Alan Rabjohns rejoices in the beauty of friendship
Though p’rhaps I may incur your blame
The things are few
I would not do
In Friendship’s name.
So sings Lord Tolloller in the second act of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanathe. And his rival for the hand of Phyllis, Lord Mountararat, agrees:
And I may say I think the same;
Not even love
Should rank above
True Friendship’s name!
Such sentiments may seem as dated as the plots of the Savoy Operas to today’s world for friendship has become an undervalued, not to say, suspicious thing in the eyes of modern society. Frightened by suggestions of homosexuality or paedophilia we tend to think that expressions of friendship, which would have been common a generation ago, are now out of place and frowned upon.
Only the other day I was reading through the Sunday Gospel preparing to preach and I read of Jesus taking a child in his arms and speaking of what this little one had to teach us about the Kingdom of God. Irreverently, I thought, he wouldn’t be able to do that today under our child protection policy and he would have had to have a police check before even being allowed near young people. I went on to ponder on what would be the attitude today to an itinerant preacher surrounded by twelve men.
Two of my children were born late in my life and I sometimes feel uncomfortable when I go out with my seventeen-year old son. As we sit at a cricket match, a concert or an opera do people look at me and wonder what this old man is doing there with a teenage boy?
It is so sad that we have created a world in which doubt and suspicion infects the way we look at those around us and perhaps one way of remedying this would be to emphasize again the true virtue of friendship.
When the noble Lord in Iolanthe sings that ‘not even love should rank above true Friendship’s name’, the love he is referring to is not, of course, that pure love which is of the nature of God, but romantic love. Our day and age, which has throned eros in the place of the true love that is God, can’t cope with that. But in many ways friendship between people of either the same or opposite sex is a thing of great beauty with a capacity for endurance beyond its romantic rival.
Indeed, we might say that in this way the love expressed in friendship is more akin to the love that is God than romantic or sexual love. The latter are based on the fickle emotions; the former on shared interests and values, on the head rather than the heart.
Friends will have many things in common. They may share a passion for literature or music or art; they may come together because of their philosophy or life or political ideology; their shared faith and experience of the living God may be what brings them together; or they may turn out to shout in support of the same rugby or football team. They needn’t share all these things; their friendship and commitment to one another does not mean that they have to agree about everything. Some of my own friendships are based on a common commitment to the Tradition of the Church, but those whom I would thus count as my friends often hold different views from myself on matters of politics or taste in music or architecture.
I often say to couples preparing for marriage that the secret of success is to progress from falling in love, through being in love, to loving. For it is only when married love has moved from the emotions to the will that it can be a sacrament of the love that is at the heart of God. I suppose I could put it that they need to be friends as well as lovers.
Another great difference between romantic love and friendship is openness to others. Lovers can be very selfish and introverted, caring only for themselves, feeling threatened by outsiders getting too near and perhaps attracting one of them away from the other. With true friendship it is entirely different. Two friends would rejoice to find another on the same wavelength. The addition of another to their number would not diminish but enhance their friendship: it is almost a case of the more the merrier!
Here again friendship can be seen as in some way closer to the nature of God. His love is total, open, all-embracing, out-going. And to become more like that again the love that begins in attraction and is expressed in sexual intercourse has to develop. This is surely one of the reasons why God has made procreation part of the fabric of marriage and its love. For the love that joins God in creation becomes outgoing; the inward-looking, exclusive love of husband and wife become the inclusive and outgoing love of father and mother – and this change must go beyond the bounds of family and home and include all as God includes all.
So great friendships, from the biblical David and Jonathan, through the ages and down to our own day, are not the doubtful and suspicious things that we often make them. They are things of great beauty and we should treasure them and encourage them.
I rejoice in my marriage and my family. I thank God every day for the blessings wife and children have brought me. But I do not feel sorry for those who are not married or have no family if that is what God has willed for them. But I do feel sorry for anyone who could say he or she had no friends for there would be something great and precious lacking in such a life. When God said ‘It is not good for man to be alone’, it led to the creation of Eve. We would call her Adam’s wife; but perhaps we should also call her Adam’s friend, called to share with him the joys of paradise.
And perhaps we should see that it is through friendship that the gates of paradise can be opened to us!