No man is an island
“No man is an island,
entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent...”
— John Donne, Meditation XVII
In recent weeks I have been thinking a lot about the value of friends especially long-term friendships.
The title of Thomas Merton’s book, “No Man Is An Island” comes from a poem written by John Donne years before. Both the book and the poem talk about how much less we are when we try to go through life alone. Even the great hermits, saints of the middle ages often had friends that they either wrote to or saw on a regular basis. The desert hermits that did not stay in touch with friends often were not very successful in maintaining their sanity.
So what do friends do for us? They do a lot more than keep us company. First, they keep us honest. A friend will point out mistakes in our facts as well as a wrong attitude about something. While a man with no friends, just acquaintances or alliances, never gets told he looks like a fool when his facts are wrong. May God preserve me from the love of a friend that will never rebuke me? It is very painful to have a friend criticize me, but I am safe within that criticism. Honesty keeps us humble, and that humility allows a friendship with God. This allows God to speak to us through our friend. Honesty also allows us to have a sense of humor about ourselves. St. Teresa of Avila got thrown off a cart into a ditch, at which time she told God, “If this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few.” That kind of humor can only happen between great friends.
Secondly, friends keep us in touch with our humanity. It allows us to cry when we lose someone. This is the time when we learn to pray in earnest. It is in our grief we come to know God’s grief when one of His beloved is lost to the evil of our society. When I lose my friend, can I move into the mystery of God’s love for him, or do I simply rage at God that what has happened is unfair? But God, like a good friend, is patient with us. He will wait for us to come to an understanding. The odd thing about losing a friend and trying to understand God’s mysterious ways is that we often need a really good friend to help us figure it out. John Henry Newman said, “Friendship is an intimation of a greater love, a foretaste of heaven.”
In friendship, two intimate friends gain a glimpse of the life that awaits them in God.
Friends share our joy and it is in that sharing of our joy it turns to love. Real friendship cannot be content with simply wanting health and wealth for my friend. I must want a love that causes the other to grow and mature in God’s peace. Love can only grow when it is given away, so we must have someone to give it to. Even Jesus had a few close friends. In looking at Jesus and his relationship with his friend, Peter, we see Jesus’ human nature and how to accept our friend’s weaknesses.
So we come to understand that we are not made to be alone. Most people understand that statement in only one way. They think they should marry and have a partner/friend for life, but marriage often has a different type of friendship than those of us who lead a celibate life. Jesus did not marry nor did the hermits of years gone by. Life with or without marriage is often good if we still stay in touch with our friends and that way stay in touch with the goodness God has put into our lives. We must remember that Jesus said, “where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”
And that has to be the best way to share friendship.
This column is the opinion of Marguerite Culhane of St. Andrew Catholic Church in Eagle River. Write to her by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.