Friendship: A Path to the Transcendent Jose Lorbeth Vivo, SDB 18 December 2009 We can see the love of friendship

as the beginning of the kind of happiness tha t we will experience in heaven where we will be a source of joy to one another. St. Francis of Sales FRIENDSHIP IN HUMAN EXPERIENCE When I was teaching in a Salesian school, I happened to witness a kind of friend ship among seven boys which I admired but have doubted initially to last long. A t the end of their secondary schooling, this group of boys approached me and one of them who seemed to be the most vocal told me, “Father, one thing I will cheris h and will not forget in this school is the bond of friendship that we have made with one another”. I asked them, “How sure are you that your friendship is true and will not perish a year after your graduation?” They were all stunned by my questi on, but they answered me, “Father, we know the secrets of each one, and even now, we can all together sit at one toilet bowl, doing our thing, and are still capab le of telling sad, inspiring, heart-breaking and comedic stories.” I was surprised by their answer. I just did not know if they truly knew the meaning of their an swer or grasped in depth the real definition of true friendship. I asked them again, “What could be the greatest benefit that you can get out of th is friendship?” Young as they were, they responded, “Father, we were never exclusive . In fact, we welcome everyone who would join us. But we just feel very comforta ble being with one another. We are with friends who accept us for who we really are – with our defects and strengths – and we are never afraid to show who we are, w hat we think about, and what we like to do. Yes, we differ sometimes in opinions but in the end, we ask one another to do what he thinks may be the best and we support him.” I was really surprised. But I still have doubts whether that friends hip would last; though I was not sure still whether they really knew well the me aning of friendship. I asked them again, “Do you see something worthwhile with your filial or fraternal bond with one another?” To this one of them answered, “Father, I do not have a good father image at home. I pray to God but I never feel so comfortable addressing God as Father because I do not see my father often and there is no affection bet ween me and my father. However, if I would be asked to pray to Jesus, our friend , then I find it easy to place myself in the mood for prayer. I love to see God as a friend who cares sincerely, listens devoutly, makes me think for myself, jo kes with me. I want to see God not as a distant person but as loving friend who appreciates me for who I am. I long for God and if I experience good friendship with my companions right now, I believe that there will be a kind of friendship that is greater and deeper than what I cherish with them now, and which can exis t between God and me.” I asked him, “How did you know?” He told me, “Father Joebeth, God is different and yet, He is my friend. If all of us would pass away and everyth ing here on earth will pass away, something in me pushes to hope and believe tha t some things will remain like God and perhaps the relationship, and friendship that I build with Him.” I continued asking, “But how sure are you?” The boys left and thought for a while in a corner. I overheard them discussing about my question. After, they approached me and one of them said, “Father Joebeth, we believe in God and each one of us feels that a good friendship exists between God and each of us. If not for the friendship we have, some of us might not be able to believe i n God at all. We believe that if we experience good friendship now, there is a p ossibility that a friendship more perfect and deeper exists. If it is not possib le to exist among us humans, then perhaps it is not impossible for God who knows everything to strike such kind of friendship with us. We may not be sure about it but there is something in us that tells us, ‘It is possible’.”

