According to St. Thomas Aquinas, “There is nothing on this earth more to be prized than true friendship.”
Many people say they have lots of friends. But how many are true friends? And what does St. Thomas mean by true friendship?
“True friends are an irreplaceable aid to one another in living out the Christian vocation, most of all because they encourage and inspire one another to become better,” says John Cuddeback of Christendom College, who is the author of True Friendship: Where Virtue Becomes Happiness (Epic Publishing, new edition, 2010).
A true friend, he says, will encourage and inspire us to be good and lead virtuous lives.
Cuddeback explains: “To help another toward virtue, we have to be virtuous. You are only capable of true friendship to the extent you are virtuous.”
This insight into the connection between friendship and virtue comes from Aristotle.
Cuddeback also notes that true friends strive “to be truly unselfish, to look for the good of the other person and work for their good.”
Working for others’ good ultimately leads to happiness.
“True friendship, properly practiced and understood, is a path that can lead us to true happiness — happiness not the way we use it nowadays, but in the classical sense of the word — fulfillment of one’s nature,” says John Millard, director of the pre-theology program at the Blessed John XXIII Seminary in Weston, Mass., who used the previous edition of Cuddeback’s book in his philosophy classes at a different Catholic college.
“In true friendship, as in true love, what we care about is the other person’s fulfillment as a creature of God,” Millard explains. “A true friendship is one of the main benefits of living a Christian life.”
Among the major benefits: True human friendship enhances our understanding of friendship with God and is the natural preparation for entering into our ultimate vocation of friendship with Christ, explains Cuddeback.
“The art of being a true friend helps us to be able to live in friendship with Christ,” he says. “When in John 15:15 Our Lord says, ‘Now I call you friends,’ if we haven’t experienced true friendship, what does that mean to us? If our notion of friendship is from Facebook, we have a problem. Or if we hang around with people for having a good time, it doesn’t mean much.” But if it’s about living virtue together, he explains, “then Our Lord’s invitation is profoundly meaningful to us.”
There’s a need in today’s social-media world to develop relationships beyond the superficial.
Cuddeback insists the challenges in our technological world — things like Facebook and texting — “are so pervasive and often a negative influence in our relationships. They tend to replace deeper and richer forms of communication. They form habits detrimental for true friendship. “Conversation is at the absolute heart of friendship, most especially for deep, rich, higher things. Anyone can have a superficial conversation. But deeper conversation has to be cultivated. There’s something irreplaceable with face-to-face conversation.”
When developing a true friendship, Cuddeback says to seek opportunity for rich conversation.
“Rich conversation means the deeper, the higher, the nobler the things we share in common, the more it unites us,” he observes. It’s not a common interest in sports, news or hobbies — although true friends can have light conversations, too — but in sharing a love of God, of virtue.
Cuddeback stresses: “It’s going into the deepest and most important things in life: the meaning, purpose and goal of life. What is our Christian vocation? What are our responsibilities as parents? As students?”
Cuddeback adds, “Where your heart is — that’s where your conversations are. True friends help us keep our hearts on the most important things.”
Also, true friends need to “have a deeper sense of accountability to one another.”
The assumption we don’t correct but just accept one another isn’t correct, Cuddeback says. “In true friendship,” he says, “there is correction out of love. And it’s not easy to offer fraternal correction.”
All these pointers about true friendship are working for Michael Schmiedicke in Front Royal, Va., in his pursuit of virtue, Christian manhood and fatherhood, and spiritual support.
Despite our busy lives, he has learned “true friendship isn’t just a category of nice extras if you can fit them in. It was essential, and I had to make time in my life for that.”
He now gets together with a like-minded friend one evening a week to pray and talk about the good things going on in their lives.
“It has innumerable blessings,” he says, “and is a great bedrock and support for me as father and husband.”
On the spiritual side, he decided to commit to praying in front of the Blessed Sacrament after his friend encouraged him of the benefits.
His better understanding of friendship has also prompted Schmiedicke to make sure “to just pray with my wife Dian and sit and talk with her.”
“Marriage should be a unique instance of true friendship,” Cuddeback notes. “Spousal life lived to its fullness implies living a true friendship.”
Also, for parents, a primary question is: How can I encourage and cultivate true friendship in my children?
“It will make all the difference for their moral life and spiritual life,” says Cuddeback.
“Parents should be true friends to their children,” explains Millard. “In other words, care about the fulfillment of their child’s nature as a human being and about their child’s salvation because true human fulfillment only comes in union with God, who alone can satisfy all of our human urgings. If they love God and understand who God is, and who they are, they will be able to deal with anything. That’s what it means to say friendship is concerned with the well-being of the other person.”
The oldest of Schmiedicke’s four children is 9, and he and his wife are teaching their children how to choose friends wisely.
“It’s so easy to put your own faith and children’s at risk associating with someone who doesn’t want the same things you want,” he cautions. The family associates with families they admire so their children see the same kinds of behavior patterns, ideals, virtues and faith as they see encouraged in their own home.
Cuddeback gives a reminder about our ultimate true friendship — the one with Christ.
“The heart of our relationship with Christ is our prayer life, and the heart of prayer life is knowing how to have deep conversation,” he asserts. If we don’t have that habit of deep conversation, how are we going to know how to pray to Our Lord? Or how to form friendships with the saints?”
Speaking on St. Gertrude in an October 2010 audience, Pope Benedict XVI said that she “shows us that the heart of a happy life, of a true life, is friendship with the Lord Jesus. And this friendship is learned in love for sacred Scripture, in love for the liturgy, in profound faith, in love for Mary, so as to be ever more truly acquainted with God himself and hence with true happiness, which is the goal of our life.”
As Millard concludes: “A true friend helps you to live the right kind of life. True friends, in the words of my wife, help each other get to heaven.”
Register staff writer Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.