Saturday, October 27, 2012

On Ideal Friendship

A letter to St John Chrysostom from his mother, St Anthusa, on Ideal Friendship.

For what would a genuine friend not do? what pleasure would he not create for us? what benefit? what safety? Though you were to name a thousand treasures, there is nothing comparable to a real friend.

First let us say how much pleasure friendship brings. A friend is bright with joy, and overflows when he sees his friend. He is united to him in a union having a certain ineffable pleasure of the soul. If he merely thinks of him, he rises and is carried upwards in his mind. I speak of genuine friends, who are of one accord, of those who would choose to die for their friends, of those who love warmly. Do not imagine that you can refute what I say with the example of those who love lightly, or who lunch with you, [lit. 'who are sharers of your table', Ecclesiasticus 6.10], or with whom you have a nodding acquaintance. If any one has a friend such as I describe, he will understand my words; and, though he should see his friend every day, it is not often enough for him. He makes the same prayers for his friend as for himself. I know a certain man, who, when asking for the prayers of a holy man on behalf of his friend, asks him to pray first for the friend and then for himself.
A true friend is such that places and times are loved on his account. For, as shining objects shed a lustre upon the adjoining places, even so friends impart their own grace to the places they have been. And oftentimes, when standing in those places without our friends, we have wept and groaned, remembering the days when we were there together.

It is not possible to express in language the pleasure which the presence of friends causes, but only those who have experienced it know. One can ask a favour, and receive a favour, from a friend without suspicion. When they make a request of us, we are grateful to them; but when they are slow to ask, then we are sad. We have nothing which is not theirs. Often, though despising all earthly things, nevertheless, on their account, we do not wish to depart from this life; and they are more desirable to us than the light. Yes, indeed, a friend is more desirable than the light itself. (I speak of the genuine friend.) And do not object; for it would be better for us for the sun to be extinguished than to be deprived of friends. It would be better to live in darkness than to be without friends. And how can I say this? Because many who see the sun are in darkness. But those who are rich in friends could never be in tribulation. I speak of the spiritual friends who set nothing above friendship. Such was Paul, who would willingly have given his own soul, without having been asked, and would have willingly fallen into Hell for his brethren (Romans 9.3). With so burning an affection is it proper to love. Take this as an example of friendship. Friends surpass fathers and sons, that is, friends according to Christ.

Friendship is a great thing, and how great, no one could learn by study, nor by any words of explanation, but only by the experience itself. For the absence of love has brought heresies, it causes the heathens to be heathens. He who loves does not wish to command nor to rule, but he feels more grateful being subject and being commanded. He wishes to confer favours rather than to receive them, for he loves, and feels as if he had not gratified his desire. He is not so much delighted at experiencing kindness as at doing kindness. For he prefers to hold his friend bound to him, rather than he should be indebted to his friend: or, rather, he wishes to be indebted to him, and also to have him as a debtor. He wishes to confer favours, and not to seem to confer favours, but to be his debtor.

When friendship does not exist, we embarrass with our services those whom we serve, and we exaggerate small things. But when friendship does exist, we conceal the services and we also wish to make great things appear small, in order that we may not seem to have our friend as a debtor, but that we ourselves may appear to be debtors to him while actually he is our debtor. I know that many do not understand this, but the reason is that I discourse of a heavenly thing. It is as if I spoke of some plant growing in India, of which no one had experience. Language could not represent it, although I were to utter ten thousand words. Even so now; whatever I may say, I shall speak in vain. For no one will be able to represent it. This plant has been planted in Heaven, having its branches loaded, not with pearls, but with abundant life, which is much more pleasing than pearls.

But what kind of pleasure do you wish to speak of? Is it of disgraceful pleasure, or of virtuous pleasure? Now the sweetness of friendship exceeds all other pleasures. You might mention the sweetness of honey, except that honey can become cloying, and a friend never does (so long as he is a friend); the desire is rather increased the more it is gratified, and this pleasure can never leave us sated. A friend is sweeter than the present life. Therefore, many have not wished to live any longer after the death of their friends. With a friend anyone could willingly endure banishment; but without a friend no one would choose to inhabit even his own country. With a friend even poverty is bearable, but without him health and wealth are unbearable.

