The Apostolate of Friendship

This is the transcript of a talk that I delivered on 8 Jan 2011 in the National University of Singapore (NUS) to a group of students as part of a workshop in preparation for the new semester. I hope that you will take the time to read and be inspired by this.

Water is the very stuff of our bodies. Without it, we shrivel up and die. The slightest of thirst is usually worse than the greatest hunger pangs that we could possibly experience. When I am thirsty, I cannot concentrate nor sit still. My mouth is not the only part of my body that is affected by thirst. Almost the entire body is afflicted when thirst arises. This is probably something that many of us experience when we become very thirsty and are unable to get a drink. Physical thirst for water is enough to drive us crazy.

Love is like water. Who we are – our essence – are like tea leaves. In an empty cup, there is nothing but tea leaves. Yet, when you add hot water – you get tea. Love is what gives us our existence. A tea lover delights in a particular type of tea, he adds hot water into a pot with that kind of tea leaves and tea comes into existence. In the same way, God thinks about us – our strengths and our weaknesses, our hopes and our failures – and delights in the very idea of who we are. And in that delight, He pours out the warmth of His love and loves us into existence. Love is thus the very stuff of our being:

Man cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it. (Pope John Paul II, Redemptor Hominis, 10)

There are two reasons why people commit suicide: One of them is the lost of hope where one ceases to see any meaning or potential for happiness anymore. The other is to be unloved. Like tea, to be unloved is to have its water evaporated away. When we do not feel loved in a group, we tend to fade away from that group. When we do not feel loved in life, we tend to fade away from life. And just as how God loved us into existence, some of us are unloved into oblivion. Man cannot live without love. We need love.

Mother Teresa commented that the greatest poverty that the world faces today is not material poverty but loneliness. In the society which we live in, the people who suffer from material poverty is less as compared to the number of people who suffer from loneliness, from the lack of love. Such poverty is so rampant that even now, there is someone near you silently suffering from the lack of love. We may have friends, but how many friends are we really close to (and I don’t just mean the buddies that you hang out with for fun and laughter)?

Christmas and the New Year are the two days in the year where many gather with their friends and family to celebrate. Yet, those two days are the two days with the highest suicide rates because the loneliness of people who do not have anyone becomes accentuated so greatly that they are unloved to the point of oblivion.

Though we may be surrounded by people in our lives, many of us may still be unloved, unnoticed. It is like being in a crowd. We pass by so many people, yet we notice no one, nor are we noticed. We celebrate with people, but we are not really celebrating it with anyone in particular. Close friendships seem hard to find these days, and true friends are rarer still. Even the family is not spared from this. One may feel like a stranger who does not belong to the home, having been neglected by the ones who should truly love and care for us.

But how did this come about?

We are living in a culture which believes that the pursuit of one’s self-interest will resolve all human matters, and most importantly, matters of the economy. With the rise of technological advancements, our thinking has been shaped by our use of technology, and so we think of things in terms of efficiency and value. The rise of utilitarianism in our culture shapes our outlook of life to value only the things that give rise to utility, to some form of benefit.

And with the lost of God in our culture, love makes no sense. Love is absurd without God. Why should I love you? Do you have anything of value to offer me? If you do, then I may love you. But that really isn’t love. In reality, it is not you that I love: what I love is the benefit that you give. To love someone for who he is, is an absurd idea! Why should I bother loving you if you have nothing to offer me? It makes no sense. It is even crazier to love someone who is unlovable, who instead of providing any utility, burdens us as a liability. Such a love seems senseless.

Shaped by these cultural factors, we end up working very hard to make ourselves loved. If I do not have the looks, or the credentials, or the right people in my social network, I am a nobody, unfit to be loved. If I do not have lots of money, or if I am unable to make myself useful, or if I am unable to stand out as a fun or unique person, I am a nobody, unfit to be loved. We are so in need of love that we become insecure (and sometimes even obsessed) about being loved by others.

And so we determine how loved we are by the number of friends on Facebook, the number of followers on Tumblr, the number of Twitter followers, and maybe, even the kind of friends and the amount of time spent with them. Sometimes, this insecurity compels us to find a partner, somebody whom we can call our boyfriend or girlfriend. How much we love each other is secondary. What is more important is that I have this person to guarantee and make me feel the security of being loved.

But it is important for us to stop in the midst of this mad search for love, so as to ask what love is really about. If I truly care for myself and want the best for myself, shouldn’t I go after true love and true friendships, and not settle for second best as a way of putting my insecurities at ease?

