A Reflection on Friendship of the Soul

friendshipI originally wrote this reflection with my consecrated brothers and sisters in the Legion and Regnum Christi in mind, but I think it can still be helpful (at least analogously) for any Christian who is seeking a deeper friendship with God. I’m currently studying the Classical Humanities in Cheshire, CT, and am preparing to go to Rome to continue my studies for the priesthood. It is a tremendous blessing to have so many companions from which to draw this reflection and experience of friendship of the soul.

The times we live in can be so blind to the gifts of God. And we, children of our times, are subject to the same blindness of heart. A book or even many books could be written about today’s crisis of real friendship and its misunderstood place in our society. I simply want to share my reflections over a question that perhaps we wonder in our hearts, yet we struggle to articulate: Does friendship really matter for a consecrated man or woman who has heard and answered the Lord’s call? This isn’t just a “friend” on Facebook or a colleague you’ve worked with for many years, and have learned to tolerate their rough edges. I am speaking of a friendship of the soul. First, let me describe what sort of friendship I am thinking of and then we’ll consider why it could be worthwhile.

The ancients distinguished between four types of love, expounded upon by eminent men of modern times like C.S. Lewis and Benedict XVI. From the latter especially, we have heard about the unity and compatibility of eros and agape, as they resonate in the harmony of receiving and giving. Storge, as the familial relationship between family members, seems to be self-explanatory as the natural empathy among those of our own house. But a special aura of mystery hovers around philia, defined only briefly by Benedict XVI as “the love of friendship” in its two cursory mentions in the encyclical “Deus Caritas Est.”

Philia is not as innate as our instinctive eros. Nor is it as heroic and heavenly as agape. However, unlike these previous two taken separately, philia involves both a giving and receiving together and is always attached to our free choice to do so. If I may be permitted to oversimplify, it is never merely a falling in love—like eros—or an agape in which our conscience tells us we “ought to do as we want to have done to us.”[1] This love is predominantly a decision, albeit a decision in which we still must discern and listen to the call of God. In this way, philia is a profound gift from God that lets us yoke our souls together as mutual supports and guides on our journey. It is this type of love that is left aside when we feel we are able to proceed with only our own strength and determination.

We, as part of the Church, have always been regarded as a community of faith, even from the earliest days. And as part of this community of believers, shouldn’t we be concerned about this same “philia that St. John used to describe the love between the brothers and sisters of the faith? The closely linked Greek verb “phileo” is defined: “to show warm affection in intimate friendship, characterized by tender, heartfelt consideration, and kinship”[2]. But what made the “philia” of the early Church unique, making it the defining characteristic[3] of their communities?

When we examine the origins of their spirit, we are struck by the simplicity of the answer. Above all, it is after the example of Christ, who said “I no longer call you servants… I have called you friends” (Jn 15:15) and “Love one another as I have loved you.” (Jn 15:12) It is Christ who elevates our human friendship to a level of spiritual friendship, one which we can share with the God-Made-Man because of the Incarnation. Through him, our human friendship is purified and refined as it takes on characteristics of the life of the spirit—compassion, understanding, purity, patience, kindness.

As consecrated men and women, we have been called to live in community and live out our mission within our spiritual families. But have we found the deeper call within the call to be the Veronica or Cyrenian for another? I often wonder who gained more on the “Way of the Cross,” Simon of Cyrene or the Savior, as they bore the weight of the cross together.

Our Lord certainly felt the joy of friendship with Lazarus, Martha, and Mary with a human heart. He also felt what it was like to be abandoned in his Agony at Gethsemane. He wants to provide for our human hearts through the souls with whom he surrounds us and with whom he calls us to deeper communion.

We also need to remember our needs and the needs of our brothers and sisters, with whom we have been called. St. John Paul II was deeply aware of this and said in his “Meditation on Givenness:”

“God does indeed give people to us; he gives us brothers and sisters in our humanity, beginning with our parents. Then, as we grow up, he places more and more new people on our life’s path. Every such person, in some way, is a gift for us, and we can say of each: ‘God has given you to me.’ This awareness becomes a source of enrichment for each of us.”[4]

A simple but deep statement—others are given to us. Then we, in turn, must be given to them. We continue to live in a world in which it is counter-cultural to be Christian, and even more so to be consecrated men and women. We need to remember the gift of spiritual friendship and spiritual brother and sisterhood that God blesses us with as we carry our cross, and the responsibility that this gift entails.

Not only is this gift given for our own human satisfaction, but on a deeper level he wants us to find him through our spiritual friendships that become openings to a deeper understanding of God. John Henry Newman wrote:

“Do you know what it is to have a friend in a distant country, to expect news of him, and to wonder from day to day what he is now doing, and whether he is well? Do you know what it is so to live upon a person who is present with you, that your eyes follow his, that you read his soul, that you see all its changes in his countenance, that you anticipate his wishes, that you smile in his smile, and are sad in his sadness, and are downcast when he is vexed, and rejoice in his successes? To watch for Christ is a feeling such as all these; as far as feelings of this world are fit to shadow out those of another.”[5]

For the same reason that he taught us to call God “Father,” he has said “I have no longer called you servants, but friends.” We are human and so naturally relate to God in human ways. Discover God through your soul-friends.

[1] This is very much oversimplified since agape is also a decision and is much higher than mere “tug of conscience.” However, the point is that friendship-love is a unique human choice to which we are called.

[2] http://biblehub.com/greek/5368.htm (Strong’s Concordance)

[3] Tertullian’s famous “See how they love one another…”

[4] http://www.communio-icr.com/files/jpii41-4.pdf

[5] http://www.newmanreader.org/works/parochial/volume4/sermon22.html



About Br. Maximilian Nguyen, LC

Br. Maximilian grew up in Overland Park, Kansas, the oldest of six children. After graduating from the Apostolic School in 2014 and completing his novitiate with the Profession of first vows in 2016, he is currently finishing his studies in the Classical Humanities in Cheshire, Connecticut and preparing to continue his studies for the priesthood in Rome next semester.
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2 Responses to A Reflection on Friendship of the Soul

  1. Adriana says:

    Beautifully written. The holy spirit speaks to me clearly through your words. Just yesterday I was reflecting on the same idea and this points me in the right direction.
    I thank God for your insight.

  2. Charlene says:

    This is “right on” Br Maximilian! Thank you for choosing to write and publish this article on such an important topic. If Jesus stresses the importance of calling us “friends” it’s worth pondering what this means for us as Christians. Your article encourages me to make the decision and commitment to love the Christ in my sisters and brothers.

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