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Friendship: What It Is and What It Isn’t

January 14, 2014 by  
Filed under Book Club, Sarah Reinhard

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An Introduction to the Devout Life (Week 9 of 14)

Some will tell you that it is better to have no especial friendships or attachments, that they engross the heart, distract the mind, and foster jealousies; but such are mistaken. They have read in the works of saints and devout writers that individual attachments and excessive friendships are hurtful in the religious life, and imagine it to be the same with the rest of the world, but that is not so. In a well-regulated convent, the general end of all is true devotion, and such individual communication is unnecessary, lest it tend to partiality; but it is needful for those who are in the world, and seek after virtue, to bind themselves together in a holy and sacred friendship, by means of which they encourage, stimulate, and forward one another in doing good. Just as those who journey in the plain do not need assistance from one another, but those who are on steep and slippery paths support each other for security's sake, so those who are professed religious do not require private friendships; but those who are in the world need them, to aid and succor one another in the many evils and dangers which they encounter. (An Introduction to the Devout Life, Part III, Chapter 19, Paragraph II)

Oh, how I remember those days when I knew it all and was always right and didn't need anyone else. Did you ever have those days? For me, they occurred when I was in my 20s, long before I was Catholic, way before I was married, and far before I had any hint of motherhood.

It was a slippery slope I was on, and I had quite a crowd around me, assisting me. If you had asked me, I would have told you that I was enlightened and free. Truthfully, I was blind and chained.

Some of my favorite writing is what de Sales has to say about friendship. While it's clear and beautiful, it also opened my eyes to some of the fallacies of the world around us. What does it mean to be a friend? And what is friendship for?

De Sales points out that friendship is something good and even necessary. Next, he gives some advice about friendship itself and what sort of friends we should have.

…worldly friendship confuses the judgment, and makes people imagine they do well whilst really they are in sin, and induces them to accept all their false excuses and pretexts as substantial reasons. They fear light and love darkness, but holy friendship has a clear light, and does not seek to hide itself, appearing willingly before good men. […] [W]orldly friendship turns to evil, to anger, impurity, jealousy, confusion, irritation; but true friendship is always pure, courteous, and loving, and only changes to a yet more perfect and holy union, which is a lively representation of that blessed love which we shall enjoy in Heaven. (Part III, Chapter 20, Paragraph III)

This is a tall order if you happen to be even slightly extroverted. There's a joy in crowds, a bliss in people, an energy from others. And I suspect that St. Francis observed this time and again.

Then again, when you find that gem of a friend, your “BFF,” you keep them, right? But what if that person is not of the holy mentality? What if…

Let's see what de Sales has to say.

…I do know that our heart draws its breath through the ears, receiving thereby the thoughts of others, which it exhales again by the mouth. Be watchful, therefore, against hearkening to foolish words, else your heart will be infested, and do not fear to be uncivil or rude in rejecting all such. (Part III, Chapter 21, Paragraph I)

He continues and basically says that we have to–brace yourself–cut all ties. No, really. Goodbye, friend. Hello, God.

It's an unthinkable choice in today's culture. Leave my friend for God? Are you serious? Surely I can live my life as a witness and let the Holy Spirit use me as an instrument and…

De Sales is very clear on this. “You must not amuse yourself in unraveling those criminal friendships, you must rend them asunder.” He's not leaving room for any gray here. He's pretty set: those “not good for you” friendships have to go.

Easy for HIM to say. HE is a saint. And I am NOT.

What if I don't even know that a friendship is harmful? Or what if I am the friend who is harmful?

Undoubtedly, I will be. De Sales points out, in Chapter 22, that “scarcely anyone is without his faults.” You have to love your friends despite, and around, their failings, but that love isn't your license to imitate those failings: “friendship, far from requiring us to put on one another's faults, would rather oblige us to strive mutually to overcome all such failings. We must doubtless bear patiently with our friend's faults, but not encourage him in them, still less adopt them ourselves.”

Don't confuse imperfections with sins, though. “True and living friendship cannot exist among sin.” Period. Friendship, says de Sales, can only exist where there is virtue. And sin is not virtue.

I still have days when I think I'm completely self-reliant. I will slam away the offers of help, refuse to respond to charity (or with charity, as the case may be), and flirt with being a Total and Complete Jerk. Thankfully, I have a friend who will set me straight, and she starts by praying for me.

Reading Assignment:

Week 9 Part 3: Chapter 28-35

Discussion Questions:

1. Do you have a trusted and true spiritual friend? Consider how you might intentionally grow closer to God through the gift of this friend. If you don't have such a friend, spend time in prayer this week, asking God to open your heart to seeing that person and accepting their friendship.

2. In what ways can you be a better friend, leading others to God? Who in your life may need a truly God-centered friendship?

Feel free to comment on anything from our assignment this past week!

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About Sarah Reinhard

Sarah Reinhard continues to delight ”and be challenged by” her vocations of Catholic wife and mother. She's online at and is the author of a number of books for families.

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  • LizEst

    Great post! Welcome Sarah!

    Yes, true conversion in our lives means that our friendships will change to be oriented toward, and focused on, the Lord who has no greater love for us as friends than that He laid down His life for us…and Himself calls us friends. Though we don’t always live up to that, Christ, our Friend, is with us always and never abandons us. Blessed be God for the spiritual friendships in my life! Through Him all good things come…including these special and true friendships.

    • Patti Knudsen

      Liz, it’s no wonder we had such a special connection so many years ago! Truly sorry we could not have spent more time together over the years . Glad to know your are still there!

      • LizEst

        I treasure your friendship. I love that, even now, God has given us this token of the joyful reunions we will experience in heaven. God bless you Patti.

