I think it was Margaret Thatcher who said there was no such thing as society. The quote is usually taken out of context but has still come to symbolize the severity of modern individualism, just the sort of thing to send a shiver down the spine of a communitarian (like myself). Now, I think we’re actually becoming pretty conscious of the many drawbacks of the blinkered individualism Thatcher’s comment has come to (mis)represent. The new urbanism might be one example. Churches are another. Many churches have come to realize that nurturing community isn’t just preparation for the real work we do—it is itself an essential part of that work. But for all the doubtless good that comes with this renewed emphasis on community, I do worry that a form of relationship that lies between individualism and communitarianism is being overlooked.
In his little book on spiritual direction Gordon Smith, president of Ambrose U.C. and Seminary, writes: “One of the greatest gifts of God to us is friends. We may actually have relatively few—many will perhaps only have two or three or four friends—who are dearer to us than family, soul mates in the journey of life and faith. These friendships are formed over time; they are the fruit of extended conversations and shared experiences” (78). Having recently moved most of the way across the continent, I am particularly conscious of the truth of Smith’s words.
Smith continues, “[I]n conversation with a friend we have the opportunity to speak about our convictions, our passions and our interior life. We have a safe space to speak about joy and sorrow, fear and discouragement, anger and disappointment. . . . [T]o have a friend is to speak of matters of the heart” (78-9). Smith’s mention here of joy and sorrow is a reference to Ignatius of Loyola’s insight that discernment involves an awareness of our experience of consolation and desolation. The suggestion from Smith, then, is that those good and rare friends can play a valuable role as spiritual companions. So, Smith says, such friends can help us see the working of God in our lives; they can help us discern the best way forward in difficult situations. They can help us trace the tendrils that trail beneath our emotional responses life’s triumphs and defeats.
Friends, then, are one of those wonderful parts of everyday life we often overlook, or at least fail to see as a sign of the Spirit’s presence in the world. No doubt, “what we urgently need to see and feel is the presence of God in the whole of our lives and experiences—in each relationship, in each task we engage, in our leisure and in our play, in our sleep and in our waking. . . . [Hopefully then we will] learn to recognize the value of weeding gardens, and washing dishes, and running errands, and waiting to go through security as we board a flight. [We will] come to see that the presence of God in our lives may not be found solely in a mountaintop experience, but also in the extended train trip, or a season of waiting for the restoration of health—a time when we simply wait and learn to be still” (29).
Friends are also just plain fun, but surely that joy too points to the goodness of God.