I was dumbfounded when I heard that. Those guys were not the cream of the crop, but the challenge to answer a vital question based on the nobility and sublimity of their friendship caught my attention. From human experience they connect to their religious experience; and with a little more connection with the life of t he Church, they will realize their Christian experience. What is a religious experience? Religious experience can be explained only if th e meaning of human experience is explored first. So, what is a human experience? FRIENDSHIP AS HUMAN EXPERIENCE A human person would have an experience of something if he is conscious about it . Consciousness makes us live the moment; it does not make us just flow with the current. It leads the person to gauge whether life has meaning, or check whethe r the moment has something to offer which makes him grow. Consciousness makes th e human experience; it makes man the human being at this moment in time as he en counters an event through which he will discover its significance for his growth . The intensity of consciousness allows the person to dig deeper into the experi ence he encounters which paves the way for a better interpretation. The boys I have encountered found meaning in their collective experience of frie ndship. At the beginning, they tried to be conscious about the persons they woul d like to go with and the experiences they encountered; the consciousness they o ffered to their collective experience drove them to decide whether to choose to stay with these friends or not. Since they chose to stay, they found meaning in their collective experiences: a benefit that is not just communal but also perso nal inasmuch as each one felt acceptance and was enabled to express himself for who he is without inhibitions. This is the human experience of friendship where the boys risked their own selves but found themselves growing in the midst of pe ople who shared their thoughts, feelings, concerns and interests. For this I wou ld like to quote St. Francis of Sales who distinguishes between the love of bene volence and the love of concupiscence or an acquisitive kind of love in relation ships. The love of concupiscence makes us love something for the advantage that we expect from it, whereas a love of benevolence makes us love something for its own good. Friendships are formed when we love others for their own sakes. This has been the root of their experience of friendship and that is the reason why t hey bonded. They found this meaning, and so their friendship. What characterizes human experience is our understanding something, discovering its meaning. For us humans, to have an experience, therefore, means to comprehen d the meaning of something. This is done by discovering its link to everything e lse; thus experience means also to discover the purpose of a given thing and its function in the world. If not for a conscious “dipping” or personal involvement int o the collective experience, they would not have found it a “good one” or a “meaningfu l one” which motivated them to decide to stay together and called it friendship. D ue to friendship, they are able to explore the world and many things in life (in their case at that time was scholastic life). The personal experience of friend ship became an authoritative framework or background that encouraged each of the m to grow more in the midst of each one and become meaningful in the life of eac h one. The experience of each one in friendship became significant due to the intensity they have given to it. All the aspects of their persons were involved – their his torical background, their feelings, sensitivities, values, liabilities, assets, secrets, and many more. They expose themselves to an opportunity to act accordin g to their personhood but also in accord with what the group decides. That would not have happened if there was no consciousness in every decision that they hav e made. Their consciousness would make them appreciate friendship and even value

it. Surely, since each one found the collective experience “beneficial” and very encoura ging to be oneself, they must have given every experience a serious thought. The ir reflection on it led them to arrive at an interpretation of a worthwhile expe rience. They were looking for meaning and they found it, and they started to val ue it. One thing, I could remember asking them was, “If you really know your frien ds, what is his deepest secret (in their standard at that time)?” In chorus, they immediately answered with their grinning faces, “I know, Father. Do you want us to tell you now?” The language of one has become the language of all. The secret of one has become the secret of all. Ever since they became a group, they started to radiate a different aura. Before , some of them were timid, the shy-type of guys who would just stay in a corner from dawn to dusk, from day one to the last day of class. Their friendship has m ade each of them a person in the school (since in school I could observe them). They started to make their presence felt in different school activities. True en ough, when a deeper friendship strikes a person, it cannot but make an impact in his mentality and behavior. They began to assume certain responsibilities for t he good of the school. And we have to take note that these guys were not in the top 50% of their respective classes. They have developed a name of their group – t he Wholesomes. They have made their own language of endearment, affection and be longingness that only these friends would understand. Many years ago, they were then. Until this time, they still are and even in Facebook, Friendster, Twitter, Hi5 and many more, they retained their identity as “the Wholesomes”. They went to d ifferent universities in college but until this time they remained united in spi rit, in a mature way of living a True Friendship. They have experienced being ca lled together to enjoy their friendship; later on, they invoked and continuously invoke to be with one another to be renewed and to have a deeper experience of their personhood. This is their friendship. This is their human experience. But is this all that f riendship offers? FRIENDSHIP AS RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE I have always believed that all human experiences would lead a person to a relig ious experience. This will happen if the consciousness that the person gives to every experience will make him clamor for a deeper and transcendent reality beyo nd his human experience. It happens when he calls for a religious experience. What is a religious experience? Is it possible that my ordinary human experience can pave the way to a religious experience? In the book of Don Jerome Vallabaraj, Communicating a Faith That Transforms, he said that religious experience is not actually the experience of another world o r of another reality, but rather a deeper way of living the reality. Such an exp erience does not necessarily presuppose extraordinary realities or situations of life. Instead, it arises from the very same life, but in its fundamental moment s (love, hate, hope, commitment, suffering, death, etc.) perceived at the deeper radical level of interpretation. Religious experience is a human experience tha t leads a person to recognize a transcendental dimension. I remember the friendship which those guys have built. Without asking them “in a r eligious sense” about the fruit of their friendship in their life, the experience of God being a friend has drawn many, if not all, of them to appreciate the Tran scendent. In fact, they asserted that with all the good that their friendship co uld give them, they believed that there is a friendship to which it is patterned and to which it must lead them. It is a kind of friendship that they long for i

