|The best of friends
By Paul Wadell, Professor of Religious Studies
A scholarly fascination with the role of friendship in the Christian life prompts a professor to consider his own story
“They take the sun from heaven who take friendship from life.”
said that and I think he had a point. Friendship is one of life’s
greatest blessings. We turn to our friends for support and
encouragement, for guidance and consolation, and for the laughter we
need to ease us through the pitfalls of life. Where would any of us be
Good friends Paul Wadell and Howard Ebert ’74 (Religious Studies), on their own friendship. >>MORE
We cherish our friends and give thanks for them because we know how impoverished our lives would be if we were left to navigate everything on our own. So much of what becomes of us is the handiwork of our friends. It is hard to envision a good life without them.
My story with friendship began in an unlikely place and in an unlikely way. I had good friends in grammar school, but my adventure with friendship took flight in the fall of 1965 when I left my home in Louisville to join nearly 200 other fellows at a high school seminary in a small Missouri town called Warrenton.
The pink stucco building that never quite fit the landscape was our home for the next four years, and those years marked me for life.
My cohorts on the journey came from St. Louis, Chicago, Detroit, Texas, California and other places scattered across the country. We were a ragtag bunch who studied and worked together, prayed and played together, and plotted some of the most imaginative and complicated practical jokes I have ever witnessed.
But now, more than 40 years later, the most abiding recollection I have is that all of us who arrived in Warrenton as strangers left there as lifelong friends.
Although we did not realize it at the time, the seminary was a school of friendship, a place whose singular purpose was to initiate us into a way of life capable of goodness and happiness. Those years together taught us crucial lessons for life.
We learned that human beings are not creatures who can go it alone, but creatures who require intimacy and companionship with others. In a life ordered by prayer and worship, we learned that turning our attention to God helped us to be more attentive to one another. In a place where none of us had very much, we learned how sharing and generosity build friendships, and that a life centered on Christ somehow deepened the intimacy we shared among ourselves.
We learned that friendship is impossible unless we are willing to make room in our lives for another; and while that can be exciting and enriching, it can also be risky and messy and sometimes wildly unpredictable.
And, since we lived together 24 hours a day for nine months of the year, we learned that no friendship has a future unless the friends are willing to be patient and forgiving of one another.
And yet, perhaps what we learned most is that we became friends not so much because we always liked one another, but because together we pursued a way of life that formed us in the very things we came to discover we loved.
It is always that way with friendships. We do not aim for them directly; we discover them.
Friendships are not sought; they emerge. They take shape among people of shared purposes and ideals. They grow from the soil of similar interests, values and concerns.
And so when the seminary closed in 1969 and all of us embarked on paths whose future destinations we could hardly fathom, we knew that even if we never saw one another again, we would be lifelong friends because each of us carried something of the others with us. We were enmeshed in one another’s stories, bonded together for life.
From Warrenton I returned home to Louisville to begin college, but my fascination with friendship continued to grow. Although I couldn’t articulate it then, I was not only convinced that we cannot have a full and rich life without deep and lasting friendships with good people, but also had the fledgling intuition that friendships were morally and theologically important.
I wasn’t sure why, but I suspected that at its heart morality was much more about growing together in the good with people who also wanted to be good than it was about laws, rules and obligations.
And I was starting to believe that the crucial business of ethics was less about wrestling with dilemmas of conscience or the sticky issues of medicine, sexuality, economics or the environment, and more about asking, “What is a good life?” And thinking about the nature of a good life brought me back to friendship.
But it wasn’t until graduate school at Notre Dame that these hunches took shape. Under the guidance of Stanley Hauerwas, a Texas Methodist and terrific theologian who loved telling Catholics what we should be doing better, I read Aristotle’s “Nichomachean Ethics.”
After having grown weary with accounts of the moral life that emphasized duties and rules and obligations, I was shocked (happily!) to discover that, for Aristotle, friendship was the central practice of the moral life.
Not only did Aristotle give friendships a privileged place in the moral life, but he also argued that they are precisely the relationships in which we acquire the virtues, develop our character and flourish with others in a distinctively good human life.
Aristotle put into words what Warrenton had taught me: None of us becomes good single-handedly. We grow in goodness and virtue in company with others who are seeking it as well.
In the best and most lasting friendships of our lives – what Aristotle called friendships of character and virtue – we grow in love, justice, kindness, generosity, truthfulness, faithfulness and compassion exactly because these are the qualities of character that make friendships possible.
Aristotle helped me understand why our friends make us better people. What distinguishes friends from acquaintances is that a real friend seeks our good. Friends want what is best for us and are committed to helping us achieve it.
Too, friendships are morally important because every real friendship draws us out of ourselves and teaches us how to care for others for their own sake. In friendships we learn to live for more than our own gratification or self-interest by identifying with another person and her or his good.
But Aristotle was only the beginning. The next year Hauerwas replaced Aristotle with Thomas Aquinas, and in the hands of the Dominican theologian, the role of friendship vastly expanded.
Aquinas took Aristotle’s framework and asked what it might mean for the Christian life.
Like Aristotle, he agreed that men and women are social creatures who need one another and who flourish in friendship, love and communion with one another. However, unlike Aristotle, Aquinas said that we will not know joy apart from friendship and communion with God.
It’s what he meant by charity, the greatest of the theological virtues. For Aquinas, charity describes a life of intimate friendship with God that continually expands to friendship and communion with others. Charity is the way of life that leads to our utmost fulfillment because through it we are transformed in the love and goodness of God.
Many years have passed since my journey in friendship began with some cherished companions in rural Missouri. But my fascination with friendship has only deepened. It’s hard to imagine a better life than pursuing good things in company with others, and finding great joy in doing so.
At St. Norbert, perhaps this is what we are striving for when we work together to create a culture of communio.
Illustration by Joel Van Fossen ’13. Van Fossen is an intern in the office of communications.