Francis de Sales had a great love of friendship. He recognized the need for healthy friendships for people to grow in their spiritual lives. Francis relied on friendship for his own growth; we see this reflected in the numerous letters he wrote to his spiritual directees and other friends. In the end of his discussion on friendship in the Introduction to the Devout Life, Francis quotes one of the most famous Biblical statements on friendship, “He who fears God shall likewise have a good friendship” (Sir 6:17).
The late Fr. Anthony Ceresko, OSFS, explored Sirach’s understanding of friendship in an attempt to expand our notion of what friendship can mean for people who try to live Salesian spirituality and Catholic social teaching today. One of the most difficult things about work for justice in today’s world is that it is often a thankless task. These efforts can only be sustained if we have healthy friendships with people who share a common vision for humanity and all of creation, because there will inevitably be resistance from some people to our work.
As I have noted at other times on this blog, some people criticize Salesian spirituality for being too “soft” on social justice or for being too individual centered. By his reflections on the meaning of friendship in Sirach, Ceresko also wants to expand our understanding of friendship in the writings of Francis de Sales, seeing that friendship is not something that affects only two people who are friends, but can expand to affect more and more people for the better. Ceresko writes:
“With our modern, over-psychologized notion of “person” today, we too often misunderstand Francis and overlook this social commitment implied in his writings. This modern, over-psychologized understanding of “person” stresses the individual, unique and isolated, focused on the self and interior life, unrelated to the world and the persons around us. This isolated “self”-centered definition of person is in contrast to the relational notion of person as understood by the world of Francis. The challenge for us today, then, is to develop and make more explicit the “social commitment” implied in Francis’ discussion of friendship.”[i]
Ceresko attempts to make this social commitment more explicit through the examination of the Scriptural text Francis uses in his reflection on friendship. The Hebrew word for friend is ’oheb, which comes from the root ’hb, which means “to love.” Ceresko notes that instead of referring to the range of meanings we associate with love in English, the root in Hebrew “includes connotations of political loyalty and covenantal obligations.”[ii] Thus, in order to understand what it means to love or to be a friend for Sirach, we also have to understand the covenantal obligations for the Jewish people at the time Sirach was writing (ca. 180 BCE).
Ceresko explores the historical context of Sirach’s writing in light of the people’s covenantal obligations, noting, “A key element in Israel’s covenant with God was the social and especially economic arrangements within their community. Their commitment to God included the commitment to help and support one another, especially in times of economic distress.”[iii] Thus, love for God was something that demanded a concern for one’s neighbors, especially for neighbors who were in financial straits. In the time Sirach wrote, the Jewish people were under the power of Greek kings who levied heavy taxes on the people. These taxes put many people in precarious financial situations. With this understanding of the situation at the time Sirach wrote his book, Ceresko makes this observation on Sirach’s purpose in his discussion of friendship:
“It is against this background that we can understand the stress on “relationships,” including friendship, in the book of Sirach. The author has a keen interest in fostering and strengthening relationships. It represents part of his strategy to counter the damage done to relationships and family support networks caused by the exploitative economic measures imposed by the Hellenistic kings.”[iv]
Ceresko does not suggest that Francis de Sales had this background in mind when he wrote the Introduction to the Devout Life or anything else on the topic of friendship. However, the background does give us an alternative way to approach the texts of Francis de Sales from the perspective of one Biblical author in a way that can open up new possibilities for us to spread Salesian spirituality today. We too live in a time when the damage done to relationships and families throughout the world as a result of exploitative economic measures makes authentic friendships more difficult. Nevertheless, the challenge to people who follow Christ today is to be united in friendship in a way that allows the love of friends to overflow into love of all people, especially those who are most vulnerable and are most affected by exploitative economic and social policies. Ceresko concludes his article with a sound test for true friendship today, “An important dimension of our personal friendships should include a common commitment, along with our friends, to solidarity with our neighbor in need. Such would be the touchstone and test of true friendship for the follower of Christ today.”[v]
In the picture above, Br. Mickey portrays the friends Francis and Jane as having one heart, with the Eucharist at the center of the heart. This painting is a beautiful image of what friendship can be like for Christians today: two people sharing one heart, aflame for justice, with their lives always centered on the Eucharist.
[i] Anthony Ceresko, “Sirach and St. Francis de Sales on Friendship: Solidarity and the Struggle for Liberation,” in idem., St. Francis de Sales de Sales and the Bible (Bangalore, India: SFS Publications, 2005) 107.
[ii] Ibid., 98.
[iii] Ibid., 101.
[iv] Ibid., 103.
[v] Ibid., 108.