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January 21, 2016

Creating Endearing Friendships

Chi dorme con cani se leve con le pulci[i]
Eugene Hemrick

The quotation above is one of the first wise maxims learned in our home. It translates, "He who sleeps with dogs awakes with fleas."

In our neighborhood, rowdy gangs roamed the alleys, used fowl language, smoked and swore. My parents were forever reminding me, "Seek respectful friends who stand for values!" This didn't imply being snobbish, but rather finding friends who could lift you up intellectually and morally.

When we speak of friendship, what defines it best?

Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero states friendship is "mutual harmony in affairs human and divine coupled with benevolence and charity."[ii]

Cicero's definition may sound philosophical, a closer look at it, however, reveals down-to-earth principles leading to goodness. The charity of which he speaks is a heart-felt desire to do acts of goodness. Benevolence, on the other hand, moves us from desire into action.

As enlightening as is Cicero, I believe the primary virtue of friendship lies in promoting the well-being of another; it is here where charity's affection of the heart and benevolence come together.

How does promoting another translate into everyday life?

In the letter to the Romans, St. Paul states; "Each should please his neighbor so as to do him good by building up his spirit." In stating this, Paul points us to the essence of friendship: bolstering the spirit of another. Among other things, this can translate into concern for a friend's religious faith, well-being, intellectual development, and encouraging him or her to use their talents.

During World War II, we lived in a time of food stamps. I was just a child then, but I can still remember the religious lesson my grandparents and mother taught me at our kitchen table, "Gini, don't forget to say your prayers before eating. Many people are not as fortunate as we are."

The admonition wasn't a great theological treatise, but oh what it taught me about our faith. As Christ's life revolved around concern for others, so too, should our life. To this day, I feel the pain of people in warring countries and pray for their well-being. Thanks to a simple lesson learned at the dinner table, I am still practicing one of my first religion lessons. My grandparents were forever promoting my faith!

I can also remember my mother imploring me, "You need to eat properly if you are to grow up strong!" "Put on your hat or you will catch a cold!" "Don't cross the street until the light turns green!" And, too, she would cook simple delicious Italian dinners and urge me, "Mangia bene [eat well], you are a growing boy and need all the strength you can get." She was forever fostering good health.

Not only did my parents and friends promote my health, they also desired I become cultured and emphasized learning music as one means for achieving this. In school, teachers stressed knowing other languages in order to be better rounded.

The philosopher Plato states, "Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything." [iii] I don't think my parents were thinking of Plato when they encouraged me to play the violin. I do know they wanted the best for me that would "enthrall me with charm and gaiety of life."

Thanks to teachers who emphasized learning foreign languages, I traveled to various European countries and spoke their language. This in turn broadened my education and introduced me to life-long friends from various cultures around the world. It is also one reason I am at ease with and enjoy our growing multicultural country.

In my first assignment as a priest, my pastor was forever promoting my well-fare. His repeated advice to me was, "Gino, continue to pursue your education; no one can take it away from you once you have it!" He not only encouraged me to pursue my studies, but paid for them. I believe his appreciation of a good education was based on his awe of Cardinal John Henry Newman.

In his book The Idea of a University. Newman wrote,

"It is the education which gives a man a clear conscious view of his own opinions and judgments, a truth in developing them, an eloquence in expressing them, and a force in urging them. It teaches him to see things as they are, to go right to the point, to disentangle a skein of thought, to detect what is sophistical, and to discard what is irrelevant. It prepares him to fill any post with credit, and to master any subject with facility. It shows him how to accommodate himself to others, how to throw himself into their state of mind, how to bring before them his own, how to influence them, how to come to an understanding with them, how to bear with them. He is at home in any society, he has common ground with every class; he knows when to speak and when to be silent; he is able to converse, he is able to listen; he can ask a question pertinently, and gain a lesson seasonably, when he has nothing to impart himself; he is every ready, yet never in the way; he is a pleasant companion, and a comrade you can depend upon; he knows when to be serious and when to trifle, and he has a sure tact which enables him to trifle with gracefulness and to be serious with effect." [iv]

Newman's reflection on the importance of education is truly inspirational. Not only did it inspire my pastor, but he passed on that inspiration to me; in doing so, he helped a young priest get off to a wonderful start in his ministry.

