In a dictionary friendship is described as "a relationship of mutual regard." That definition is concise and without emotion, and does not convey the rich reality of friendship. True friendship is not just a "relationship", but generous love. Augustine saw friendship as a spiritual relationship between two people. It was based on love, leading each friend to work for the happiness of the other.
Friendship is an image of the love of God for us, according to Augustine, since authentic and generous friendship mirrors the love that Christ showed for us on the Cross, and which He described when teaching that "no greater love can one have than to lay down your life for a friend." (John 15:13). It is a love that does not look for anything in return for the love given, and finds happiness in promoting the interests and happiness of the other. Such a love warms the heart, thrills the mind, and urges the friend to give everything for the other--just as Christ does for us--and leads to happiness in this world while pointing to God, who, Himself, is Love.
Augustine regarded friendship so important and so valuable because he even believed that, of everything that exists in the created world, only true friendship could lead a person to God. As for his assertion that there was no true friendship between him and his concubine of thirteen years, it is worth remembering that educated women were rare in Augustine's milieu of North Africa. For a brilliant and highly educated man like Augustine, true friendship would have required an intellectual aspect that would have been difficult to find with most women of his time.
In the culture of North Africa in the time of Augustine, as was also the case in classical culture before his time, spiritual friendship of this kind would have been restricted to his close male friends. God is at the core of friendship for Augustine. This is evident in his many letters that still exist. In them he openly discussed issues of faith and life with so many people - men and women, young and old - with sincere affection (Confessions, 4, 4, 7; Letters 10, 73; Rule of Augustine 1, 2).
The importance of friendship to Augustine
Few people in human history have lived friendship as intensely as Augustine did. Throughout his life he was a person who could not live without friends: to "love and to be loved was the sweetest thing to me" (Confessions, 3, 1, 1). Augustine stated that there are two things necessary for "life in this world: health and a friend" (Sermon 229, D, 1).
Friendships were for him of supreme importance. He always lived with an attitude of openness to others. Among other things, his Confessions is a history of his friendships, some bad (Confessions, 2, 4, 7-9, 17) and others good although simply human (Confessions, 6, 7, 11-16, 26). Death cut one of these friendships short, leading him to make some of the most acute and subtle observations that have ever been written about the loss of a friend (Confessions, 4, 4, 7-9, 14).
Some of his friendships - like that with Alypius - matured and acquired a different character; they acquired an eternal quality that was founded in his Christian faith. In as far as Augustine came closer to God, his concept and practice of friendship became deeper and deeper. This was especially so even at the point of his converting to the Christian faith, when he thought that the ideal Christian living would be to dwell with his friends in community, having everything in common, and in calm leisure to the study the Bible. (Confessions, 6, 14, 24).
When newly baptised, Augustine came to regard friendship as an intimate and necessary part of his Christian formation and growth. (Even in preparing for baptism, he had done so in the company of his family and friends.) He thought of friendship as a fraternal sharing of life, and now having the goals of seeking God and searching for the knowledge of God and of the innermost soul of an individual. (Monologues, 1, 2, 7; 1, 12, 20)
Later in his life, Augustine continued living this vision of friendship with those who shared community life in the monasteries he founded, and with those who, like himself, were called to be church leaders in North Africa: Alypius, Possidius and Evodius. He maintained to the end of his life his natural clanishness as an African. As a number of his close frriends at Hippo were called by the Church to become bishops of other dioceses, his circle of face-to-face friends grew smaller, and this was one of the great trials of his life.
In Letter 84, he reflected, "But when you yourself begin to have to surrender some of the very dearest and sweetest of those whom you have reared to the needs of churches located far away from you, then you will understand the pangs of longing that stab me on losing the physical presence of friends united to me in the most close and sweet friendship."
Writing at the age of seventy, Augustine echoed the words that the Roman orator, Cicero, had said four centuries earlier about the great happiness and support associated with human friendship: "There is no greater consolation than the sincere loyalty and mutual love of ... true friends" (City of God, 447). God was at the core of friendship for Augustine. This is evident in many of his letters, in which he openly discussed issues of faith and life with so many people - men and women, young and old - with sincere affection (Confessions, 4, 4, 7; Letters 10, 73; Rule 1, 2).
The signs of good friendship
Augustine teaches that "good friends are good for a lot of good, and bad friends are good for a lot of wrong" (Sermon 87, 12)They have at their heart the love of the spirit that is at the centre of the person for that of another, soul for soul (Confessions, 2, 2, 3).
They make two souls one (Confessions, 4, 6, 11).
One must love a friend like oneself (Monologues, 6, 16, 26).
Friendship is "mutual acceptance of all the human and divine in each other" (Against the Academics, 3, 6, 13).
True friendship contributes to the happiness of people (The Happy Life, 1, 5).
It is a precious gift to the life of society (City of God, 19, 8).
It can be described as the lively and personal sharing of all the more noble aspects of life (Confessions, 4, 8, 13).
