A faithful friend is a sturdy shelter; / he who finds one finds a treasure. / A faithful friend is beyond price, / no sum can balance his worth. / A faithful friend is a life-saving remedy, / such as he who fears God finds; / For he who fears God behaves accordingly, / and his friend will be like himself.Sirach 6:16-17
In today’s reading from Sirach we hear both inducements toward and warnings about relationships. We are told that we all have many acquaintances in life, but very few confidants. We are also told to test our friendships. At first glance, this may seem a bit harsh and even somewhat cynical to us. Yet, the truth is that in every relationship that has the possibility of deepening, we are always consciously or unconsciously testing the other. Sirach tells us not to be too ready to trust another because what is deepest in us is so vulnerable. Thus, we tend, in a good relationship, to reveal ourselves to each other gradually, testing the waters, as it were, as we wade more deeply into intimacy.
Recent research is suggesting that young people who relate so largely through social media appear to be more prone to a sense of loneliness that readily slides toward desperation. It is by actual face to face encounter that we are able, at our own pace, to test each other, to learn to trust and to manage our self-revelation accordingly. Social media seems to allow for a too facile self-revelation, that is then falsely perceived and experienced as intimacy without appropriate boundaries and safeguards, and, thus, which too often then turns into the horror of betrayal and rejection.
Sirach reminds us that “one in a thousand is a confidant.” Even before the burgeoning of social media, our consumerist culture began to forget this truth. The competition concerning numbers of friends that is now so prevalent was presaged during the past few generations by the social status that came with not only the number of friends but their wealth and status in the society. As has been said for many years in terms of the acquiring of jobs and position, “It’s not what you know but whom you know.”
Despite all the obstacles to trust and true friendship, it remains true, as always, that “a faithful friend is a sturdy shelter . . . a treasure . . . beyond price . . . a life saving remedy.” A faithful and true friend is not merely a remedy from loneliness, however, but also a remedy from inauthenticity. A friend is, of course, the greatest of supports and confirmation, but she or he is also the greatest of challenges.
In my personal experience I would say that the kind of friendship of which Sirach speaks comes both rarely and unexpectedly. Of course, it almost always must begin with a degree of affinity at the physical, emotional, and cognitive levels. Yet, almost from the beginning the potential friend seems to summon up in us a sense of our own deepest longing and potential.
Sirach says that it is the person who fears God who finds a faithful friend. It is the one in us who fears God, that is the core or foundational self in us, who knows our need to become the one God calls us to be, that recognizes the possibility of true friendship with another. There are for all of us many “acquaintances” whom we like and respect and enjoy, and who do the same for us in return, but there are very few in whose presence and in relationship to whom we experience being more ourselves than anywhere else. So, when Sirach says that our friend will be like ourselves, it is teaching that in true friendship each of us is more truly ourself than we are without each other. We become “like” each other in the mode of communion: by being more authentically our true and original selves we are more and more together, at one.
Thus, true friendship is the very opposite of a transactional exchange. The unexpected nature of friendship, as well as its rarity, lies in the astounding experience of our seeing in each other more than we can even recognize in ourselves. In speaking of the encounter in John’s gospel between Jesus and the Samaritan Woman, Adrian van Kaam says of Jesus: “He is faithful to whom she is called to be.” The nature of Jesus’ presence to all others he encounters is his fidelity to their unique and original calling as human persons. He sees in them the one whom God sees. His deepest longing for them is that they realize as fully as possible in their lives the person that God so loved from the beginning that he gave it flesh beginning at the moment of their conception. This is the love of true friendship. The friend wants nothing other from us than that we realize more fully in our every word and act the one whom she or he and God loves.
This makes of the true friend not merely one who takes our part at every moment, but one who takes our part in a deeper sense, a sense that at a given time make of them the most formidable of challenges to us. A true friend not only encourages us by confirming what we do and say but also by challenging our lack of integrity when we manifest it. The true friend’s goal is not merely to make us feel good but to “be faithful to whom [we] are called to be.”. And sometimes this is painful for us.
For much of my life, well into adulthood, I lived largely externally, in an attempt to be recognized as good and worthy. I carefully attended to those externals that could buttress my reputation in the eyes of others, but I also often withheld full-hearted efforts to express and offer what I most desired and longed for in life. I did whatever was my work well enough to fulfill my duty and to garner adequate praise, but I never felt motivated to really empty myself, to give all I could and begin in that way to really realize my calling. It was a true friend who began to help me to see and. understand this. When I was being lazy, he would tell me. When I was seeking attention, he would challenge me. When I ceased expressing and communicating, he would encourage and urge me to have the courage to speak. And, even though at the time this made me very angry, I always inevitably came to realize that in each of these moments I was being truly loved. For my friend, being less than I truly am was not good enough. In being faithful to whom I was called to be, he served the summoning of my deeper life into being.
In the communities we form, be they families, religious communities, or circles of friends, we are called to care this much for each other. It is true in all of our lives that a real friend is probably “one in a thousand.” Yet, in Jesus we see the possibility of spending one’s life and living out one’s encounters and relationships in fidelity to whom the others are called to be. St. Benedict saw the monastic community as “a school for the service of God.” And Sirach reminds us that it is the one in us who fears the Lord who is capable of true friendship. To fear the Lord, to enter into the school of God’s service, is so to revere God’s human creations that we fear the possibility that we and others will never realize that gift in the way we live. The love of friendship is the fear of the Lord. It is the fear that the friend in whom I see God’s gift may fail to become that gift in and for the world. Thus, to be a friend is to be devoted and committed to that unique gift of God that we recognize, even though often our friend may not see it in her or himself.
The superficially sane are reassuring because they help us forget about madness; and because they are unintimidated they are unintimidating. The deeply sane, like Lamb’s genius, are all too mindful of madness, but they have its measure; they are impressive because they have never been overimpressed. The superficially sane are slightly comic, while the deeply sane are rather more like tragic heroes and heroines who have survived their ordeals. The superficially sane tend to convince us that we are the products of our environments; arguing that if you give people the right upbringing and education, you will make them well adjusted. The deeply sane, on the other hand, tell us that there is always more to us than our environments; that there is something within us—call it genius or a life force or instincts or genes—that exceeds the world that we find, and to which we must pay our most serious attention because it is driving us, one way or another, into what we are and will be. What we think sanity is, in other words, depends on how we describe what is inside us, on how we describe what we are made of. It is not surprising, perhaps, that in an era when such issues have never been so debated—or at least at a time when there have never been so many voices in the debate—that sanity has sounded less and less specific the more it is advocated.Adam Phillips, Going Sane, p. 180