The Sacrament of Friendship by William Droel

The Christian denominations vary in their list of official sacraments. But restricting God’s instruments of grace to any official list is misguided, writes Fr. Robert Lauder in The Tablet of Brooklyn. He directs his readers to Bernard Cooke (1922–2013), particularly his Sacraments and Sacramentality (Twenty-Third Publications, 1983).

The word “sacrament must be understood in a much broader sense,” writes Cooke.  Properly understood, “the most basic sacrament of God’s saving presence to human life is the sacrament of human love and friendship . . . Our experience of being truly personal with and for one another is sacramental . . . The human friendships we enjoy embody God’s love for us.” Some knowledge of and experience of the divine is gained through personal relationships, Cooke continues. 

Marriage is a prime example. It is an intense relationship between two people with God in the mix. Please understand, this does not mean that a couple is constantly aware of God. Nor is a sacramental marriage coated in frosting. There is discord and disappointment in the crucible of every marriage. Mutual revelation, too. And hilarity and quiet joy. And, of course, marriage is the sacramentality of sex.

 A sacramental moment occurs as two friends meet every Monday morning at the diner or as four women meet after work on Friday for drinks. God is not explicitly mentioned. The conversations go here and there from the superficial to deeply personal. But love is lurking within every genuine friendship.

The sacrament of friendship is easily lost in our culture in which relationships are utilitarian. Companies and business managers too often think of employees only as an item on the expense ledger. Employees have little loyalty to a job site, moving on with but a muffled goodbye. Our dominant culture likewise encourages utilitarian marriages negotiated on a quid pro quo basis. “I did this for you, so you should do this for me.” Or, “I disclosed my innermost feelings, so now it is your turn to do the same.” Real friendship, by contrast, is a free gift that expects nothing in return, though it is often richly rewarded.

Like all sacraments, friendship is public. This necessary public dimension is seen in marriage, symbolized by the honor extended to the guests at the wedding reception. There is a public function to casual friendships among drinking buddies, in accidental friendships among neighbors, and in the friendships within extended families. All of these relationships build up our social fabric and pose a counter-narrative to individualism.

Plus, there is a type of friendship that is primarily public, what Aristotle termed philia. Public friendship is different from liking someone or sharing an interest in sports or a hobby. Its sacramental component is a care for another person’s well-being and character. Therefore, public friendship is concerned about the environment or institutions that shape people. Ultimately, it cares about the public good. It is civic affection, camaraderie, trust, or civic happiness.

The opposite of public friendship is, again, transactional utilitarianism. There are far too many people afflicted by agnosia—the inability to recognize the human in the person in front of them. They go about their business and miss the meaning embedded in the day. Public friendship is the result of a culture of encounter. There is no “art of the deal” associated with it.

At times the issues of the day seem most important. Or the material to be covered in that afternoon’s class. Or the arrangement of the decorations in the meeting hall. Or the diagnosis of the problem with the faulty heater in late November. Yet all of these things come and go. What endures is friendship. Friendship is prior to the issues, the charts, the tangle of wires under the desk, the staff shortage for the evening shift, the stack of papers or the traffic congestion on the expressway. Be open to the sacramental grace within friendship and the other things will be given you besides. ♦

William Droel is the editor of Initiatives, a printed newsletter on faith and work (sign up for a free subscription here). His book Public Friendship can be obtained from National Center for the Laity (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; $5).

Image: Harli Marten / Unsplash
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