  • Patti Knudsen

    It is true! Our closest, most beloved, trusted friends, are those who share our love of God. I have found this to be true over and over again. I have, with the help of the Holy Spirit (although I never gave Him the credit–shame on me!), always been able to quickly identify those who did not share in my love for God and/or my values. Those potential friendships never formed, and although I never gave it much thought until now, I do see that it had to be the Holy Spirit and/or my guardian angel looking out for me. I do remember actually turning away from people who I believed would lead me astray. The most special friends I’ve known always taught me something more about life, and God, and they’ve helped me grow closer to Him. I loved all of St. Francis’s insights in this regard. My dad always said I would be able to count my closest lifetime friends on one hand. He was surely right about that. One of life’s most important lessons.

  • Awesome, awesome post, Sarah! Friendship is tough, especially bc so much of it depends on who you meet! Also, when you first meet people, they are on their best behavior, as are you. You only see the good. But as time passes and you grow closer, you will begin to see your friend as they really are. Are they good, and do they encourage you to be holy? Or do they do nothing but gossip and complain all the long day? Are YOU like that? I struggle with finding friends who try to live holy lives and who encourage me to do the same. Fortunately, I’m happy on my own. But some days, I do think it’d be nice. Still, that motivates me to at least try to be the friend I wish I had when I meet nee people. Maybe someday God will send that person my way.

    • Patti Knudsen

      I think the key to lasting friendships is shared values and love of God, but also affording everyone the independence and privacy they need …even between good friends. Too much intimacy, not physical, but personal, can ruin a good friendship. Friendships can lead to jealousies and envy. Not what God has in mind. For a friendship to last a lifetime, I believe people must give each other respect and space.

      • $1650412

        This is so true- everything must be kept in proper measure for us, and if he can get us to throw any aspect out of kilter, the enemy will- and usually a ‘good’ of some sort will be the tactical maneuver used with generally good people. Only the Lord can fill all our needs and we have to maintain I think what is understood as the virtue of discretion. Certain aspects of every life are private and should remain so- unto the person themselves. Reactions, responses, thoughts, experiences, ideas, etc.- many things belong to the province of the soul alone- access to which the Lord perhaps would prefer to have only for Himself. I am not 100% certain about this- it is my idea about what you are saying here Patti, so I am wondering what everyone else thinks?

        • LizEst

          We see this often in Scripture: Mary pondering things in her heart!

          • $1650412

            I think in our ‘full disclosure’ culture, and in a effort to ‘be known’- (experience the comfort of the fuller flower of love)- we tend to opt for a quick stripping rather than a gentle unveiling- one is timed and guided by God and the other is profane and oriented on instant gratification. I get corrected often by the Holy Spirit in this in an admonishment to have a care for souls. For me this is something I try to pursue in Christian discipline under the ‘tutelage’ if you will, of the Gift of Piety. It’s a real antidote to some of the ills at work in our culture- we regroup in modesty in decorum, direct our thoughts and conversation to those things that are most respectful of the nobility of people (ideally) and encourage one another in faith and confidence in God and His amazing ability to raise the dead and to restore the disordered and disintegrated…But beating back a cherished sin of ‘sharing the scoop’ regularly served up with alot of ‘now, let us judge’, I find myself more knowledgeable about the principles than the execution of the habit of virtue at this point- BUT, it is a beginning. And God loves a strong start, actually ANY start, amen?…. :o)

          • LizEst

            Yes, God loves any start…and He provides the increase, if our start is sincere and sustained. Just like any friend, though He knows what we are made of because He is God, He wants to see that we are in it for the long haul rather than being just a “flash in the pan”.

        • Patti Knudsen

          Jo, I loved your phrase “many things belong to the province of the soul alone” This is exactly what I mean. I think, sometimes, we share our struggles and hurts and pains with other humans…dear friends and family, things that, in the end, we should really only trust to God. We are, in many cases, setting ourselves up for disaster. Though humans can sometimes provide comfort, more often than not, those burdens can prove too much for our friends and family, and can easily be betrayed causing additional anguish. God’s grace is enough for me. I depend on it…and He never fails.

      • MarcAlcan

        I say Amen to that.

    • LizEst

      Diana–There are spiritual friendships formed here on line, too. In fact, I suspect you and Patti would be simpatico!

      Watch out for what is called “spiritual black pride” (I’m not saying you have that, just saying it can sneak up on someone without them knowing it. It’s very subtle). That’s when we become so self-reliant we think we can do without others for any number of reasons. Even God is a relationship of persons and He has created us in His image and likeness.

      Yes, sometimes we do get to meet, in person, those we meet on line. Last year, I met a commenter on this site and fellow student from the Avila institute…and we talked on and on as if we hadn’t seen each other for years and had known each other all our lives. God is good!

  • Vicki

    Thanks for your insight, Sarah! I wonder if Saint Francis de Sales had access to modern surveys (or perhaps just common sense?) that demonstrate that we develop the habits of the five people with whom we spend the most time. We just need to ask ourselves – do we strive to be great saints or great sinners:)? OK, maybe it’s not quite that easy – but with the help of these passages, certainly we can begin to discern whether our friendships are on the “worldly” side.

  • $1650412

    The Lord corrected me one time on a number of levels- (and this correction goes on) about being hospitable in extending the gift of myself more readily to others in spite of the many possibilities that my newfound friends might have to enlighten me in my need to raise the bar on seeking virtue- or in other more practical things like keeping track of matching socks on kids, getting them not to interrupt adult conversations etc. It is TRUE that the treasure in the soul of another is of such inestimable value that to invest in encouraging one another in Christ is a great privilege- and to learn to obey the exhortations from 1 Peter 4:8 and 1 Peter 1:22 to love one another intensely from the heart, will give us that towering strength as living stones building the Church and the Kingdom of God!

  • MarcAlcan


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