Many of us desire to be loved. We may not be bothered about why someone loves us, and has offered us friendship: but what if one day, you discover that the person is a friend to you only because of what you can do, and not because of who you are? What if you discover that your friends only enjoy hanging out with you only because you crack the best jokes, but apart from that, they do not really like the person that you are? What if you discover that this good friend only loves you for your status and is making use of your status for personal gain?

I don’t mean to make you feel paranoid, but in asking these questions, I hope to demonstrate one thing: We do not like to be used. Deep within ourselves, what we really want is somebody who loves us for who we are, and does not love us only for what we do. What we really want is someone who can love us even when we are unlovable.

This is what love really is. Perhaps the best definition of love is this: to love is to delight in the existence of the other. No reason is needed in order to delight in something or someone. I love you, I delight in you, simply because you are you. I love you for who you are and not for what you do, and even when you are unlovable, I still delight in you because it is you.

If I love you because of the benefits you bring to me, then I am not delighting in you, but rather, I am taking delight in your benefits. When those benefits disappear, I have nothing to delight in, and the friendship ceases. Or, if you become an annoyance that greatly outweighs my delight in your benefits, the friendship ceases too. More often than not, a friendship of this kind reduces the dignity of the person to that of a mere object, into a tool or a toy, since that person is valued based on the benefits.

This allows us to make a distinction between an authentic friendship which delights in the person himself, from a non-authentic friendship which delights in the benefits.

Nonetheless, the beauty of true friendship is this: that a friend is regarded as another self (cf. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book IX). When I love you as a friend, I do not just regard you as a separate being, but as a part of my own being. And so, when I love you, I love you just as how I love myself. This is why the love of one’s self is important, for without it, we will not know how to love others well.

Perhaps one thing that we tend to take for granted in our friendships is this: Just as how I love myself and wish the best for myself so that I may flourish to be the best person possible, I desire you, who are a part of me, to flourish as best as you can, just like me.

Yet the sad part is this: since I have regarded you to be a part of me, a part of my life, a part of my heart, losing you (either because of an unfortunate breakup or through death) becomes a painful experience. It feels as if I have lost a huge part of myself. The heart that was once made whole now experiences a hole within itself.

Such a love of a friend draws us so closely together that our hearts seem to become one. This experience is called communion, where heart speaks to heart. This is where two parties feel as if they have really understood each other, and the friendship ascends to a deeper level. This is perhaps why people say that the best of friends tend to become like each other. And if a misunderstanding were to occur, such that an argument (or even a fight) erupts, we yearn for forgiveness because I consider you to be a part of me that I cannot bare to lose you. I want to be reunited with you once again.

Such is the beauty of an authentic friendship. And yet, God allows us to elevate our friendships to a supernatural level. If we allow God to do it, He will infuse our friendships with divine grace, like infusing jasmine into green tea. The jasmine does not destroy the tea. The tea is still present, but the infusion of the jasmine flowers enhances the tea on every level – its taste, fragrance, and the overall experience of drinking the tea. What God’s grace does to our friendships is that He enables us to love the other as He loves us, transforming the whole experience of friendship to a supernatural level, enabling us to love as God the Father loves the Son, and the Son loves the Father, through the Holy Spirit, and to love as He himself loves us. To experience such supernatural friendships, such supernatural love is to taste the friendship of God, and to savour the sweetness of His love.

God knows that the two most essential elements in a relationship are communion and forgiveness. And so He imparts to us the Sacrament of Communion so that we may first experience God’s communion with us: His heart speaking to our hearts and growing closer to become one of heart; and the Sacrament of Penance to experience His mercy and forgiveness: His loving embrace, and His giving us a fresh new start. In experiencing these human experiences in a divine manner, God imparts to us the graces to love as He loves, to communicate as He communicates, and to forgive as He forgives.

In turn, when we pass this on to our friends by loving them as God loves, they too come to experience the love of God, not by analogy (i.e. it feels like), but actually (i.e. it really is). Through the aid of divine grace, we participate in God’s divine act of loving whenever we love. When I love you, it is not just I who am loving you, God too is loving you. When I communicate with you, it is God too who communicates. When I forgive, it is God too who forgives.

This is precisely the kind of love that each and every single human person seeks deep within himself. We have experienced this kind of divine love when God loved us into existence and put us into the womb of our mothers. When you have tasted the best of the best, everything else will not suffice to satisfy you. Indeed, each of us seek to be loved, but deep in our hearts, we seek to be loved as God has been loving us from the beginning of our existence. This is the reason for our restlessness. Yet, as we are ignorant on how to satisfy this thirst for love, we settle for second best.

