Faith & Thought

The Genuine Gift of Friends Offers Us Many Comforts

Recently, I finished reading one of the most demanding theology books that I have ever read. But it is also one that is filled with beautiful insights. The book is “Power and Spirit: Toward an Experience-Based Pneumatology” (Oxford University Press, 2004, 209 pp). The author is one of my favorite writers and the best teacher I ever had, Bernard Cooke. Reflecting on the marvelous gift of friendship, Cooke writes the following:

“A genuine gift of friends offers the comfort of friendship: the peace of being unconditionally accepted, a sense of self-worth and being appreciated, a quiet recognition that one holds something of ‘supreme value,’ starting as early as a mother’s embrace of her infant, an awareness of being at home.

“Embracing a friend symbolizes in profound fashion the reciprocity of friendship: It is one’s self-gift to a significant other (not necessarily ‘the’ significant other), but at the same time it is possessing the other as friend.

“It is ‘I-Thou’ knowing that it is ‘I-Thou’ in both directions. It is truly a personal union with no other goal than the union itself so that at that moment a new reality, ‘we,’ comes into being. The union in no way diminishes the otherness of the other; instead, it celebrates that other in respect and love. In the embrace, one experiences the excitement of joy, but it is a joy mixed with the calm of peace” (p. 184).

I wonder if I could spend a lifetime reflecting on the various mysteries that Cooke has expressed in that paragraph. He has succinctly touched upon some of the central paradoxes of personal living. In several of the philosophy courses that I teach at St. John’s University, I mention in the first class that the entire course is aimed at asking and answering the question, “Who am I?” or perhaps even more importantly, the question, “Who are we?”

I have come to appreciate in a new way how we are tied together; on every level of being human, we co-exist. We co-exist on the level of knowing. I can only teach philosophy courses because some brilliant men and women have written books, and I have had the opportunity to read those books. We depend enormously on the media for information. That becomes more and more obvious as the national election draws nearer.

We co-exist on the level of emotion. Spend all your time with happy people, and it will be difficult for you to be sad. Friends can create a wonderful atmosphere of joy. Spend all your time with sad people, and they will drag you down. One of the marvelous mysteries that Cooke refers to in the paragraph I have quoted is that in a love relationship the “otherness” of neither the lover nor the beloved is lost. Through the love relationship, each becomes more himself or herself.

Each contributes to the uniqueness of the other, strengthens the uniqueness of the other. Love is the only union in which this happens. In a deep friendship between two people, neither possesses the other nor smothers the other. Rather, in a deep friendship, each person creates the other. There are many realities that can contribute to the growth of a human person, but the most wonderful is what Cooke refers to as the “we” reality. In a love relationship, each grows through making a self-gift to the other.

Making the self-gift not only enriches the one loved but enriches the one making the self-gift. By making a self-gift, the giver is also enriched. If a friendship between two human beings can be so seemingly magical, what can happen in a friendship between a human person and God? What can happen to those who accept the self-gift of the Holy Spirit?

In terms of human growth and development, it seems to me the sky’s the limit. I cannot imagine how much a human person can be transformed through the loving presence of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit’s creative love can help the person to become more and more like Christ. The Holy Spirit’s love is so powerful that I cannot clearly conceive it. Through the presence of the Spirit, persons can grow in faith, hope, and charity.

In his wonderful book “Personalism” (University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, Indiana, 1952), Philosopher Emmanuel Mounier stresses a point similar to Cooke’s in writing the following:

“This communion of love, in liberating him who responds to it, also liberates and reassures him who offers it. Love is the surest certainty that man knows; the one irrefutable existentialist cogito: I love, therefore I am; therefore being is, and life has value (is worth the pain of living).

“Love does not reassure me simply as a state of being in which I find myself, for it gives me to someone else” (p.23).