How many times has someone you are talking to and whom you hardly know, labeled you a ‘friend?’ Or how many times have you been talking about someone with whom you have casual familiarity and said: “Oh! My friend, so and so, ..” etc? I think if we were to count all those whom we know or interact with whom we call ‘friends,’ most of the world would be one happy group of ‘friends.’
However, consider the words of Jesus: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greaterlove has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (Jn 15: 12-13).
Psychologist Abraham Maslow, (1970) wrote that the feature of such love is a “profound interpersonal” relationship. He indicates that such a relationship “is not a matter of moment,” “demands a good deal of time,” which implies the “circle of [true] friends is relatively small.” War veterans would also add their understanding of the depth of the lasting, true friendship of comrades-in-arms who literally place themselves in the line of fire, allowing their lives to be laid out for their companions.
Thousands of years before psychological observation, the intense, committed depth of true friendship was perceived by Solomon, the writer of Proverbs (18:24): “There are friends who pretend to be friends, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” King Solomon also notes the consequences of false friendship: “Wealth brings many new friends, but a poor man is deserted by his friend.” (Pv 19:4)
The spiritual fathers of the Eastern Church understood well the implications of the precept of Jesus and the adages of Solomon. Evagrios the Solitary (345-399 AD) writes: “The friends that you do have should be of benefit to you and contribute to your way of life. Avoid associating with crafty aggressive people ….Let your friends be men of peace, spiritual brethren, ….” (Philokalia I) Another Eastern monk makes the requirements of friendship much more clear. St. Maximus the Confessor (580-662 AD) tells us: “A true friend is one who in times of trial calmly and imperturbably suffers with his neighbor the ensuing afflictions, privations and disasters as if they were his own.” (Philokalia II) The good saint continues: “’A faithful friend is beyond price’ (Ecclus 6:15), since he regards his friend’s misfortunes as his own and suffers with him, sharing his trials until death. Friends are many, but in times of prosperity. (cf. Pv. 19:4). In times of adversity you will have difficulty finding even one.” (Philokalia II) “’A faithful friend is a strong defense’ (Ecclus 6:14); for when things are going well with you, he is a good counselor and a sympathetic collaborator, while when things are going badly, he is the truest of helpers and a most compassionate supporter.” St. Maximus the Confessor, (Philokalia II).
The lesson for us is to reflect on determining who are our real friends and to be truly committed and devoted to them. Non-hypocritically, we should also realize that most individuals we know are acquaintances. However, someone being an acquaintance does not let us off the ‘loving-helping hook.’ (Morelli, 2006). We can recall another precept of Jesus: “So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them.” (Mt 7: 12). At the very least: “…pray for those who persecute you.” (Mt 5: 44). We have a modern witness of such radical love who eschewed the conventional boundaries of class and politics. The biographer (Alexander, 1998) of a modern saint, Fr. Arseny, an Orthodox priest banished into a Soviet gulag, recounts that upon seeing in spiritual visions the humanity of his fellow prisoners — some political, some brutal thieves and murderers, some prison officials and guards who tortured him in Soviet labor camps –he prayed: “O Lord, O my Lord! Do not leave them. Help them; save them!”