The Work of Friendship

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“The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.” —Matthew 6:22

I’m content, at the age of about twenty-five (the exact number escapes me), to stay exactly where I am.

I’ve moved precisely once since my undergraduate days. Nothing’s more futile than to putter about the nation in pursuit of the almighty dollar if the price of a ticket-to-ride is the perpetual lugging of desks, books, and china up flights of stairs, the unending series of absentee or fascistic landlords, and the corrosive effects of apartment dwelling—to say nothing of the loss of the real goods of family, friendship, and a sense of place.

Much has been said on the subject of family, the basis of all social goods, but seldom do we broach the subject of friendship.

I’m privileged to live in unusual circumstances—to wit, on roughly ten acres of land, in an undisclosed location in the Sunapee region. Most of my contemporaries seem to subsist nomadically and change apartments with the changing seasons. I share the property I live on with both family and friends, although the ratio of family to friends is seldom stable. In the summer, we are often full with houseguests, and we seem to live in perpetual expectation of new infants. We divide between us the work of the garden, the hen-house, and the kitchen.

We read evening prayer from the Customary of Our Lady of Walsingham at half-past five. Martinis and tobacco at six o’clock. Dinner at seven-ish. Sherry, music, comic poetry, gossip, and frolics until late in the evening. Some of us, myself included, teach during the year; we garden and pray in the summer. As the venerable Thomas Howard would say, “Hey, nonny nonny.”

We’re bound together by nothing other than regard for each other, and the help we receive from one another. Not all of us are related by blood, but we are indeed a family. Wordsworth wrote, “I could wish my days to be/ Bound each to each by natural piety,” but is it possible without the aid of friends? Families are often bound together by mutual interests, habit, or inertia. Friends are bound together by choice.

Since the end of the school year, much has needed doing. There have been seedbeds dug, manure has been hauled, trees felled, and wood split. Lawn parties have been ceremoniously officiated, babies have been born, and bulk orders of tobacco purchased. The cucumbers and squash are doing well, although I’m ever looking over my radishes and carrots with the anxious eye of a parent whose child has just discovered hair-metal. They’re too often in company with slugs, and they need thinning. Ora et labora, et cetera.

None of this is possible without the help of friends. I am reminded of an insightful passage from the twentieth of Seneca’s epistles to his friend Lucilius: “I can be satisfied with the following: ‘What is wisdom? Always desiring the same things, and always refusing the same things.’ You may be excused from adding the little proviso,—that what you wish, should be right; since no man can always be satisfied with the same thing, unless it is right.” But this notion of “desiring and refusing the same things” is not original to Seneca. In fact, the Roman historian Sallust, in The War with Catiline, put it this way: “Agreement in likes and dislikes—this, and this only, is what constitutes true friendship.” What Seneca has done, in a typically unassuming and quiet fashion, is to draw a link between the idea of wisdom and friendship. He hints at an essential unity between the two, which we must unravel in order to understand.

The first point of unity that comes to mind is this: that both friends and the soul of the wise man are at unity with themselves. Friends love the same things. Likewise, the wise man—or, as we might just as easily call him, the holy man—does not love Beauty, Truth, and Goodness at one moment, and fall slavishly at the foot of filth and vice the next.

But there is more to friendship than that, as the quotation hints. Our Savior said that the two most important commandments of the old covenant were these: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” Significantly, He goes on to say that “on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” What is the second, except a call to friendship—especially when we remember the words of Aristotle, that a friend is “another self”?

These two divine commandments share a nature, since the second is “like unto” the first. This is a second point of unity between friendship and wisdom if we have ears to hear. Love of God and love of neighbor are to some degree equivalent, since, once we are swallowed up in the profoundest depths of charity, we no longer merely love our friends for sharing pleasures and pains, or likes and dislikes, with us, but love them primarily and fundamentally because of the love God has for them. This is equivalent to loving God Himself. For God is His Love, just as, in reality, He is the grace that He gives us. After all, what do we have that we have not received?

We must note that this love is not merely human love. C. S. Lewis testifies to the nature of superhuman love—that is, a community of charity—in A Grief Observed:

A society, a communion, of pure intelligences would not be cold, drab, and comfortless. On the other hand it wouldn’t be very like what people usually mean when they use such words as spiritual, or mystical, or holy. It would, if I have had a glimpse, be—well, I’m almost scared at the adjectives I’d have to use. Brisk? cheerful? keen? Alert? intense? wide-awake? Above all, solid. Utterly reliable. Firm. There is no nonsense about the dead.

Of course, to continue in this vein, there can be “no nonsense” in a person whose entire attention belongs primarily to God. Friendship, in the highest and noblest sense, is more than the ability to share food, drink, hobbies, or conversation with another. It is to orient oneself toward the good with another. By sharing in the good, the good is multiplied. This is perhaps one meaning behind Christ’s real and physical multiplication of the loaves and fishes. Through our friends, we are made one with the good.

In fact, for the virtuous, the good and friendship are in some way synonymous. Everyone who has ever been in the presence of a noble, or a holy, or a moderate man knows the attraction that these people possess for those who actually desire the summum bonum. Because virtue is manifest in them, to be their friend is to be a friend of virtue itself. This is the link between the first and second commandment. In order to “love thy neighbor as thyself,” one must first “love the Lord thy God.” But once that is done, a great blessing follows, namely, that to love your neighbor and to love divine Wisdom can be one and the same. Alleluia. Amen.

Michael Yost

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Michael Yost has a wide variety of interests, most of which may be pursued either in the garden or in his library. He's a recent convert from Anglicanism and a member of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of Saint Peter. When hounded, he goes to earth in the depths of rural New Hampshire, where he and his wife are raising their infant son.

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