual service and dialogue with his brethren, man develops his potential; he thus responds to his vocation. (1879)
This idea that community helps a person to improve morally and live his fullest potential predates Christianity. Aristotle wrote about the “friendship of virtue,” in which a friend calls you to a higher standard of conduct and thought, so that you become a better person by spending time with him.
Aristotle thought these noblest of friendships were only possible between men. What a difference from today, when men are more likely to let friendships fall by the wayside as they grow older! Reflecting on spiritual friendships and religious communities is a reminder and a call not to neglect friendships, which can be so life-giving and are part of the Christian vocation.
November, traditionally the month when Catholics honor the dead, is an important reminder that everyone needs community. On All Saints’ Day, we honored the full array of saints beyond counting, who are doing what we are all called to do, which is to live in joyful unity with God and our fellow man. Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote that “Hell is other people,” but Christians might posit instead that “Heaven is other people.” We believe not only that Heaven will involve perfect communion with many other people, but also that our happiness in this life as well as the next is inextricably linked to our loving treatment of others.
This November, challenge yourself to find a way to build up a friendship. Perhaps you might call an old friend who’s moved away, or invite a local friend to have a drink in the backyard before it gets too cold out, or pray for a friend who is going through a hard time (and let him know you’re thinking of him!). With little acts of kindness and going out of your way a bit to connect with those around you, the communion of saints is strengthened, making the community of believers on earth a little bit more like that of Heaven.
The ultimate “friendship of virtue” is a spiritual friendship between holy people, such as these 5 saints who were friends with other saints.