I would never have written and accomplished the things I did were it not for friends who believed in my talents. One priest friend with whom I worked at the Bishops' Conference in Washington, D.C. was forever encouraging me to write. Thanks to him, I am a life-long writer and enjoy it as a hobby that fills me with a continuous diet of fresh ideas.

Call it a competitive spirit, pride or just jealousy; more often than not we don't like anyone getting ahead of us. True friendship, however, is the direct opposite of this: it takes joy in creating rising stars, and is happiest standing off stage taking pride in the success of a friend as he or she takes their bows.

In addition to promoting another's faith, well-being, education and talents, what else nourishes true friendship?

To answer this, we need only to reflect on friends who called us or who wrote to learn how we were doing in difficult times. Not only did they think about us, but they phoned, wrote and personally visited us, exemplifying friendship consists in enlisting the most personal means available for conveying heart-felt concern! They were benevolence par excellence!

The role of giving gifts is crucial to friendship. It's not the gift, but the meaning behind it, leading to the principle: a heartfelt gift is friendship taking joy in giving joy to a friend. My library is filled with books that are gifts from friends. Every time I open one it re-enkindles my love of them. My kitchen contains cooking utensils my brother and his wife gave me. Napkins, place mats and dishes in my cupboard are from a friend with whom I worked. Three beautiful prints adorning my dinning room are gifts from my sisters who are forever embellishing my apartment. These gifts were given from the heart, and when this happens we have hearts touching hearts, which is the heart of friendship.

Friendship has a side we seldom consider: fraternal correction. I often think of my mother hitting us over the head with a broom when we got out of order and telling us, "Someday, you will thank me for the lessons this teaches you! This is tough love!" To which my brother and I would say, "If you keep hitting us, we won't live to see that day."

During my schooling, we had strict teachers and pushovers. I will never forget our Greek professor giving us a test every day. He would tell us, "Don't consider these tests work; they are opportunities." At the time, we didn't think much of his advice. Although his classes were tough, they were driven by a tough love that said, "I am putting myself out for you so you will learn well." He taught us well, we learned well and to this day I still use my Greek because of the wonderful foundation he gave us.

Interestingly, in St. Thomas Aquinas' schema of love, fraternal correction is one of its essential qualities.

As we can see, true friendship and all that goes into it is precious. But like anything precious it can be lost. What might be a sound principle to practice to guard against its demise? William Penn gives us our answer in stating; "There can be no friendship where there is no freedom."[v]

Friendship requires giving a person room to be who she or he is! In German we have the word Ehrfrucht. It consists of two meanings: being in awe of another and maintaining reverential space between another and our self.

Most marriage breakups I have experienced are caused by one or other spouse not respecting the space of the other. When this occurs, ill disposition sets in resulting in unkindness. Suddenly stinging remarks fly through the air, or partners become deadly silent and no longer talk to each other. As one wise elder once told me, "In marriage you must learn how to live together, and also how to live apart from each other."

This wise lesson is at the heart of many lasting marriages. Space is precious glue for keeping together an enduring friendship.

There's the saying, "If you end up with one good friend at the end of your life, you are truly blessed!" It is a lesson in treasuring friendships because friends don't live forever. When suddenly we realize they are gone, there is a dreadful feeling friendship has gone out of our life.

As difficult as it is to lose a life-long friend, the spirit of friendship we enjoyed can still live within us brightly. How is this so? It is because friendship is always at the tip of our fingers. All we need do is reach out and touch it. A warm sense of friendship may touch us unexpectedly from a heartfelt greeting of a neighbor we hardly know. It can be enkindled in a nursing home by the beautiful smile of a caring person. It can be felt on public transportation when a stranger's warm eyes greet us although no words are spoken. As long as we desire the warmth of friendship we can find it. Equally true, the more outgoing and friendly we are, the more the probability we will never be without friends.

A Benedictine friend points us to the ultimate friendship we will never lose. "I make it a practice throughout the day to remind myself I am in the presence of God", he confided in me. As he said this, it brought back memories of my favorite Italian proverb; "La provvidenza di Dio non manca mai,": "The providence of God never fails us." It reminds us God is presence at every moment of our life, encouraging us to have friend-to-friend talks with our Creator and to never feel alone.

Even though Cicero wasn't a Christian, we have to wonder if in stating friendship is a harmony of human and divine affairs, he was reminding us not to forget God's divine friendship.