Ananda, the beloved disciple of the Buddha, once asked his teacher and friend about the place of friendship in the spiritual journey. "Master, is friendship half of the spiritual life?" he asked. The Enlightened One responded: "Nay, Ananda, friendship is the whole of the spiritual life." Jesus had his beloved friend, John; King David had Jonathan; St. Francis enjoyed the constant companionship of Brother Leo and his special friendship with St. Clare, who led the Poor Clares, the Second Order of St. Francis. Aristotle regarded friendship, along with contemplation, as one of the highest goals of ethics. Cicero, the Roman writer, showed in his treatise on the nature of friendship that the Romans valued it as much as the Greeks. Plato discoursed on friendship in his dialogue the Lysis.
Monasticism in Europe in the twelfth century witnessed the explosion of spiritual friendship under the inspiration of the Cistercians, or Trappists, whose monastic observance, reflection, and contemplation favored the flowering of insight on the practice of spiritual friendship. These monks knew more about the nature and value of friendship in their day than we do in ours. And in India, a friend is cherished more than anything else. The reason is simple: While marriages on the subcontinent are arranged, friendships are chosen, like they are everywhere else, and so they are regarded as precious, lifelong commitments.
We may sometimes think of the spiritual life as being austere and lonely. But the truth is that building bonds between people is just as important as cultivating a practice and often the two go hand in hand.
An orientation to the Sacred makes a foundation on which lasting friendship can be built. Interest in, seeking of, and commitment to the Sacred, the Divine, in whatever form it may assume, provides the ultimate measure of growth in the lives of friends and within friendship itself. Orientation to the Divine, to God and the spiritual journey, opens up an eternal dimension to the friendship and permits a depth of sharing that doesn't happen at sports events, the theater, concerts, dances, or bars, where conversations tend to be limited to the popular culture of games, politics, or the movies. The spiritual journey, the mystical life, presents an ultimate context for the guidance of our friends and all our relationships to occur. It grants us a focus, a destiny, and a container for our personal spiritual evolution that is lacking in many other spheres of life, such as business, school, and recreation.
Having said all this, I have dozens of friendships with people who don't share my Catholic tradition, who often are not religious, though they are indeed spiritual, simply meaning they are open to the depth of meaning in their lives. This is certainly true of my countless Tibetan friends, who of course are all Buddhists. We don't have God in common - at least not in the conventional Christian sense - but we have the dimension of spirituality, the practice of compassion and love. These friendships are deep and lasting.
Jesus clearly emphasized friendship with his disciples. The New Testament writers tell us of the great lengths he would go to stress a relationship with them based on love, or agape, as the Gospel calls it. This agapic love - friendship - is the key to grasping the message of Christ. In a very real sense, love is the message Jesus came into the world to teach; he came to impart this extraordinary knowledge and to transmit this capacity to us.
The Gospel proclaims, "God is love." We might just as easily say, "God is friendship," and St. Bernard of Clairvaux actually makes this claim. Near the end of his life and ministry on earth, Jesus tells his followers: "I shall no longer call you servants....I call you friends." And as the Gospel of Matthew tells us, love, or charity, is the criterion for salvation. Agapic love is a friendship that responds to everyone we meet, spreading the Kingdom of Heaven on earth through our openness to and care for others. Jesus invites us to extend our friendship not simply to those with whom we feel a certain affinity, but to all. He teaches us that no merit exists in loving those who love us and challenges us to love those we wouldn't ordinarily include.