Sin and a lack of friendship
Sin is nothing new to the world; since our first parents fell from the state of paradise sin and its effects have plagued us in our persons, our families, and nations. It is clear that we are mired in sin. It seems like each day we hear of another shooting, another bombing, or another case of sexual abuse. In our culture violence surrounds us. And these are just the things that the world still sees as evil – not a totally accurate encompassing reflection of what is actually evil within the cultural milieu of our day. Relatively uncommon 50-60 years ago, divorce has become almost passé within our cultural landscape. Broken families and the broken hearts that are commensurate with them are now the norm, not the exception.
As is pornography – one 2009 study shows that that over 50% of college-aged men were first exposed to porn before their teenage years, and in 2007 a study indicated that 21% of the same cohort watch porn on a daily basis. Life is disregarded daily in what St. John Paul II called the “culture of death.” Abortion, while not rising per capita much as it once, thanks in part to the tireless work of the Pro-life movement, destroys millions of unborn lives each year around, not to mention its severe effect on the mothers and fathers, families and nations that these children never meet. We see the consequences of this rapid decline in our culture in the form of the violence that we seem to hear about each day in the news. Rampant within our increasingly globalized society, is a disregard for ethics, morality, friendship, trust, and honor.
Worse than the fact that we allow these things to happen in our culture, we permit the conditions to exist that perpetuate a downward spiraling culture. Many, though not all, will acknowledge that the above are issues within the cultural landscape. However, in the face of these substantial problems, men and women, guided by a philosophy that tolerance and individual freedom are the highest goods, are unable to make a substantial case why, as a culture, we need to change.
The standard of what is good, true, and beautiful has been lost in our culture. Faced with a rejection of the meta-narratives that provide some structure to life, the (post-)postmodern man has little to strive for which cannot be quickly toppled and replaced by another idol. In the repeated destruction and replacement of his idol, man understandably becomes worn and weary of striving at all, and ultimately despite his best intentions is doomed to cynicism about all life. Man has reached the point, unknowingly, of the writer of Ecclesiastes, who writes, “Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth, vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!”
The Fathers offer something that is sorely needed in our culture of sinful malaise, apathy, and cynicism; they offer the example of friendship, more specifically friendship with Christ, who calls us to not be content with our lack of desire for the truth, goodness, and beauty, but to trust in the Father’s unique, and individual love for each of us, and to let ourselves be transformed by it. Their message is not their own, but rather that of Christ, who in the words of Vatican II, “fully reveals man to himself and makes clear his most high calling.” In response to the meaningless now swirling around us, we do well to remember the words of St. Irenaeus, who writes, “Life in man is the glory of God; the life of man is the vision of God.” What he means by this is that God, who is our ultimate friend works for our good because our lives are meant to bring him glory through our pursuit of friendship with himself through Christ. The Fathers provide stunning examples of how God uses human friendship as an instrument for calling us to friendship with him.
An Example of Great Friendship
In examining the theme of friendship within Fathers, I would like to point out, just one example, which serves to illustrate friendship rooted in Christ. Let us examine then an example between two Christian friends: St. Basil the Great, Bishop of Cæsarea in Cappadocia (329-379 AD) and Gregory of Nazianzus (329?- 390). The source of our knowledge is Gregory’s funeral oration for his late friend Basil, in which he gives a beautiful account of their friendship.
Basil and Gregory first met, while studying together at, “the school of rhetors in Caesarea.” Both of these remarkable men came from Christian families, whose ancestors had been persecuted in the past, but who had now assumed a place of prominence, in society, and both eagerly received the education they were offered and as they matured saw it, like so many of the fathers, as an aid to their Christian lives. They saw the value of education not only in religious things but also in culture, history, and most especially philosophy. Gregory explicates this point in another passage from his eulogy for Basil:
“I take it as admitted by men of sense, that the first of our advantages is education; and not only this our more noble form of it, which disregards rhetorical ornaments and glory, and holds to salvation, and beauty in the objects of our contemplation: but even that external culture which many Christians ill-judgingly abhor, as treacherous and dangerous, and keeping us afar from God. For as we ought not to neglect the heavens, and earth, and air, and all such things, because some have wrongly seized upon them, and honour God’s works instead of God: but to reap what advantage we can from them for our life and enjoyment, while we avoid their dangers; not raising creation, as foolish men do, in revolt against the Creator, but from the works of nature apprehending the Worker, and, as the divine apostle says, bringing into captivity every thought to Christ: and again, as we know that neither fire, nor food, nor iron, nor any other of the elements, is of itself most useful, or most harmful, except according to the will of those who use it; and as we have compounded healthful drugs from certain of the reptiles; so from secular literature we have received principles of enquiry and speculation, while we have rejected their idolatry, terror, and pit of destruction. Nay, even these have aided us in our religion, by our perception of the contrast between what is worse and what is better, and by gaining strength for our doctrine from the weakness of theirs. We must not then dishonour education, because some men are pleased to do so, but rather suppose such men to be boorish and uneducated, desiring all men to be as they themselves are, in order to hide themselves in the general, and escape the detection of their want of culture.”
