I Call You Friends
When sci-fi movies were made many years ago they were quite different than the high tech films we have today. Those older films might even be considered a bit ‘cheesy' in comparison. Many of them had the scene, now thought of as rather cliché, in which the locals would encounter strange creatures from outer space who would (in perfect English) utter the words, “We come in peace.” The plot line would invariably progress to the introduction of some ‘skeptics’ who would decide that these aliens were up to no good, consequently opting to wipe them out, to the dismay of those who had come to know the aliens as friends. The aliens would flee, heading for home somewhere in the stars; in a happier ending they would get away unscathed, and in a less happy outcome no one would escape at all. No matter how antiquated the ‘technology,’ the message for the viewer was almost always the same: while a few people were accepting, there were many who were not as welcoming to the strangers. Simply put, what held the ‘earthlings’ back was distrust based on fear. As corny as those films were in all their string-suspended-spaceship and papier-mâché glory, they were truly onto something. What they revealed was the sinful tendency that we have yet to overcome which is to distrust what we do not understand. And this was exactly what Jesus contended with when His followers were few. He was feared and mistrusted by the leadership of His day, and thus, by those who followed them. But He certainly did come in peace and what He offered was nothing less than love and salvation.
The temptation to distrust and to feel threatened by what we do not understand stems from human weakness, that is, our broken nature. And it is our brokenness which is the venue used by the enemy of human nature in order to make inroads into our spiritual life in an attempt to derail it. This is precisely why we need the Lord so much. We need His wisdom and His grace in order to make choices which do not allow the enemy to chip away at our sense of goodness in order to move us subtly away from God. The enemy will stop at nothing to thwart any progress we are making. This is why it is so important that we learn how to discern what is from God and what is not. To do this we need to know God better, to form a friendship with Him, so that we learn to recognize Him and His handiwork. God is mysterious and way beyond our ability to comprehend; but we can grow in intimacy with Him, we can learn how to observe Him. By reading Scripture we can learn to recognize His mercy, for example, endlessly offered throughout salvation history.
A key to our relationship with God lies in studying His actions as recorded in the Scriptures and in our prayerful interaction with Him. It is not enough to know about Him; we need to know God Himself. While there is a tremendous amount in the Old Testament, in the New Testament, Jesus reveals the Father and the Spirit so that we might understand more about who God is. Therefore, let us look to a rather startling statement made by Jesus which sheds light on how God desires to relate with us. “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” (John 15:15) While God had always shown His great love and care for His people throughout their history, the intimacy that Jesus implied when He said, “I call you friends” would have amazed His Jewish followers, and for the Gentiles it would have been confusing because the gods they worshipped were not deities to be approached; to audaciously attempt anything even remotely akin to friendship would have been unthinkable. Yet friendship is exactly what God has always desired and it is what He continues to seek in relationship with each one of us.
Although there are many ways to pray with Scripture, let us look to The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola who encourages that we enter into a particular passage as a way to discern how we are called as disciples to respond to God’s call. Our response begins with accepting the call to the intimacy of friendship with Him, and from this relationship, we can then offer friendship to those to whom we minister and for that matter, all those with whom we come into contact.*
An example of one who took this concept of friendship and discipleship to heart is the Jesuit, Fr. Matteo Ricci, (1552-1610) who was missioned to China after his ordination. He was a gifted linguist, and like the great Jesuit missionary who preceded him, St. Francis Xavier, he adapted the dress, language, and culture of the people so that he could evangelize them respectfully. He approached the Chinese people as friends to whom he came in peace and fellowship. He even wrote a book of maxims (on friendship) which he based on Chinese culture, adding a Christian approach to them.** Thus, he took to heart what he learned from the Scriptures he prayed with often, perhaps learning to do so when he made The Spiritual Exercises as a young Jesuit.
Ricci imitated Jesus in viewing others as potential friends when he became a missionary who brought the faith to the people of China. He learned to imitate the priority Jesus demonstrated in bringing His love, mercy, and kindness to others. He recognized that while not everyone is a person to whom we can be intimate in our relationship, we can offer ourselves in friendship through welcoming the stranger, reaching out to the hungry, ill, imprisoned, and lonely, and offering kindness to all. Ricci knew that praying with the gospel reveals that Jesus acts just as the Father acts and that during His ministry Jesus surrounded Himself with men and women to whom He revealed much, but to whom He also listened intently. Thus when a stranger approached, one of a different faith such as a Syro-Phoenician woman or a Roman centurion asking for healing; when a leper was near, when a prostitute was about to be punished, or when a rich man climbed a tree to get closer, Jesus not only listened to their words, but He invited them into an intimate friendship based on mercy, kindness, and love. He did not condone their behaviors, but He met them where they were: He showed them what they needed to avoid, offered the graces they needed for change, and loved them just as they were, with all their faults and failings. And these are all characteristics of discipleship which Ricci put into practice during his ministry.
Jesus calls us all to this radical friendship because He truly loves us. But as in all things spiritual, true prayer, and thus our response to God, always leads us outward to action. Therefore, our loving response to Him becomes the basis of how we relate to others. Jesus taught us to treat our neighbors, friends and enemies alike, with the same respect, mercy, and forgiveness. However, He knows better than any of us what the betrayal of a friend can be like. He did not advocate that we allow people to abuse us and He was clear that there are times when the greater act of love is to walk away. But in all, friendship means that we accept the other just as they are, aware of their weakness (and our own), and that we forgive liberally. But let us remember that we need to apply prayerful discernment. It would be naïve to expect everyone to respond in friendship; evil does exist and the enemy does seek to do harm through the tactics of ‘divide and conquer,’ mistrust, hatred, doubt, and fear. Therefore, we always need to test the actions and attributes of a person or group in order to ascertain their consistency with gospel values and whether they lead us closer to or away from God. There will be trial and error, but the more we grow in friendship with God through prayer, the more we will grow in our trust of His Holy Spirit and therefore in our discernment. Thus, we will become better disciples in offering the sincere welcome of friendship to others.
