Friendship and Holiness

Fr. Edlefsen's Sunday Column

As students are now back into the thick of schoolwork, it may (or may not) come as a surprise to you that academics is not the most important thing on their minds.   Friendship is more important.  In fact, friendship is the most formative experience of youth.   Therefore, the subject is worth serious reflection.  Learning is enriched by disciplined reflection on questions like these:  What’s the role of one’s feelings and affections in healthy friendships, habits of charity and social behavior?  What affections are healthy and help us to love?  Which ones ought not be obeyed or are hurtful to love?   Which ones incline us to generosity?  To selfishness? 


Here’s another issue to consider: You can be friends with only a few.   But you must love everyone.   How are friendship and charity related, even though they are different?  A healthy friendship grows out of itself into charity.  On the flip side, unhealthy friendship “turns in on itself.”  It becomes possessive or exclusive.   When this happens, a bit of “getting away from one another” could be an uncomfortable but life-giving experience.   Healthy friendship is always honest, chaste and freeing.  It can bring out the grace of Baptism.


I recently read some brief articles (see below) entitled “Saints Who Were Friends” in an e-newsletter I received from the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, also known as FOCUS (see  I’ll share them with you.  I’ve also added a sermon by a 4th century Church Father, St. Gregory of Nazianzen, on his friendship with St. Basil the Great.   I also recommend reading the classic medieval book “Spiritual Friendship” by Aelred of Rievaulx (12th century). For a contemporary take, I recommend Dr. John Cuddeback’s book “True Friendship: Where Virtue Becomes Happiness” and C. S. Lewis’ “The Four Loves.”  Jesus said, “I have called you friends” (John 15:15).  Happy reading. 


Saints Who Were Friends

We need good friends. Contrary to popular belief, a true friend won’t agree with everything we say or approve of everything we do. A faithful friend won’t stand on the sidelines as we sin because they see in us the saints we’re supposed to be.  “True friendship and virtue are inseparable; you cannot have one without the other,” writes Dr. John Cuddeback, author of “True Friendship: Where Virtue Becomes Happiness.”  The most authentic friends lovingly challenge us to reach new heights, they rejoice in our successes and encourage us after failures. They help us keep true to a moral life and inspire us to do better when we act in ways less than noble.  “A faithful friend is an elixir of life,” according to Sirach 6:16.  Earlier this month, the nation celebrated Friendship Day by posting photos with friends on social media.  The following three pairs of saints may not have posted their stories to Facebook — however, due to the incredible heights of friendship they obtained, their stories have been memorialized in history.


St. Francis and St. Clare

Dr. Cuddeback writes, “It is with friends that you form habits and develop your character.” Apparently this was so for St. Clare, who was often called Alter Franciscus, or “Other Francis.” Her friendship with St. Francis started during Lent, when St. Francis was preaching a homily. St. Clare was so moved by the love of God that she sought St. Francis’ guidance on how to live a holy life. He encouraged her to join a Benedictine order, where she and a group of women vowed to live simply, wearing no shoes and eating no meat. This order became known as the Poor Ladies of San Damiano.   Throughout their vocations, St. Francis and St. Clare encouraged each other to maintain this poor way of life and counseled each other on matters of faith. St. Clare cared for St. Francis in his old age. The fruits of their friendship, rooted in love of Christ, live on in the vows taken by men and women religious who have devoted their lives to the Franciscan rule.


St. Bonaventure and St. Thomas Aquinas

The legacy of the Franciscans left quite an impact on St. Bonaventure, who is said to have been blessed by St. Francis as a baby and eventually became a Franciscan and friend with St. Thomas Aquinas. The two met at the University of Paris while studying for their doctorates. St. Thomas Aquinas was so impressed with St. Bonaventure’s understanding of philosophy and theology that he went to Bonaventure and asked him from which books he learned. St. Bonaventure replied, “I only study Christ crucified.” Pointing to a crucifix, he added, “This is the source of all my knowledge.”  St. Bonaventure and St. Thomas had marks that tied them at the top of their class, but each insisted the other deserved the rank of first place. Not only did the two die the same year, their statues face each other on opposite sides of St. Peter’s Square. In the words of Pope Benedict the XVI, together they “renewed the entire Church of the 13th century.”


St. King Louis IX and St. Isabelle of France

Among those who also promoted the renewal of the Church in the 13th century were siblings St. Louis IX and St. Isabelle of France. While both shared a deep love for the Church, they were called to vastly different vocations. Under the direction of his mother, St. Louis IX was made king at the age of 13 after his father died. Seven years later, he married a woman of faith and had 11 children. St. Isabelle, determined to live the simple life of the Franciscans, broke off her engagement to a count and also refused marriage to the son of a German emperor. They both delighted in the friendship of St. Bonaventure, who wrote devotional pieces for St. King Louis IX and assisted St. Isabelle in writing the Rule for an order she started. With the help of her brother, St. Isabelle was able to build the Monastery of the Humility of the Blessed Virgin. Fixed on the love of Christ, these siblings were able to employ their nobility for the growth of the Church in France.  Do your friendships resemble those of the saints? How do we find friends like this in today’s world of frivolousness?  The rest of Sirach 6:16 gives us the simple answer: “Those who fear the Lord will find [a faithful friend].” Living a life of virtue rooted in reverence and wonder for God’s ways is sure to attract others striving to live the same way. Together, with good friends, we can enrich the Church and hopefully become saints along the way. 


Saint Gregory Nazianzen on his friendship with Saint Basil

Basil and I were both in Athens. We had come, like streams of a river, from the same source in our native land, had separated from each other in pursuit of learning, and were now united again as if by plan, for God so arranged it.  I was not alone at that time in my regard for my friend, the great Basil.  I knew his irreproachable conduct, and the maturity and wisdom of his conversation.  I sought to persuade others, to whom he was less well known, to have the same regard for him. Many fell immediately under his spell, for they had already heard of him by reputation and hearsay.  What was the outcome? Almost alone of those who had come to Athens to study he was exempted from the customary ceremonies of initiation for he was held in higher honor that his status as a first-year student seemed to warrant.


Such was the prelude to our friendship, the kindling of that flame that was to bind us together. In this way we began to feel affection for each other.  When, in the course of time, we acknowledged our friendship and recognized that our ambition was a life of true wisdom, we became everything to each other: we shared the same lodging, the same table, the same desires, the same goal.  Our love for each other grew daily warmer and deeper.


The same hope inspired us: the pursuit of learning.  This is an ambition especially subject to envy.  Yet between us there was no envy.  On the contrary, we made capital out of our rivalry.  Our rivalry consisted, not in seeking the first place for oneself but in yielding it to the other, for we each looked on the other’s success as his own.


We seemed to be two bodies with a single spirit. Though we cannot believe those who claim that “everything is contained in everything,” yet you must believe that in our case each of us was in the other and with the other.  Our single object and ambition was virtue, and a life of hope in the blessings that are to come; we wanted to withdraw from this world before we departed from it. With this end in view we ordered our lives and all our actions. We followed the guidance of God’s law and spurred each other on to virtue. If it is not too boastful to say, we found in each other a standard and rule for discerning right from wrong.  Different men have different names, which they owe to their parents or to themselves, that is, to their own pursuits and achievements.  But our great pursuit, the great name we wanted, was to be Christians, to be called Christians.