Jesus says: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)

It is when we begin to recognise the humanity in the people around us that we cease to treat them as objects. We begin to recognise that these people belong to a family. They have their own dreams and aspirations; their joys and hopes; their sorrows and anxieties. It is then that we begin to recognise that these people are loved by those close to them, but most importantly, they are loved and cherished as God’s little ones. When we begin to recognise this humanity within them, we begin to see how lovable they are, and how they are often unloved and treated daily as objects that live to fulfil a useful function in society.

When we begin to treat them with the dignity of a human person, and love them as human persons, it is at that very moment that their lives begin to change. The scales from their eyes are shed and they begin to see light. They begin to see the humanity that is properly theirs – a humanity long forgotten because they have never been loved in such a way in a very long time or never before. They begin to recognise that they are someone and not something. Once they have received our love for them as a human person, they begin to understand that their humanity is something lovable, something that one and all can take delight in. They begin to embrace this humanity with arms wide open, for they recognised that part of being human is to be loved for who they are – a human person – and not just for what they do. The meaning of life begins to unveil itself to them.

It is at this very moment when they have received our love that they experience the love of God, a love as refreshing as the morning dew that revitalises and quenches. That love, which is a participation in God’s divine love, is the living water which we have been thirsting for in every waking moment of our lives.
When we offer this divine love through the gift of friendship to others, people will begin to experience the love of God. This supernatural love is a love which the world cannot give. This is the love which non-Christians exclaimed when they witnessed the love which the early Christians shared with one another: “See how they love!” (Tertullian, Apology, 39)

This is the love that many of us Christians are trying to emulate. Often, in our Churches or in our ministries, we hear this being said: “We must try to love like the early Christians.” However, the problem is that we often do this without even trying to first deepen our own spiritual lives, doing our best to grow closer to God. Instead, we often try to do the divine without God. This is something we must keep in mind:

“Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:4-5)

This is the apostolate of friendship, the apostolate which makes Christ known by our love. We tend to cringe when we hear the words, “apostolate” or “evangelisation”. But we cringe only because we dread the thought of having to go about telling people about God only to receive difficult questions, insults, and even rejection.

But we do not have to purposely go about talking about God. Mother Teresa herself said: “Always preach the Gospel. When necessary, use words.” As the famous saying goes, “Action speaks louder than words.”

As lay people, the mission of the apostolate is not as difficult as we may have imagined. All we have to do is to offer the gift of an authentic friendship and love as divinely as we can. To do this, we must first develop our friendship with God, receiving the sacraments regularly and doing our best to draw closer to Christ.

It is important for us to keep in mind that no amount of argument will ever convert anyone. You can argue until Kingdom comes, but the person will not move. Only love moves the heart. When people see how loving we are, when they see something divine in the way we live, work, act and love, curiosity will develop within them, and they will want to know what it is that makes us tick. They do not yet realise it, but what they see is Christ in us whenever and wherever we act and love in that divine manner. Like the woman at the well who thirsts for Living Water (see John 4), they will taste that Living Water whenever they come into contact with us, they will eventually ask us for more of that Living Water and how they can get it.

This is what it means to be Christian. Perhaps this is why we call ourselves Roman Catholics – because we are called to do our best to be as Romantic as we can, loving passionately, deeply, and truly, as God loves.

This is what the world needs today – the experience of true authentic love, the experience of authentic friendships. Today, families are breaking apart, relationships are form and too easily and quickly dismantled. An increasing number of people are not privileged with the blessings of a true friendship, and having picked up the utilitarian values of today’s culture, not knowing what it really means to love, not knowing how to love. Many of us do not even know how to love ourselves!

We are living in a world that is fast losing its faith and hope in love. Few will dare to open themselves up to love in such a way, fearful of being used, fearful of losing out in the race of maximising utility, getting the most pleasure and benefit from as many people as quickly as possible. Instead, many despair and give up their hopes on love and replace it with lust and greed, seeking pleasure and material goods to fill that deep and empty void within their hearts. Deep down, they are still searching for true love, but they ignore it because they believe it is an impossible wish. But still their hearts are restless, and they are plagued by a loneliness which is the cry of their soul’s thirst for love. Just as physical thirst afflicts the entire body, spiritual thirst afflicts our entire being, both body and soul, driving us insane – sometimes insane enough to harm ourselves or to indulge more deeply in self-gratification in an attempt to forget about that thirst.

All of us are searching for true love – true divine love – thirsting every moment of our lives for it till we taste that Living Water.

As Christians, we have been blessed with the Living Water. And so, let us heed the call of Our Lord Jesus Christ, to quench the thirst of the masses and to make Him known: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)

Ubi caritas est vera, Deus ibi est. Where love is true, there is God. (Hymn: Ubi Caritas)