“Friends” is the title of the current “Faith Matters” column in the Christian Century, which should be online relatively soon. The author, L. Gregory Jones, dean of the Duke Divinity School, worries that many of our public figures, whether politicians or clerics, increasingly live in a world of pantomime. The constant need to carefully present and anxiously guard a public persona can leave them desperately lonely and without a clear sense of identity. “Worse, such people often turn to destructive means of propping themselves up: giving in to lust, greed, unbridled ambition and narcissistic obsessions; grasping for power; using alcohol and drugs.”
Dean Jones, a Methodist pastor, counsels something as simple yet profound as friendship. We might ask whether Catholic churches do enough to encourage holy friendships. Here, then, is Dean Jones:
All of us, especially those who have public vocations, need friendships that nourish our souls. We cannot survive for long with only “friends” from social functions. We long for holy friendships that shape and deepen our discipleship in authentic ways, so that we become the people God calls us to be.
My own sense of holy friendships arises out of reflection on the Wesleyan class meetings of the 18th century. These gatherings nurtured community because of their transformative power and because the ways in which they addressed people’s yearnings created a significant movement of faithful living.
Holy friends are those people who challenge the sins we have come to love – they know us well enough to see the sins that mark our lives. It isn’t difficult to find people who will talk with us about sins we already hate. But the sins that we love we tend to hide from others and even from ourselves. This is why we need other people to hold us accountable.
Holy friends also help us discern God’s work in our lives and affirm gifts that we are afraid to claim. They help us to dream God’s dreams in ways we otherwise never would have. It isn’t difficult to have sycophants telling us things neither they nor we believe; nor is it difficult to find truthful people who affirm gifts about which we already know. But holy friends point us to new avenues of relationship and activity that can enable us to grow in relation to God and others – and thereby also to discover the selves God calls us to be.
In offering both challenge and support, holy friends also help us dream God’s dreams for the future. Sinful activities cause our world to shrink, often into a narcissism where we can no longer see beyond ourselves. The challenges and affirmations from holy friends cause our world to enlarge again, and they call us to dream God’s dreams in new ways that give life and offer hope to others.