by Emily Jaminet
Today people are more socially connected by technology than ever before, yet there is a growing trend of loneliness. An estimated 40 percent of Americans have been lonely at one point in their lives. In a 2018 Cigna study, 46 percent of those surveyed said they sometimes or always feel alone. How can this be when we consider the daily cascade of messages in our inboxes, posts on social media, and text messages? Despite all of this, many are left feeling empty and longing for more in their relationships with others. It is not due to a lack of people around us but the lack of meaningful connections that make for significant friendships and worthwhile daily interactions.
As Fr. Larry Richards writes in the foreword to The Friendship Project (Ave Maria Press 2017), “The internet and social media give the false promise of intimacy and friendship, but in fact they only separate us and isolate people all the more.”
Research shows that Americans now have fewer friends in whom they confide than in the past. The average number of close friends has dropped from three friends to two, while some people report one or none.
Developing deep and meaningful friendships is integral to our spiritual, mental, and physical health, yet many of us find it difficult to invest our time and attention into building real, substantive relationships. The ability to make and keep friendships has almost become a lost art. A relationship vaccine will not solve this problem, but developing rewarding and life-giving friendships sure could. It is important that we take time to develop meaningful and lasting friendships so that we don’t miss out on the amazing blessings they offer. Christian friendships are a spiritually rewarding and renewing gift from God.
SACRED SCRIPTURE, SAINTS, AND POPES
Sacred Scripture, saints, and popes have all addressed the importance of friendship. Pope Francis said that true friendship involves “sharing in the life of another person, an experience of compassion, a relationship that involves giving of ourselves for others.”
Despite the existence of large parish communities and technology that allow us to communicate instantly with hundreds of “friends,” our fast-paced, high-tech lives leave little time to develop the spiritual friendships that are integral to helping us grow in our faith. Many of us feel as though we don’t have time for true friends, but for most people, there is a need to create this time and discover the gift of faith-filled friendships.
We Christians need virtuous and faith-filled friends.
ST. FRANCIS DE SALES: A CHAMPION FOR MEANINGFUL FRIENDSHIPS
St. Francis de Sales is a timeless source of practical wisdom on friendship, especially as we strive to grow in holiness and develop deeper spiritual relationships. “Friends are for our growth in health, happiness, and holiness on this earth in order to better prepare us to share together the gift of eternal life in heaven,” he wrote in his spiritual classic Introduction to the Devout Life.
St. Francis said that spiritual friendship, where we allow our love for Christ to be the glue that holds a friendship together, is helpful and necessary for those who wish to live a holy life in a secular environment that is hostile to Christianity. Such a relationship “will be excellent because it comes from God, excellent because it leads to God, excellent because its bond will endure eternally in God.” We Christians need virtuous and faith-filled friends to help support us in our faith journey now more than ever before.
I have found that having spiritual friendships has been a key in my own spiritual awakening and love for the faith. I have come to appreciate that many pivotal and significant moments in my life were experienced alongside good friends: attending a retreat for the first time as a teenager, joining a prayer group in my 20s, attending a Bible study group in my 30s, working in women’s ministry in my 40s, and writing and speaking about the faith with Michele Faehnle, who co-authored two books with me.
FRIVOLOUS VERSUS FAITH-FILLED
True friendship is mutual and reciprocal, and it inspires both parties to greatness. Friendship is always a work in progress, which is why it is essential that we continue to improve our ability to be a great friend to others, no matter how old we are. Typically, what attracts us to others is a mutual knowledge of something or shared experiences such as work, school, sports, or just the basic experience of wanting to have fun.
While these types of friendships can appear to fill our need for community, they seldom leave us satisfied or help us grow in our love for God. Our friends are our greatest influencers, so without a faith component, these friendships will leave us feeling unsatisfied and incomplete. “Such friendships are only passing things and melt away like snow in the sun,” St. Francis de Sales said.
VIRTUES STRENGTHEN FRIENDSHIPS
When virtues play a role in friendship, the union is stronger. Encouraging each other to grow in virtue is a powerful tool for cultivating deeper friendships. “Love everyone with a deep love based on charity, but form friendships only with those who can share virtuous things with you,” St. Francis de Sales said. “The higher the virtues you share and exchange with others, the more perfect your friendship will be.”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines virtue as a “habitual and firm disposition to do the good. It allows the person not only to perform good acts, but to give the best of himself” (1803).
St. Francis de Sales said, “If this participation is in matters of knowledge, the become possible. The virtues provide the framework we need to cultivate more meaningful relationships.
Virtues are a powerful bonding tool and can also inspire action and good deeds, making friendship more fulfilling. In relationships based on virtue, friends encourage one another. For example, when they are training for a cause-based race, they hold each other accountable for living a healthy lifestyle, or they seek justice by working together to help the lost and forgotten of society.