n the deepest recesses of their hearts because they know that even if nobody wou ld be permanently alive, something or somebody remains. So, it led them to think of a friendship to which they are called and drawn; that friendship which will last forever since one’s friendship is directed to Somebody who will never cease t o exist. Had they not been Christians, they will have to conclude that it is a f riendship with “Somebody up there”. But since they are Catholics, they attribute tha t call to a lasting and permanent friendship to God. And they were thankful that our religious education made them recognize the presence and value of God in th eir life. I believe that those boys were led to a religious experience since they had an a uthentic human experience that enabled them to find meaning in life and grow. Th at growth spurred them on to reach the horizon where the human level cannot anym ore traverse. In their hearts, they recognized that human friendship will just h ave to remain at a certain level while they enjoy it in its fullness. They hear the invitation to go beyond the best experience achieved by their human friendsh ip because a mysterious and transcendent one awaits them. They did not know how to explain this; unfortunately, the sad truth is that the answer is found only i n reaching the horizon, and its appreciation beyond the horizon. It is so nice that in meeting God through the horizon, they recognized that rela tionship with God, the Transcendent, as the mysterious friendship or Friend that awaits them. The experience of prayer and reflection in our school environment facilitated this process (hopefully, we did not shortchange the students). It is a kind of friendship that they longed for. From their human friendship, they we re able to look and relate to God as a welcoming and loving Friend, through Whom they can be assured of eternal security, with Whom they can be themselves witho ut inhibitions, and in Whom they will find the deepest happiness that our human hearts look for. In the religious experience, the reality is considered from the perspective of i ts totality (meaning, origin, and ultimate end) in its most radical issues (sear ch for meaning, salvation exigency, invocation) and in its opening up to the tra nscendental dimension of the totally Other. (Vallabaraj) The boys knew that ever ything has meaning. Every experience in building their friendship has meaning. H owever, that meaning (I believe is spiritual already in a sense that reflection is an essential function of the soul that guarantees his being an image of God) will not settle at the plain human level; the meaning leads them to grope for th e Truth behind or BEYOND it which alone gives the answer to their questions, and in which their restless hearts rest alone (St. Augustine). HUMAN FRIENDSHIP LEADS TO FRIENDSHIP WITH GOD It is also surprising to note that some of those boys were able to see God as th eir friend, somebody who is different from a good father or even from their clos e friends. By the experience of friendship, they were able to approach God in a very familial way in which their effort of freely expressing themselves without inhibition can still be executed but in the noblest way. The communicative chara cter of friendship draws them to an experience of the Transcendent with much fac ility. Yes, this still has to be purified; however, since God’s communication does not stop, in due time (in God’s time, actually) their friendship with the Transce ndent God becomes, with their cooperation, more real in their lives. On account of this religious experience, every religious experience (even loosel y said in the context of the young) can be verified only in persons who have lea rned the language to interpret religiously the reality. One cannot speak of God unless he has an experience of God. One who has never heard of God cannot have a God experience. And without religious experience, there is neither communicatio n nor listening to God.

FRIENDSHIP, A TASTE OF COMMUNITY (ECCLESIOLOGY) Another thing that fascinated me was when those guys said that they would await Sunday. This was because they gather on that day and go together for the celebra tion of the Mass. Had they deepened their human experience which was an experien ce of fraternity in their small community or group, they would have been convinc ed that the experience of God is more convincingly a venue to grow in love and f ellowship in the context of a community which is able to nourish such growth, lo ve and fellowship. Surely, at that time, this realization may be too much for th eir understanding. Religious experience enables us really to read life and hist ory as the place where God reaches our consciousness. If only we reflect on the lived (vissuto), we would know that God reaches out to us and calls us to a comm union deeper than this world can give. "...the friendships which were good in this life will continue eternally in the next" St. Francis of Sales, OEA, X, 240