Inspiring Saints Who Shared Virtuous Friendships
Towards the end of the Gospel of John Jesus says something profound to his followers that we often skip over when we read or listen to the Gospel. In the fifteenth chapter, Jesus tells his followers “I no longer call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends…” Friends. A simple title but one that carries much meaning. For by calling us his friends Jesus Christ has indicated that he has shared his knowledge of the Father with us. He has given us an invitation to share in his mission. We have become beloved participants in doing the work of the Kingdom of God.
Holy friendships are vital. Obviously, we are all called to have a holy friendship with Jesus Christ and the other members of the Trinity as well as with Mary and all the Saints. But we are also called to friendships here on earth. These friendships provide us with much more than another warm body to kill time with when we’re bored, a good friendship should elevate both persons towards God, towards holiness. That’s why I want to take this opportunity to look at the friendships that did just that- that helped propel both parties toward holiness: friendships between canonized saints.
I am going to employ a few rules about the saint friends presented here for the sake of simplicity. No married couples and no siblings. Marriage and family life are excellent schools of holiness but I want to focus on friendships that everybody can enter into, single or married, only children or members of large families. So, Sts. Louis and Zelie Martin are out. Sts. Benedict and Scholastica are out. But who’s in?
Sts. Francis and Clare of Assisi
It is no mere coincidence that they both are called of Assisi. Clare became one of the first followers of Francis and would, under his encouragement, found a religious order of women becoming one of the first women to write a religious rule. Their relationship was so close that others were at times suspicious of the two of them, but theirs was a holy friendship that drew each of them closer to the Gospel ideal of poverty. As Arnaldo Fortini tells the story in his book Vita Nuova di San Francesco d’Assisi one time the two of them were walking and stopped at a house for some food. The people in the house kept shooting glances at them that prompted Francis to say that they needed to spend some time apart but Clare was so distraught that when she asked when they might see each other again Francis said not until the snow melted and the roses bloomed. Clare then prayed and the snow melted and she was able to collect some roses to offer to Francis. Despite Francis’ hesitation, it was seen as a sign that their friendship was valuable and necessary to their shared mission of promoting the living of the Gospel.
Sts. Basil and Gregory of Nazianzen
Their friendship is cemented in that we celebrate their feasts together on January 2. In the Liturgy of the Hours, we have a reading for that day that comes from St. Gregory describing their friendship and shared work:
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 than 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 Christian perfection, 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.
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.
Sts. Ignatius of Loyola and Francis Xavier
These two men were college roommates and eventually, Francis Xavier would help Ignatius found the Society of Jesus. Although St. Ignatius would primarily stay in Europe to run the order and St. Francis Xavier would travel to India, Goa, China, and Japan to spread the gospel the two remained close friends. Francis Xavier would send letters describing his efforts at spreading the Gospel back to Ignatius in Rome and Ignatius would write letters back. Francis Xavier notes that he would even cut out Ignatius’ signature and sew it into his cassock so that his friend would always be close to him. Although once Francis left for the East the two of them would never see each other on this side of heaven they were both buoyed to holiness by their mutual friendship.
Friendship is important. Not just for these saints but for us as well. Work on developing holy friendships, friendships that lift both parties towards our ultimate goal- heaven, towards being together in the friendship that is the communion of saints.