To have a friend is to have another self; it is concord and harmony, which nothing can equal. In this, one is the equivalent of many. For if two, or ten, are united, none of them is merely one any longer, but each of them has the ability and value of ten; and you will find the one in the ten, and the ten in the one. If they have an enemy, attacking not one, but ten, he is defeated, for he is struck, not by one, but by ten . Has one fallen into want? Still he is not desolate; for he prospers in his greater part; that is to say in the nine, and the needy part is protected; that is, the smaller part by that which prospers. Each one of them has twenty hands, and twenty eyes, and as many feet. For he sees not with his own eyes alone, but with those of others; he walks not with his own feet, but with those of others; he works not with his own hands, but with those of others. He has ten souls, for he alone is not concerned about himself, but those other nine souls are concerned about him. And if they are a hundred, the same thing will take place again, power will be increased.
See the excellence of godly love! How it causes one individual to be unconquerable and equal to many. How the one person can be in different places. How the same person may thus be in Persia and in Rome, and how what nature cannot do, love can do. For one part of the man will be there, and one part here; or rather, he will be altogether there and altogether here. Or if he have a thousand friends, or two thousand, think to what a pitch his power will advance. Do you see how productive a thing love is? For this is a wonderful thing: to make the individual a thousand-fold. So the question is, why do we not take possession of this strength, and place ourselves in safety? This is better than all power and virtue. This is more than health, more than the light of day itself. And it is a joy. How long shall we confine our love to one or two?

Learn from considering the opposite. Suppose there were someone who had no friend — a thing which is of the utmost folly. (“A fool will say, ‘I have no friend’“
[Ecclesiasticus 20.16].) What kind of life does such a person live? For even if he were rich a thousand times over; even if he were to live in abundance and luxury, and possess a multitude of good things, he is absolutely destitute and naked. But in the case of friends this is not so; but even if they are poor, they are better provided than the rich; and what a man will not venture to say for himself, a friend will say for him. And the things which he is unable to grant by himself, those he can grant through another, and much more, and thus he will be to us a cause of all pleasure and enjoyment. For it is impossible that he should suffer hurt, being protected by so many bodyguards. Not even the Emperor’s bodyguards are as careful as one’s friends; for the former guard through fear of discipline, but the latter through love. And love is much more commanding than fear. Indeed, a king may fear his guards; but the friend trusts to them more than to himself and, because of them, fears none of those who plot against him.

Let us, therefore, procure for ourselves this commodity — the poor man, that he may have a consolation of his poverty; the rich man, in order that he may possess his riches in safety; the ruler that he may rule with safety; the subject, that he may have well-disposed rulers.

Friendship is an occasion of benevolence and a source of clemency. Even among beasts, the most savage and intractable are those which do not herd together. Therefore we inhabit cities and we hold markets, that we may have intercourse with each other. This also Paul commanded, when he forbade ‘neglecting to meet together’ (Hebrews 10.25). For there is nothing so bad as solitude, and the absence of society and of access to others.

What about monks, then, one might ask, and those who live as hermits on tops of mountains? They are not without friends. They have fled from the tumult of the marketplace, but they have many of one accord with them, and are closely bound to each other in Christ. And it was in order that they might accomplish this that they withdrew. For, since the zeal of business leads to many disputes, they have left the world to cultivate godly love with great strictness. The sceptic then might say: What? If a man is alone, may he also have friends? I, indeed, would wish, if it were possible, that we were all able to live together; but, in the meantime, let friendship remain unmoved. For it is not the place that makes the friend. Furthermore, the monks have many who admire them; but no one would admire unless they loved. Also, the monks pray for the entire world, which is the greatest evidence of friendship.

For the same reason we embrace each other in the Divine Liturgy; in order that being many, we may become one. And we make common prayer for the uninitiated, for the sick, for the fruits of the earth, and for travellers by land and by sea. Behold the strength of love in the prayers, in the holy mysteries, in the preaching. This is the cause of all good things. If we apply ourselves with due care to these precepts, we shall both administer present things well and obtain the Kingdom.

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