One of the richest experiences of grace that we can have this side of eternity is the experience of friendship.

Dictionaries define friendship as a relationship of mutual affection, a bond richer than mere association. They then go on to link friendship to a number of words: kindness, love, sympathy, empathy, honesty, altruism, loyalty, understanding, compassion, comfort and (not least) trust. Friends, the dictionaries assert, enjoy each other’s company, express their feelings to each other and make mistakes without fear of judgment from the other.

That basically covers things, but to grasp the real grace in friendship a number of things inside that definition need explication.

First, as the Greek Stoics affirmed and as is evident in the Christian spirituality, true friendship is only possible among people who are practising virtue. A gang is not a circle of friendship, nor are many ideological circles. Why? Because friendship needs to bring grace and grace is only found in virtue.

Next, friendship is more than merely human, though it is wonderfully human. When it is genuine, friendship is nothing less than a participation in the flow of life and love that’s inside of God. Scripture tells us that God is love, but the word it uses for love in this case is the Greek word agape, a term which might be rendered as “family”, “community” or “the sharing of life”. Hence the famous text “God is love” might be transliterated to read: God is family, God is community, God is shared existence, and whoever shares his or her existence inside of community and friendship is participating in the very flow of life and love that is inside the Trinity.

But this isn’t always true. Friendship and family can take different forms. Parker Palmer, the contemporary Quaker writer, submits: “If you come here faithfully, you bring great blessing.” Conversely, the great Sufi mystic Rumi writes: “If you are here unfaithfully, you bring great harm.” Family and community can bring grace or block it. Our circle can be one of love and grace, or it can be one of hatred and sin. Only the former merits the name friendship. Friendship, says St Augustine, is the beauty of the soul.

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