Feasting and friendship

Below is the talk I gave on Saturday at our first summer feast for 2013. My debt to Steve Wilkins’ Face to Face: Meditations on Friendship and Hospitality will be obvious.

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It’s our custom each year at our feasts to have a short meditation on something related to the subject of Christian feasting. This year I’d like to offer a few thoughts about friendship, since a feast is always best when it’s shared (as this one is today) among true friends.

What is a friend? In our busy world, it’s easy to let our ideas about friendship get pretty shriveled up. We tend to think of “friends” as simply people we “hang out” with at the occasional party or ballgame or movie – or worse still, as some people out there who “like” our Facebook posts.

But friendship is ever so much more than sharing common activities or Internet space with someone I more or less like. The philosopher Aristotle observed that a true friend is a “second self.” There is a sense, when spending time with a true friend, that I am in the presence of someone I value and care for as I value and care for myself, and whose thoughts I am eager to know even as I wish to express my own. I see in my friend the very strengths and virtues I most want to cultivate in myself; I view in him or her what I myself desire to be. There is in such friendship a mutual honor, a deep respect for each other’s convictions and character, and a delight in hearing each other’s mind, that is the farthest thing from flattery – indeed, the rebukes of such a friend are wholesome, there being no doubt about the goodwill, the virtue, and the faithfulness from which they proceed.

To view this from the other side, to be loved as a friend is to be loved not simply for what one can do, or what one has to offer in the way of benefits, but for who one is – and we all know the difference between times when we are “loved” because someone wants something from us, and the times when we feel no pressure to perform or produce, but only that someone is glad to be with us and share in the things we mutually prize.

It will be obvious from what has been said so far that we can’t really understand friendship without understanding the virtues on which friendship is built and by which it is sustained. Among these is, first, justice. Friends are scrupulous in doing right by each other. Love does no wrong to its neighbor, because love is just. Friends pay all debts, return everything borrowed, make restitution of all losses, and give credit where credit is due. They never, ever take advantage of each other. The justice of true friendship is a basis for security.

A second virtue is sympathy. Friends seek entrance into each other’s minds and hearts and lives, not for the purpose of exploiting, but for the purpose of sharing each other’s interests and caring for each other’s needs. Each wants to inhabit the world of the other, to see the world through the other’s eyes, to feel what the other feels. A friend rejoices when friends rejoice; a friend weeps when friends weep. The example here of Jesus will be obvious: He took our flesh, in order to be our “sympathetic High Priest”; and in this way, among others, He is the Friend of sinners.

A third virtue is courtesy. Friends are not calloused to what jostles and upsets each other. They aren’t indifferent to each other’s pain or preferences. Their respect for each other mandates good manners, and it is no burden to fulfill this mandate. There’s a refinement in authentic friendship; it is a theater of deference and carefulness born of honor. Friends aren’t thoughtless, rude, or crude in the way they treat each other. They don’t simply observe the rules of a code of honor, they sincerely want to.

A final virtue is, of course, loyalty. Friends aren’t here one day, gone the next. There’s nothing fly by night about real friendship. Friends stick with each other through easy times and hard times, bearing long with each other’s faults and trying patiently to mend them. There is constancy in a friend’s love, because friends count the cost of loving well. You know it was no true friendship when the “friend” leaves you for better benefits elsewhere. A friendship is a promise, and friends keep their promises.

Having said all of this, it’s still a bit abstract. Concretely, how are virtues that sustain friendship to be cultivated? I think we can find the answer in four simple practices. The first will be obvious: friends need to get together, to share a common place at the same time. And I’m not talking about Facebook! Friends assemble together – if you dislike company, you will eventually have no companions.

But assembly, as important as it is, will get you only so far. The best friendships are nourished by the practice of hospitality. Hospitality usually involves the home of one friend or another, but it need not necessarily. Hospitality is a matter of atmosphere: there’s something profoundly “homey” about the local pub where the food is good and the drinks plentiful; or about a campfire or a secret fishing hole; or the workshop where the latest inventions are devised; or the studio where two can paint in peace. The essential thing is that the friends are in space that is uniquely theirs, that they’ve welcomed each other into a sanctum not open to the wide world. A shopping mall is no place to cultivate friendship, unless the friends also congregate more privately afterward to gloat over their acquisitions. But here I speak of things I do not quite understand.

A third friendly practice is physical affection; but this includes more than the warm handshake at the beginning of the evening, or a farewell kiss at the door on the way out. The point is that friends must do something, in the flesh, to express their affection for each other. Perhaps it’s as simple as bowling, or playing catch, or writing a letter, or banging on a handful of instruments. Maybe it’s as grand as taking a road trip, starting a book club, or learning how to make amazing soup; but friendship cannot be sustained on mere feelings – it requires action; it requires the body. In its highest expressions, it involves sacrificial action, some tangible form of laying down one’s life for the other.

The last practice I will mention is a lost art in our world – I refer here to the art of conversation. This may sound a bit extreme, but I want to propose that there is no true friendship without some mutual opening of the soul. Any two mammals can share the same physical activity; it is in loving the activity together that friendship is formed. It is in discovering that this other person really is a “second self,” that in his or her desires and interests and passions I view a mirror of my own, that friendship grows; and how will this ever happen without some form of conversation? Not all conversation must involve talking, of course, but a terrible communicator will always be a bad friend. You must open yourself in some way to others, or you can neither be nor enjoy a real friend.

But what, to conclude, has all this to do with feasting? A feast is a hospitable assembly: it’s a “homey” gathering where the food is abundant and tasty, where we’re all looking out for each other, and so we can all sit back and enjoy. It’s a time to play, to use our bodies in shared activity that everyone enjoys (with the possible exception of the poor “angry birds”!). It’s a time for affection and laughter, and for unhurried talk about many things. It’s a time for opening our souls and lightening our hearts in the presence of each other and of our good God who has given us all these things.

Here we practice the virtue of courtesy toward one another, in things as simple as waiting with good manners in the food line. Here we get to know each other better and deepen the sympathy of our care and concern. Here we forge the bonds of loyalty; this is one more step on the road of friendships that will endure the test of time. Here, in being reminded of the value of one another, we are reminded as well of our duties to each other, and deepen our commitment to do right by each other, whatever the cost. A feast is a place for building friendships, both new and old. Indeed, it can be no accident that our Lord Jesus first called His disciples “friends” in the context of a feast.

On behalf of my family, I want to say what a pleasure it is for us to host you all today; our desire and prayer to God is that each of you will find yourself more than once at this feast alongside a true friend – a “second self” – and that your life will be immeasurably enriched. May He bless us to that end.

 

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