Aug 19, 2016
There is a type of love which is possible only between man and woman and usually leads to marriage – a relationship characterized by the fact that both the intentio unionis and the intentio benevolentiae are fully actualized. "Thou art mine; I am yours." There is a similar climax of union between man and woman in holy friendships not leading to marriage, both partners being bound by a vow of either virginity or celibacy. One can then speak of a "marriage of souls." But my theme is to shed some light on the beautiful type of union called friendship. It obviously differs from the one mentioned above because it can be actualized between two men, between two women, between men and women, and between old and young. Such relationships, which are precious gifts, are characterized by their emphasis on the intentio benevolentiae. Moreover whereas in relationships between man and woman leading to marriage, this love is fully centered on this one person at the exclusion of all others, "che sola a me par donna" – to quote the beautiful words of Petrarca. The fact one can have a multiplicity of friends, each one of them experienced as a gift, does not exclude a hierarchy among them. This multiplicity of positive, beautiful relationships deserves our special attention, this will be the theme of this brief essay.
We find the most sublime friendships illuminated in the lives of many saints. I shall limit myself to two: St. Augustine, referring to the depth of his affection for Nebridius ("dulcis amicus meus" book 9, ch. 3 of the "Confessions") invites us to compare this sublime bond with the one that the teenaged Augustine experienced with a young friend in his home town, and which was brutally ruptured by the latter's death.
It made Augustine's heart "black with grief." ("Confessions" book 4, ch. 4) His grief was so deep that no words could adequately express his despair: he missed one single person and the world was in total darkness. This experience was never forgotten by Augustine and helped him perceive the madness of loving creatures, forgetting that they are but creatures. "O dementiam nescientem diligere homines humaniter." (book 4, ch. 7) This taste of an inappropriate attachment, as always in Augustine, was going to bear fruits and enrich his understanding the nature of true friendship. It is typical of saints that whatever they have experienced, good or evil, is baptized and enriches their lives. How tragic that many of us willingly deprived themselves of the most beautiful experiences because we refuse to learn to truly love. Yet the madness that Augustine experienced potentially threatens all of us. The pagan cure offered by Buddha is, to my mind a very sad one: not to give one's heart to anybody. "He who has one hundred loves, has one hundred sorrows; he who has fifty loves, has fifty sorrows; he who has one love, has one sorrow. He who does not love is free from sorrow." What a very sad, truly tragic solution: not to love anybody or anything – that is to eliminate the heart and totally depersonalize the human person.
As always, my experiences in the classroom have taught me so much that I cannot help but wish that my teaching had been as enriching to my students as their errors have enriched my mind. I recall one student, while taking my course on ethics, proudly declared herself to be both an atheist and a relativist, made a point of objecting loudly to anything I said. She was clearly allergic to the notion of conscience, this mysterious voice chiding us when we did something wrong. She was one of these students who enters the classroom with the firm intention of teaching the course herself and whose presence gives their teachers a taste of purgatory, and possibly teaches them patience. One day after class, she rushed to my office, and started sobbing. When she calmed down a bit she told me that she was fighting against despair: her little dog had died. How typically tragic: she who had systematically opposed the existence of anything intrinsically good and true had, through her love for an animal, tacitly acknowledged that there are things worth loving. I forgot what I told her, but obviously I seized this opportunity in invite her to re-examine her philosophy. I once heard an elderly woman proclaiming that she never loved anybody in her life except her dog; "The only one who had been faithful to me!"