Jesus wept. There are many erudite and inspiring interpretations of this, the shortest verse in the St. James Bible (John, 11:35). While giving due respect to exegetical scholars, I find it helpful to reflect on the human side of Rabbi Jesus. As I noted in my essay Jesus and the Fig Tree , the episodes that display Jesus in a fit of pique (the fig tree), or anger (the money changers), or frustration (often with his disciples), or grief (for Lazarus or Jerusalem), give me comforting reassurance that even the most highly evolved among us share our human vulnerabilities. I find it instructive to take these stories at face value, and use them as a springboard for thinking about the wonders and the mysteries of ordinary life. One of the greatest of these wonders is friendship.
I find it very beautiful that Jesus would weep at the death of a friend. Ralph Waldo Emerson observed, “A friend may well be reckoned the masterpiece of nature.” C.S. Lewis, however, offers a cautionary note: “to the Ancients, Friendship seemed the happiest and most fully human of all loves; the crown of life and the school of virtue. The modern world, in comparison, ignores it.” My experience leads me to shy away from this last sentence. I can honestly say that my life’s journey would have have been very different without loving friends to weep with me through the darkness, to laugh with me through crepuscular awakenings, and to dance with me through the light.
Perhaps, however, Lewis is partly correct. During the busiest times of our lives, it seems we only have room for “socializing,” and not for deep friendships. Dinner parties or watching football with some buddies and some beers temper the stresses of modern life, but the respect, comfort, and trust that blossom into the love of friendship calls for discovery and creation, care and nurture. These friends are as rare as they are precious. They are bound to us with hoops of steel, and being with them is an essential part of life.
Still, it seems to me that our friendships, our loves, surround us in concentric circles. My wife and children and grandchildren live in the innermost circle, surrounded by the sisterhood and brotherhood of intimate friends. The next circle is enriched by those souls that we recognize and love for a lifetime. So many men and women from my past, so many students, have taken up permanent residence in a warm place in my heart. I was recently with a friend I hadn’t seen in 20 years. As our eyes met, my heart melted into joyful, trusting love. I could see the same was happening with him. It was a wonder not only to love each other, but to be aware of that love and to rest in its embrace. There are so many people, hundreds perhaps, with whom I share this love in varying degrees. Further still from the center, we can find human solidarity with a waitress or a service person or a person we pass on the street. Martin Buber said that if we listen, we can even hear the call of I/Thou in the voice of a railway conductor.
In subsequent essays, I would like to write about Aristotle’s rich treatment of friendship in his Nicomachean Ethics, which is essentially a treatise on Happiness. As is common with the Greek philosophers, he places the locus of happiness squarely within one’s mind and heart. The one external element, however, that Aristotle deems essential to a happy life–is friendship. He devotes an entire book of his Ethics to the nature and kinds of the friends we find in a lifetime. I would also like to reflect upon the four words in Greek that are all translated as “love.” C.S. Lewis wrote a fascinating short book called “The Four Loves,” and I am eager to rummage around in the minds of these provocative thinkers.
But for today, I simply want to bask in the warmth of friendship. I have always loved these words of Kahlil Gibran:
And let your best be for your friend.
If he must know the ebb of your tide, let him know its flood also.
For what is your friend that you should seek him with hours to kill?
Seek him always with hours to live.
For it is his to fill your need, but not your emptiness.
And in the sweetness of friendship let there be laughter, and sharing of pleasures.
For in the dew of little things the heart finds its morning and is refreshed.