The Spirit said to Philip, “Go up and meet that chariot.” When Philip ran up, he heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” “How can I,” he replied, “unless I have someone to guide me?” So he invited Philip to get in and sit by his side.
Acts 8: 29-30
“No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me.”
The story from Acts that we read today is a touchingly simple and beautiful account of the need and place of companionship and friendship on our spiritual path. It is only through relationship with others who share our concern and desire for authenticity and human and spiritual formation that we are drawn by the Father to Jesus, to the unique Christ form that we most originally are.
We have so many different types of human relationships in our lives. There are relationships of survival and necessity, of use and manipulation, of passion and seduction, and of intimacy and friendship. The deepest of associations and friendships seem to have about them something of the experience of Philip in today’s reading. Philip is “sent” by the Spirit to meet the chariot containing the court official of the Queen of Ethiopia that is approaching. Philip is sent to help the official understand the word and the call he is receiving from Isaiah. He is to be “a guide” in service of the official’s coming to faith and so coming to be and to realize his own unique call.
To be a friend is not so much a matter of our own choice but rather of our acceptance of being sent in service to the call and the life of another. This, of course, comes in many ways, including the way of affinity and desire. Perhaps, as Philip, we are sent into another’s life because we recognize in them a measure of their deepest call and possibility. We experience love both for who they are but also for whom they are called to be and are not yet. From this perspective, this insight, we are in a position to guide our friend toward the authentic realization of his or her call from God. It is not that we understand them more than they understand themselves. It is rather that we are witnesses to the one they are who is more than that of which they are currently aware. We are guides through our love of the person they are called to be.
We recognize this in another because we have come to realize something of God’s love for the Christ in ourselves. This is the faith in the resurrected one that makes Philip available to the official he encounters. We do not explicitly know or understand who the other really is, but we do know, and perhaps even experience, God’s love for them. Our task, in loving another in this way, is to constantly reckon with all the complexity we experience in relating as human beings. Most of us never attain true purity of heart in this life. So, we tend to find our experience of friendship and relationship to contain elements of all of our modes of relating: need, manipulation, passion, desire, resentment, envy, and so on. When the other hurts or rebuffs us, when they cease to gratify us or when they frustrate us, we shall experience the limits of our capacity to love and to serve their call. In some ways, Philip has it easy. He shows up, teaches, baptizes, and moves on. This is why it is often much easier to love in our work and ministry, in our role as helper, than it is in our longer term relationships.
Yet, the way of formation includes all that is human. We potentially form each other not only with our kindness but also with our anger, not only with our guidance but also with our manipulation. At the heart of true friendship and spiritual accompaniment lies the foundational need for mercy and forgiveness. If we honestly and humbly live our attempts at loving, our failures toward each other can, in the light of repentance and forgiveness, often serve our relationship more fully than our successes. The human tendency, having significantly hurt or having been hurt, is to break the relationship. Yet, if instead we recognize our failings and bring our needs for healing to each other for forgiveness, we can come to understand each other’s true original calling even more deeply. We serve the spiritual unfolding of others best by being with them honestly and humbly, offering them not only our wisdom but also our weakness. To know and acknowledge our mixed motives is the best was to be and do good for another.
How about when we are to be the receivers of the love of another? Each time I read this passage from Acts I am touched mostly by the disarming simplicity and humility of the official. “‘How can I [understand] unless I have someone to guide me?’ So he invited Philip to get in and sit by his side.” For all that we have said about serving the life and call of another, it may well be more difficult to truly and fully receive the love of another, to invite them “to get in and sit by . . . [our] side.” I cannot understand the word, including the word I am, by myself. I must be willing to allow another to guide me, which means to trust another with my very life. Of course, we must be very careful to whom we give such trust. Yet, we must allow life to teach us to overcome our very basic and dominant mistrust of others. Perhaps it is in the very awareness and humility of the other that we can begin to recognize one worthy of our trust. As a young man, I learned, much to my surprise, that where there is true friendship and love then trust is not broken by failure. Up to that point, I had always moved away from another at the first experience of hurt and rejection. I had thought that if one really cared about me she or he would always please and gratify me. I believed that if a friend failed me it was because I was deficient. It was through the fidelity and steadfastness of another to my call that I slowly began to realize that human beings will also fail each other to some degree, that limit and sin is a part of all of us. Yet, there is a love and commitment that can transcend our failures. Perhaps what is deepest in us shows itself most fully in repentance for our sins and forgiveness of those of others who have sinned against us. We can remain with and for each other even in our weakness because, as Adrian van Kaam writes, we “are faithful to the one that. . .[the friend] is called to be.
Spiritual friendship is among the greatest of gifts we can offer each other. It is truly what it means to be a companion on the way, to guide each other, not primarily with our thoughts and ideas but rather with a steadfast love of and devotion to the divine origin of the one we love.
Just because some people are nice to you doesn’t mean you should spend time with them. Just because they seek you out and are interested in you or your affairs doesn’t mean you should associate with them. Be selective about whom you take on as friends, colleagues, and neighbors. All of these people can affect your destiny. The world is full of agreeable and talented folk. The key is to keep company only with people who uplift you, whose presence calls forth your best. But remember that our moral influence is a two-way street, and we should thus make sure by our own thoughts, words, and deeds to be a positive influence on those we deal with. The real test of personal excellence lies in the attention we give to the often neglected small details of our conduct.
Regularly ask yourself, “How are my thoughts, words, and deeds affecting my friends, my spouse, my neighbor, my child, my employer, my subordinates, my fellow citizens? Am I doing my part to contribute to the spiritual progress of all with whom I come in contact?” Make it your business to draw out the best in others by being an exemplar yourself.
Epictetus, The Art of Living: A New Interpretation by Sharon Lebell, pp. 54-5