Whether or not we should return to a few of those old sci-fi movies to observe human nature at its best and worst, I do not know, although it might be fun. But let’s not forget to immerse ourselves in the gospels and take it to heart that Jesus, Emmanuel (God-with-us) and Prince of Peace, calls us “friend.” Therefore, as friends and disciples, through our prayer and discernment, let us trust that He will lead us in our own efforts to welcome the stranger and give what we can to the downtrodden, not to force people into compliance with our will, but to offer a home within the heart of our church communities and into the Body of Christ where all are welcome and all are loved.
May we ask the intercession of St. Ignatius Loyola, St. Francis Xavier and all the holy men and women who went before us as friends, guides, and missionaries of love! May we imitate Matteo Ricci in responding to God’s unique call to put everything at His disposal, offering friendship to the people we encounter! May we study and pray with the Scriptures so that we might know, serve, and love God better! May we open our hearts wide, accepting the invitation the Lord extends so that we might develop the intimate friendship He desires! May we move outward in peace and love to our neighbors, including the stranger! May we pray to the Holy Spirit that we might discern wisely and learn how to be true disciples of Jesus Christ! Let us continue to meet in the heart of Jesus, our friend and our Lord! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
Notes: Next entry, September 23.
*In The Spiritual Exercises this is experienced in the exercise, The Call of the King, (paragraphs 91-94) at the end of the First Week, and then also in the Second week as discipleship is explored.
**The book is called On Friendship: One Hundred Maxims for a Chinese Prince by Matteo Ricci, SJ, introduction by Timothy Billings. Ricci based his writing on the Chinese understanding of the essence of friendship as taught by the Ming debating societies. Billings discusses this in his lengthy introduction of the book.
If you would like to read more on friendship in an Ignatian context, go to the Archives listed on the right side of this page and click on March 2014; then scroll down to my entry for March 9, titled Friendship and Lent. You can also click on this link: https://www.catanesesd.com/micheles-blog/friendship-and-lent
The entry is about Servant of God Fr. Egide Van Broeckhoven, SJ. He valued friendship so greatly that he devoted his ministry to working in factories in order to minister as a friend to his co-workers. He was a remarkable man who died at the age of 34 as the result of an industrial accident. Most notable is that he considered friendship to be his vocation.
1. Photo taken by Hubble Telescope: I chose this photo of the stars and galaxies because it seemed appropriate to the start of this entry.
2. My photo, taken while hiking: I chose this rather bleak photo as a symbol of our brokenness, but there is also a hint of life amidst the dead leaves. You can see the mossy growth intertwined with the branches on the left if you look closely.
3. The Galilean Jesus, by Fr. William Hart McNichols: This is the way I envision Jesus meeting with disciples and saying, "I call you friends." He is the ultimate friend. You can find this image at https://fineartamerica.com/featured/the-galilean-jesus-266-william-hart-mcnichols.html
4. Painting of Matteo Ricci, SJ: I liked the bright colors in this painting, to be honest, so that is why I chose it. However, I also liked it because behind him is an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary, holding the child Jesus. Thus, the painting depicts the Chinese culture, but also that Ricci was evangelizing, bringing Christianity to the people with whom he lived. For more on Matteo Ricci go to https://www.ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-voices/16th-and-17th-century-ignatian-voices/matteo-ricci-sj/
5. My photo taken at a festival in Natchidoches, TX: This seemed to capture friendship in the sense that there were people having a good time at a street festival. Friends enjoy shared fun as well as the more serious parts of life.
6. Icon, Santo Toribio Romo Y Gonzalez, by Fr. William Hart McNichols: St. Toribio (1900-1928) was not a Jesuit, to be clear, but I chose this icon of him because he gave his life as a martyr for his faith during the Cristero Wars in Mexico. He acted as a friend to many, trying to help them escape the government death squads who were trying to wipe out Christianity at the time. He is a patron saint of immigrants. You can find this icon at https://fineartamerica.com/featured/-santo-toribio-romo-y-gonzalez-patron-of-immigrants-277-william-hart-mcnichols.html
7. Starry Night, painted by Vincent van Gogh: Van Gogh is one of my favorite artists, so I knew that if I was using the idea of visitors from the stars as an example, I had to include this painting.
8. Jesuit Triptych, (Saint Peter Faber, St. Ignatius Loyola, and St. Francis Xavier), by Fr. William Hart McNichols: Each of the panels can stand alone. They are: Saint Peter Faber Inspired by the Holy Spirit, St. Ignatius Amidst the Stars and St. Francis Xavier Adoring Jesus the Mother Pelican. I chose this triptych as an example of friendship. These were the first Jesuits, friends who under the leadership of St. Ignatius, formed the nucleus of the religious order known today as the Society of Jesus. If you are interested in this triptych of icons or any other work by Fr. Bill McNichols, go to at https://fineartamerica.com/featured/jesuit-triptych-st-peter-faber-st-ignatius-st-francis-xavier-william-hart-mcnichols.html
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Heart Speaks to Heart