Virtuous friendships naturally point to the works of mercy. “For those who live in the world and desire to embrace virtue, it is necessary to unite together in holy, sacred friendship. By this means they encourage, assist, and lead one another to perform good deeds,” St. Francis de Sales said.
Looking back, I can see how virtues have transformed some of my casual friendships into closer friendships through running groups, sports teams, youth groups, and performing acts of service with my friends. As I matured over the years, I came to appreciate that my good deeds became God’s deeds, and I realized that by doing works of mercy, I was not only serving God but developing deeper friendships.
I once heard that “saints beget saints.” The Gospel message comes alive by experiencing authentic Christians, especially by learning about the saints. Reading about the lives of the saints can be like reading a playbook for how to live out our faith. Studying and learning about their conversions and love for Christ can be a source of spiritual inspiration and our own deeper conversion. When we examine the lives of the saints, we can witness how others have inspired them to greatness in love for Christ and recognize that they can be our friends, interceding for us and helping us in our journey to heaven.
For example, St. Francis de Sales was a close friend of St. Jane Frances de Chantal. God gave her a vision of a spiritual director that would come into her life. She met St. Francis, who inspired her to become a nun. Together they co-founded the Congregation of the Visitation. When St. Jane died, St. Francis wrote her eulogy: “In Madame de Chantal I have found the perfect woman, whom Solomon had difficulty finding in Jerusalem.” Their bodies are venerated together in the Basilica of the Visitation in Annecy, France. What a testimony to their holy friendship!
St. Francis de Sales had an incredible perspective that if his friendship with St. Jane remained holy, virtuous, and pure, it would last for eternity.
“It is a blessed thing to love on earth as we hope to love in heaven and to begin that friendship here which is to endure forever there,” he said. “I am not speaking of mere charity, a love due to all humanity, but of that spiritual friendship which binds souls together, leading them to share devotions and religious interest, so as to have but one mind between them.”
Their holy friendship is a wonderful inspiration for us. These types of Godly relationships are not just for the saints; we are all called to experience friendships that can support us in our journey and give us the strength we need to live in the world, but not be of the world.
St. Francis de Sales wrote about the holy friendships of other men and women in our Church, including Jesus himself, who showed us what it means to be a true friend. “No one will deny that our Lord loved St. John, Lazarus, Martha, and Mary Magdalene with a very sweet and special friendship,” St. Francis de Sales said. He also wrote about St. Paul and St. Mark; St. Timothy and St. Thecla; St. Gregory of Nazianzen and St. Basil; and St. Ambrose and St. Monica. These saintly examples are excellent reminders of how even the saints had friends to encourage them in their personal spiritual journeys.
Practical suggestions for developing friendships
So where do we begin in developing more faith-filled friendships and countering the growing epidemic of loneliness?
Ask the Lord to bring you a strong spiritual friend. Ask him to show you who can support you in your faith journey. Next, practice your faith with others and work on growing better connections with those already in your life. Invite a Catholic acquaintance with whom you want a better friendship to go to Mass or Adoration with you and then grab coffee or dinner. Pray for and with your friends, especially in times of trial or trouble. Arrange for your friends to practice the works of mercy together by volunteering at a local charity to which you are all attracted.
My No. 1 suggestion is practicing “Friendship Friday.” Allow yourself the ability to carve out time from your busy life to meet up with others every Friday! The most touching feedback Michele Faehnle and I have received over the last year after writing The Friendship Project is from people who have shared that through “Friendship Friday” they have created more lasting and meaningful friendships.
When we discover the gift of friendship, Sirach 6:14 comes alive: “Faithful friends are a sturdy shelter; whoever finds one finds a treasure.” Only through meaningful connections can we discover the blessing of these relationships.
No friend is perfect. Recognize that we all lack perfection and charity; that will allow you to deal with others’ imperfections. We are called to find good in the other and bring it out in them, instead of bringing out their worst qualities. “Hence, perfection consists not in having no friendships but in having only those who are good, holy, and sacred. …We must meekly put up with a friend’s faults, but we must not lead him into faults, much less acquire his faults ourselves,” St. Francis de Sales said.
In an age where relationships are complicated, undervalued, and unappreciated, we can experience a type of friendship that far surpasses anything the secular world has to offer.
Fame, riches, and pleasure can never match up with the highly prized blessing of a spiritual friend.
“Spiritual friendship is always honest, courteous, and amiable. It never changes except into a purer and more perfect union of minds, a living image of the blessed friendship that exists in heaven,” St. Francis de Sales wrote.
Allow your friendships to be a roadway to spread the Gospel. Seek out friends who can support you on the rugged road to sanctification. St. Francis de Sales reminds us that we need others to help hold us up when we are weak and need support. Allow your friends to be the hands that hold you up, rather than pull you down.