Tuesday, 20 December 2011

The Blessings of Heart-Friendship, Part 3

Our final look at Anthusa / Chrysostom's On Ideal Friendship (late 4th century) begins with the letter-writer's question: How long shall we confine our love just to one or two people?

Love is such a productive thing! It turns an individual into a thousand. Why do we not take possession of this strength? It is better than all power and virtue, more than health, more than the light of day.

By way of a quotation from the Apocrypha [Ecclesiasticus 20:16, "A fool will say: I have no friend"], the writer turns the coin over and considers the lot of the friendless. Even among animals, the most savage and intractable are those which do not herd together. The friendless person is most pitiable. He may live in abundance and luxury, but without friends he is destitute and naked. Such a one also lacks protection. Not even the Emperor's bodyguards are as careful as one's true friends, for the former guard through fear of discipline, but the latter guard through love.

Answering an imaginary questioner, attention turns to monks and hermits. Surely, if they live in caves or on mountains, they haven't got friends? Chrysostom writes that these do indeed have friends. Admittedly, they have fled the tumult of the marketplace, but the friends whom they do have are true heart-friends, bound closely to them in Christ. For, just as zeal in business leads to many disputes, [monks and hermits] have left the world in order to cultivate godly love with greater strictness. They prove the strength of love in their fervent prayers.

The letter concludes - a trifle hurriedly, I thought - with the maxim: If we apply ourselves with due care to these precepts, we shall administer present things well and inherit the kingdom of God.

The full text of the Anthusa / Chrysostom letter can be found here.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

The Blessing of Heart-Friendship, part 2

True heart-friendship, as introduced in my last post, cannot be learned by study, nor by any words of explanation, but only by the experience itself, Chrysostom / Anthusa continues. I know that many do not understand this. It is as if I were speaking of some plant growing in India, of which they have no experience. Language could not represent it, were I to utter ten thousand words. This plant has been in Heaven!

Perhaps the reason for this incomprehension has to do with the apparent contradictions of true friendship:
Whoever loves does not wish to command nor to rule, but feels more grateful being subject and being commanded. He wishes to confer favors rather than receive them. 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.

Such a friendship is as dear as life itself. This is why many have not wished to live on after the death of one such friend. "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."

There follows a more complicated section where the writer considers the idea that to have a true friend is to have another self. In fact, it is like being ten people, not one. So in situations of conflict, an enemy attacks not merely one, but ten. When hardship comes, up to nine may suffer but one will still be secure and prosper.

Personally, I found this section rather overdone (twenty hands and feet, ten souls, etc.), but the point still stands: the enlarging and enriching power of true heart-friendship. See the excellence of godly love! How it causes one individual to be unconquerable and equal to many.

Monday, 5 December 2011

The Blessing of Heart-Friendship, Part 1

I continue to trawl through historical Christian writings on the subject of friendship. Next up is a fascinating piece with an obscure origin. It claims to be a letter to John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, from his mother, Anthusa, entitled On Ideal Friendship. It would date to the final quarter of the 4th century.

What complicates matters is that Anthusa is otherwise unknown and isn't referred to by any other Early Church writers as an ancient authority. Meanwhile, the bulk of the text of the letter can be found, almost word for word, in various of Chrysostom's own works, especially his Homilies. So we are probably looking at "John Chrysostom on Ideal Friendship".

The letter is not long and most of it is eminently quotable. In this post I'll look at the introduction and opening section. It speaks for itself.

The letter opens with a verse from the Apocrypha: "A faithful friend is a sturdy shelter," [Ecclesiasticus 6:14a], and the comment: Though you were to name a thousand treasures, there is nothing comparable to a real friend. The first section is then devoted to the pleasure that true friendship brings.

A friend 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.

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.

The writer notes that those who have known the beauty of such a depth of heart-friendship will instinctively understand this, but that such people are relatively few. "When (such friends) 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. 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."

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.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Anger, the Scourge of Relationships

We continue with John Cassian's Conference 16: On Friendship, of around AD 415. Abbot Joseph, writing from within a monastic context, is clear on one thing:

Nothing is more damaging (to true friendship) than anger and vexation. Our enemy, the devil, sows the seeds of discord even between spiritual persons, on the ground of some difference of thinking. Therefore it is of no use to have removed the first ground of discord, which arises from the outward things of this world, unless we also cut off the second, which arises from wrong feelings. In everything we must gain humble thoughts and harmonious wills.

He goes on to look at the subtle differences between love and affection. Perhaps surprisingly, Joseph maintains that "agapé" love (the New Testament word for Christ-like, self-sacrificing love) can be shown by Christians to anyone, on the basis of "doing good to all people, especially those who are of the household of faith" (Galatians 6:10). Genuine heart-affection, however, he sees as shown only to a few: those who are united to us by kindred dispositions or by a tie of goodness. There are levels to this, he points out, and they are variable: not all parents love their children to the same degee.

The remainder of Conference 16 is concerned with a more specifically monastic danger: of conforming and going through the motions of true brotherly affection, when the heart has lost the desire for it. There may be applications here for us, not least for married couples, but the detail of Abbot Joseph's discourse does not belong to our theme here.

Still, it all made an impression on Cassian and Germanus, who conclude: Thus the blessed Joseph discoursed on spiritual friendship, and fired us with a more ardent desire to preserve the love of our fellowship as a lasting one.