In accord with men of their status in that time Basil and Gregory, after a brief separation when Basil studied in Byzantium both arrived in “Athens the home of letters,” a city of great culture and learning. The men would there, embark on further, more advanced studies under the tutelage of some of the most knowledgeable men of the time. More than this, they would forge a friendship that would serve them both for many years to come in their pursuit of virtue. The beginning of this rekindled friendship came about from Gregory’s protection of his friend’s honor from the traditional hazing rituals of the Athenian school. Gregory, “this was the prelude of our friendship. This was the kindling spark of our union: thus we felt the wound of mutual love.” Gregory goes on to describe the blossoming friendship with Basil in these terms:
“And when, as time went on, we acknowledged our mutual affection, and that philosophy was our aim, we were all in all to one another, housemates, messmates, intimates, with one object in life, or an affection for each other ever growing warmer and stronger. Love for bodily attractions, since its objects are fleeting, is as fleeting as the flowers of spring. For the flame cannot survive, when the fuel is exhausted, and departs along with that which kindles it, nor does desire abide, when its incentive wastes away. But love which is godly and under restraint, since its object is stable, not only is more lasting, but, the fuller its vision of beauty grows, the more closely does it bind to itself and to one another the hearts of those whose love has one and the same object. This is the law of our superhuman love. I feel that I am being unduly borne away, and I know not how to enter upon this point, yet I cannot restrain myself from describing it….we advanced under the united influences of God’s grace and our own affection. Oh! How can I mention these things without tears. We were impelled by equal hopes, in a pursuit especially obnoxious to envy, that of letters. Yet envy we knew not, and emulation was of service to us. We struggled, not each to gain the first place for himself, but to yield it to the other; for we made each other’s reputation to be our own. We seemed to have one soul, inhabiting two bodies. And if we must not believe those whose doctrine is “All things are in all”; yet in our case it was worthy of belief, so did we live in and with each other. The sole business of both of us was virtue, and living for the hopes to come, having retired from this world, before our actual departure hence. With a view to this, were directed all our life and actions, under the guidance of the commandment, as we sharpened upon each other our weapons of virtue; and if this is not a great thing for me to say, being a rule and standard to each other, for the distinction between what was right and what was not. …Our most cherished studies were not the most pleasant, but the most excellent; this being one means of forming young minds in a virtuous or vicious mould.”
To our modern ears, such a description of intimate friendship seems very rare, and indeed it is rare in our culture perhaps. For Gregory and Basil’s friendship was not based upon passing pleasures, or usefulness though certainly each found the other’s company pleasant and useful to himself, but rather was one of dedication to an ideal that was above both of them – the pursuit of virtue. Later, Gregory goes on to explain that the pursuit of virtue and learning was motivated by the desire advance in Christian perfection, by all means possible:
“Two ways were known to us, the first of greater value, the second of smaller consequence: the one leading to our sacred buildings and the teachers there, the other to secular instructors. All others we left to those who would pursue them— to feasts, theatres, meetings, banquets. For nothing is in my opinion of value, save that which leads to virtue and to the improvement of its devotees. Different men have different names, derived from their fathers, their families, their pursuits, their exploits: we had but one great business and name— to be and to be called Christians of which we thought more than Gyges of the turning of his ring, if this is not a legend, on which depended his Lydian sovereignty: or than Midas did of the gold through which he perished, in answer to his prayer that all he had might turn to gold— another Phrygian legend.”
Within their admirable relationship correction was commonplace, but it was always done in charity, by example, and in a way that pointed towards the higher law. Gregory says of Basil that, “when he was among us, he constantly corrected me in many points, according to the rights of a friend and the still higher law; for I am not ashamed to say this, for he was a standard of virtue to us all” Such is the correct attitude in a true friendship, based on the good of the other and aiding him in reaching salvation.
What made the friendship of Gregory and Basil so admirable was that both of them recognized that its end laid outside of either of them and in the pursuit of a higher good, namely, God. Thus, they were able to endure in friendship through disagreement, difficulty, and hardship. Through their friendship both of them were strengthened in their pursuit of virtue and Christ. Because of this strengthening and God’s grace, they were able to serve God’s church faithfully in their lives and have become an example for all Christians even to the present age.
Friendship, the antidote to our lack of virtue
It is this type of friendship that can be an antidote to the poison which is sweeping across our culture; it is by friendships that point to Christ as their object that we will be able as Christians to transform our culture, beginning with ourselves so that we can truly reflect the glory of God. Present-day Christian communities can show, as the Fathers before them, the power of friendship as both an aid to the Christian life and a means of evangelizing those who have not yet met Christ. The Fathers show that a Christian friend should always be a bridge for his friend to Christ, acting as Andrew did in introducing Simon to Christ. Such was the way with the Fathers, who having received the Good News of Christ from another and having chosen to become His disciples, then saw their duty to all they could to engage all those whom they met, Christian and non-Christian alike, on the basis of friendship, so that they could bring Christ to others, and others to Christ. As a labor of love for their neighbors they carried out faithfully this duty, even though it would cost many of them their lives because they had come to be in friendship with Christ. It is because of the formative effect of this friendship that they were able to forgive the executioners, by imitating the Master, crying out for God’s forgiveness on their behalf. In the end, what the Fathers offer us present-day Christians is friendship with Christ and in this, they offer us salvation and give meaning to our lives. Sin will only be eradicated our communities, and in our lives if we turn to Him who is our best friend, both as individuals and as communities, and the Fathers help us do so by inviting us to come with them to Him.
 Ecclesiastes 1:1
 Paul VI, Gaudium Et Spes: The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Vatican City: The Holy See, 1965).24
 Hubertus R. Drobner and William Harmless, The Fathers of the Church : A Comprehensive Introduction, trans. Siegfried S. Schatzmann (Peabody, MA.: Hendrickson Publishers, 2007). 266-269, 283-284
 Gregory of Nazianzus. “Oration 43: Funeral Oration on the Great S. Basil, Bishop of Cæsarea in Cappadocia” Translated by Charles Gordon Browne and James Edward Swallow.From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 7. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1894.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/310243.htm> §11
 Ibid. §14
 Ibid §17
 Ibid. §19-20
 Ibid. §21
 Ibid. §2