It demands as an indispensable pre-condition the love of truth, i.e., someone is never a good friend if not sincere (Letter 155, 1).
Friendship can be a key human component in our growth towards God. Of everything that exists in the natural world, Augustine held that only true friendship could lead one to God. He saw friendship as a relationship between two people, one that was based on love, leading each friend to work for the other's happiness. Friendship is an image of the love of God for us, according to Augustine, since authentic and generous friendship mirrors the love that Christ showed for us on the Cross, and which He described teaching that "no greater love can one have than to lay down one's life for one's friend" (John 15:13).
"For what else is friendship but this? It gets its name from love alone, is faithful only in Christ, and in him alone can it be eternal and happy." (Against Two Pelagian Letters 1, 1). "I know that I can safely entrust my thoughts and considerations to those who are aflame with Christian love and have become faithful friends to me. For I am entrusting them not to another human, but to God in whom they dwell and by whom they are who they are." (Letter 73, 3).
The growth of friendship
You do not love your friends if you love them for something that is other than themselves. (Sermon 41, 3).
Not to believe in your friends is to hate them. (Sermon 306, 8).
You love your friends if you hate what hurts or damages them. (Sermon 49, 5).
Love your friends, but do not love any wrong that they may do. (Sermon 49, 6).
One truly loves a friend who loves God in that friend [because it is already the same God who is in him or her] (Sermon 336, 2).
Love an enemy so that a friend be made. (Sermon 299, D, 1).
Bad friendships are deceiving and they make us enemies of God. (Sermon 125, 11).
Those who, for love of a friend, separate themselves from God, are the enemy of both themselves and their friend. (Sermon 299, D, 6).
Augustine placed so much value on friendship that he included it in the list of what is enjoyed in heaven. Indeed, he taught that in heaven we will live with our friends in the presence of God (Sermons 87, 15 and 299 D, 6-7).
For Augustine eternal life will be the perfection of the ideal which he dreamt and sought in his earthly life, i.e., to live with friends, no longer looking for but actually attaining and enjoying forever the presence of God.
Attitudes that flow from true friendship
One cannot have a real capacity for friendship if people are nor preferred to things, including that which you own
We need to "possess things, not to be possessed by them." (The True Religion, 35, 65).
These attitudes promote the capacity for being generous to others, which is essential in friendships.
To love the good more than the friend.
Courage to challenge a friend when he or she wants to lead us downs the wrong road.
To reject what is harmful to a friend, even if it is something that pleases the person.
To love the friends but not his or her shortcomings or bad habits, nor to approve his or her wrong choices.
Not to distance oneself from God for the love of a friend.
The ordered love of a friend.
Love that is not selfish, and not conditional on waiting for something to change.
To love the friend like oneself: all that you want for yourself you should want for a friend.
To love friends in spite of their shortcomings and defects.
Confidential attitude with friends.
Attitude of fidelity regardless of whether or not things are going well, regardless of whether a friend is admired or rejected by others.
The true Christian friendship spreads to the love of God in the friend.
Friendship as leading to God
As Augustine came closer to God, his concept and practice of friendship became deeper and deeper.
As well as offer human support and consolation, Augustine saw friendship as having a spiritual purpose in the plan of God.
He saw it as a way through which people could be drawn closer to God.
In fact, Augustine saw it as a gift from the Holy Spirit.
Particularly interesting is the article by Thomas Smith who notes that Augustine "was the first Christian writer to elaborate a theory of Christian friendship" (p. 372).
In popular culture today, friendship is a neglected topic.
The emphasis is so much on the sexual aspect that any friendship between male and female would appear to be inevitably driven to the point of sexual contact.
In addition, too many friendships remain on the level of the useful or the pleasurable, two of the three categories of friendship described by Aristotle (p. 372).
For Aristotle, "true friendship" is based on the third category, "the good" (p. 372).
Augustine develops and transforms this classical tradition of friendship so that the bond of friendship becomes "the gift of the Holy Spirit through grace" (p. 372).
Friendship merely adds "the notes of attraction and delight to the Christian charity owed to all" (p. 372).
In his article, Smith points out that Augustine even allows for the possibility of thinking of the Holy Spirit as being the friendship of Father and Son (p. 373).
The radical difference between the view of friendship of Augustine and the sexual emphasis dominant in modern culture can be seen in the fact that the celibate and chaste Augustine still strongly valued his friendships to the point of writing in the City of God these words: "What consoles us in this human society so full of errors and hardships, except unfeigned faith and the mutual love of good and true friends?"
If the Holy Spirit is the one who consoles, then it is easy to see that consoling friendship based on the good is a gift from the Holy Spirit.
St Augustine and friendship. “St Augustine believed that in this world two things are essential: life and friendship.” This is a paper by the late Fr Michael Morahan that is uploaded on the Asia-Pacific Augustinian website. http://www.apacweb.org/downloads/129-michael-morahan-osa-st-augustine-and-friendship AN2308