In my own faith journey, I continually find this actually a rather strange, startling summons. Jesus’ friendship is an unmerited grace-filled gift, which is desirable, but it also demands something of me, which is a bit frightening. On a day-to-day basis, nothing gives me, or most people I imagine, greater joy than faithful friendships. If we Christians lack Gospel joy, it goes to show among other things, that we are not heeding the call to be faithful friends of Jesus.
Rediscovering friendship as a calling has challenged my paradigm for discerning my personal vocation. Friendship shapes both the context and content of my choices. Let me try to explain what I mean. A culture of friendship is an indispensable context for discerning a vocation. Faithful friends often know us better than we know ourselves. They help us discern our gifts, weaknesses, and purpose, and then encourage or challenge us to act in a way we couldn’t or wouldn’t on our own.
Like the spiritual life in general, friendships are very often difficult to navigate. This is not because the path ahead is overly complicated, but because the next step usually lies in the darkness of the unknown. Friends who know our hearts invite us to step into the vulnerability with courage and bring our darkness into light. One example in my life is the young adult group I attend, the Baltimore Frassati Fellowship. We don’t focus on multiplying social activities, which too easily becomes another way to fill rather than sanctify our time. The Church teaches us to share each other’s time, not compete for it. We focus on cultivating an atmosphere of trust and virtue that counterbalances the typically transitory and fast-paced “young adult” phase of life. Our events are rather ordinary, but they are consistent and dependable: weekly adoration, regular service opportunities, and a larger monthly Holy Hour and social.
Pretty soon, we all have to make decisions (something I’m bad at), so friendship also determines the content of our vocation. Paraphrasing John Henry Newman, each of us is called to some definite and unique vocation, which is centered in some specific friendship(s) (Meditations on Christian Doctrine, I.2).
Here is a question to pray with: What kind of friendship am I called to, and with whom?
I wasn’t always used to thinking about different “kinds” of friendships, so one helpful question I learned to ask while in seminary concerned the call to exclusive or inclusive friendships. Am I called to befriend one person like no other (marriage), to show no partiality and be a special part of many lives (religious life), or some other group? Moreover, since there is no greater love than “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” (John 15:13), friendship is also intrinsically sacrificial. Another form of the question is: Who is God calling me to daily lay down my life for: a spouse and children or on the altar of Eucharistic sacrifice?
That’s what makes so special the radical witness of someone like Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche. Vanier felt called to leave behind an academic career to form a small community with persons with developmental disabilities where they could share their lives in faith and friendship. After 50 years, his original calling continues to grow and inspire others to embrace the joy, virtue, sacrifice, and particularity our friendships in Christ are meant to take.
As part of the universal call to holiness though, evangelization involves going out and befriending others and inviting them to become friends of Jesus. Friendship, though it takes different forms, is an apostolate all are called to.