TAC Synodality Week: Friendship at the Proximity of Christ by Michael E. DeSanctis

My wife and I spend most Saturday evenings with our closest friends, a married couple who retired not long ago to a quiet farmstead nearby after lengthy careers as vocal musicians and educators in some of the nation’s largest cities. One is a graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music, the other a product of the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. As students, they’d spent a summer romancing each other a short car ride from the latter on the grounds of the famed Chautauqua Institution, when not otherwise training with the master singers they followed there.

Both are now in their mid-70s, and though their daily routines are considerably less demanding than they’d been for decades, they remain prominent figures in the local arts scene and coordinators of Sunday worship for the Presbyterian congregation to which they belong. It’s largely on the basis of their dual devotion to artistic and religious expression, in fact, that my physician-wife and I, a retired university professor of fine arts and theology, find such value in their friendship. To label them “kindred spirits” seems inadequate. “Framily” is what we prefer to call them, so indistinguishable have our feelings for the two grown from the emotional attachment we ordinarily reserve for blood relatives. What other name could there be for friends who, in many regards, know us better than the members of our own families?

None of this comes easily, especially for me, having been raised during the 1960s in an Italian-American household somewhat suspicious of anyone not related by birth and ethnicity. Absent from my childhood, for instance, was the experience of hosting weekend sleepovers of schoolmates like those my own children considered routine, occasions designed to relax the boundaries between friends and family, if only by swelling the number of pajama-clad gigglers who commandeered our breakfast table on a Saturday or Sunday morning or emptied us of Fruit Loops. To welcome guests of any kind into one’s home is literally to grant them “familiarity,” after all, temporary admission into the tightly bound sphere of biological kinship that underlies most cultures.

Nevertheless, it’s precisely an invitation to occupy our home as freely as they would their own that my wife and I offer our musician-friends. In practical terms, this means freeing them to grab stemware from our kitchen cabinets should the mood strike, or to search the refrigerator for the wine bottle or two usually hidden behind the milk. To be honest, wine almost always accompanies the fireside listening we do together on chilly nights to vintage recordings of everyone from Frank Sinatra to Beverly Sills to Hall & Oates. The ancients believed there was truth to be found in the fermented juice of grapes. More often than not, however, it’s a mixture of gratitude and contentment that overtakes our little group as we consume both wine and the goodness of each other’s company in the course of an evening, along with an impulse to weigh in on everything from the state of the national economy to the states of our souls.

There is, in fact, something deeply confessional about our times together, which explains in part why we’ve become surrogates to each other for the food and drink we savor with such care. Ours is a sacramental relationship—“eucharistic,” even—as nourishing in its own way as any bread-breaking we might do in the bellies of each other’s churches. Though separated by differences of doctrine and liturgical style too suited to our respective personalities to easily discard, we nevertheless revel in the unity we share through the Christ who extends to us his own friendship (John 15:15). Rarely after a workweek apart do we four fail to greet each other with prolonged hugs or other gestures of mutual affection, a habit I like to imagine as mirroring the way in which the earliest Christian communities celebrated their reunion each Sabbath morning in some dark and secret place of worship. “The Lord be with you!” I’m tempted to blurt out with every such embrace, to which our liturgically savvy friends would doubtless respond with the standard salutation.

By no means would my imagined words of benediction be empty. Several times already my wife and I have had to stand by as hardships befell our friends, most recently when they were forced to put to sleep a beloved Labrador retriever of theirs immobilized by old age. In the days surrounding the dog’s departure from their home, we were overtaken by sadness enough to rob us of sleep at night and deflate our daytime moods. At the time, I remember wanting simply to relieve our friends’ pain through something more concrete than prayer or phone calls to the florist. To bear the burdens of others certainly lies at the heart of the Christian vocation. In so doing, however, we risk encumbering our own lives in ways we’d never anticipate and forfeiting any illusions we carry about bad things not happening to good people. True friendship makes Simon the Cyrenes of all of us, with no guarantee that our amateur cross-bearing won’t eventually crush us in the end.

With today’s marvels of electronic communication at our fingertips, we’re able over longer distances than ever to be both salve and shelter (Sir. 6:14–16) to those we consider friends. Thanks to Facebook, for instance, I remain in touch almost daily with a favorite grade school teacher of mine in whose classroom, appropriately enough, I first learned the meaning of the verb “to bolster.” A handful of high school mentors, too, are Facebook friends whom I’ve been able to thank explicitly for the roles they played in my education. To my great satisfaction, the lopsided student-teacher relationships we maintained decades ago, when I was new to the world of big ideas, has matured into a give-and-take between equals mutually supportive of each other. No “long distance” correspondence in my mind, what we exchange is friendship at the proximity of Christ. Though limited in what we can do with each other on a regular basis, we find no limit to what we’re able to be for each other across the miles with a single keystroke of our laptops.

Perhaps in every relationship we acquire in a lifetime lies glimpses of a divine embrace unconstrained by the limitations of space and time. “In Christ,” John Oxenham’s classic hymn insists, “there is no east and west . . . north and south” but only a “close binding of [all] humankind.” A love of infinite expanse is one in which we can imagine death itself being “swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor. 15:54).

It may seem to trivialize Pope Francis’s recent push toward a more “synodal” church to suggest that his aim is to make Catholics friendlier toward one another. At root, however, to be “synodal”—from the Greek conjunction meaning loosely “to come together”—implies a willingness on the part of the faithful to interact with persons of all stripes for the purpose of building up the human community. “Synodality” thus poses a challenge to those in this country, for instance, wishing to function as “Lone Rangers,” masked to each other and seemingly autonomous. It calls believers instead to step beyond themselves, even at the risk of rejection, in order to form relationships that might improve not only the church but the world beyond it.

Francis himself has been anything but a loner on the world stage since the start of his pontificate and stresses at every turn the virtue of sociocultural “engagement” for members of the Body of Christ. By engaging others, listening carefully and without judgment to their stories, the pope made clear in his 2019 Post-synodal Exhortation to Young People and to the Entire People of God, Christus vivit, Christians gain friendships that are “one of life’s greatest gifts and [graces] from God” (§151). Befriending others “refines” the soul, the pope notes, and coaxes Christ’s followers out of their “comfortable isolation” from each other. Viewed from the opposite perspective in Francis’ scheme, Christians can learn important lessons from the constancy of friends about Christ’s own faithfulness to his flock (§154). The eternally loyal and forgiving person of Jesus Christ stands at the heart of Francis’s theology of divine friendship. For Francis, Christ is the “concrete dream” of the Father spoken into the mind of the church, unwavering in his fidelity to those who seek him. His vitality, the pope concludes, flows through the veins of the baptized, fills their hearts and makes them dance (§157).

Such theologizing, however poetical, should strike a chord with most Catholics. We belong, after all, to a church with a gift for intuiting Christ’s presence in the commonest of circumstances as much as the most elevated. In the Canon of the Mass, we hear Christ described as “the hand [God extends] to sinners” and presume to share communion with him no less than with every other member of the assembly and the church at large. Through the countless domestic “liturgies” we celebrate—those built, say, upon the form and matter of lemon squares and second cups of coffee at the fireplace, weekend sleepovers or digital birthday greetings received from afar—we likewise sense Christ’s nearness. We make a houseguest of him, bid him even in our supposed unworthiness to “enter under our roofs,” and draw from his proximity an inkling of the redemption toward which he invites us to journey together. ♦

Michael E. DeSanctis, Ph.D. is retired professor of fine arts and theology at Gannon University in Erie, Pennsylvania. He writes widely on Catholic church architecture and serves as a liturgical designer and consultant.

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