It was a great moment for me when, as a young and very ill-trained Christian — in many ways, a model of ignorance — I saw that God was my friend. I understood him as creator, and as judge, and as the savior who gave his own life for me, who’d be with me through everything, good and bad. I knew he wanted the best for me.
That I understood. That had all been part of Christianity’s sales pitch, as I got it from the Christians I knew. But the relation I had with God, as far as I understood it, was mainly legal and procedural. He was the perfect bureaucrat, all-knowing and all-loving and all-powerful. He knew exactly what to do for me and he made sure I got what I needed. But still, he was a ways away.
Christians talked about God as a friend, but “friend” seemed just a way of saying “he loves you.” Nice, but vague. I don’t remember hearing anyone draw out the specific ways God was a friend.
I admit I may have missed something I should have seen. People may have told me. But I do think most of the authoritative Christians in my life spoke of Christianity in a way that led me to think of my relation to God in more legal and procedural terms.
They may well have had a livelier and more personal faith and knew God as a friend. But they didn’t talk like it.
Listening to other Christians, including other Catholics, I don’t think I was unusual in being taught that way. We experienced a legalistic Christianity. God created the law and enforced the law, but also helped you keep it. He could be a policeman or a social worker. Maybe friendly, but not a friend.
The insight that God was a friend, a friend like my human friends, only perfect, that was a real experience of the Good News. It flipped over my way of seeing my faith.
I wrote about this a few weeks ago in relation to the way we pray, building on a passage from the Dominican theologian Dom Bede Jarrett’s “Meditations for Layfolk,” published in 1917.
Jarrett says he speaks to God in his personal prayers as “a friend speaks with a friend.” I wish someone had explained prayer this way when I was young. (Though, to be honest, maybe someone did and I didn’t get it. It’s dismaying how dense one can be in spiritual matters, especially when young in the faith.)
Here’s one application of that insight that I found really helpful when I finally saw it. Jarrett explains it nicely. He uses prayer books in his private prayers, but tries to do without them, “for surely my needs, my reasons for thankfulness, and the motives that I have for praising God should supply me with abundance of material for talking to Him.”
In theory, we should have a boatload of reasons for talking away. But we can’t always. Jarrett admits that sometimes he’s too tired or otherwise unable to respond with any energy or concentration. We’ve all been there. In these times, he writes, we should “use the privilege of friendship.”
Friends give you privileges no one but their close friends have. You can let yourself into their house when they’re out and make yourself a snack, or call them when your car breaks down at night and you need a ride home. Friends let you take without having to ask.
One of the great privileges of friendship is hanging out together without having to do anything. Your friend enjoys your company even if you’re quiet as a mouse.
We have to keep talking with acquaintances, Jarrett notes. The relation depends on continual interaction. “But to be in the friend’s presence is joy enough. Conscious of each other, we are content; walking side by side, we may say never a word, make no conversation; or sit, as on either side of the fireplace sit old cronies, speaking not at all, yet happy.”
Silence, in fact, may not be a way of saying nothing, but a way of saying more than you can say. “For silence expresses things too large to be packed into language; and out of the fulness of the heart the mouth most often cannot speak,” Jarett explains. Friends understand when you just can’t put what you want to say in words. They take it as said.
From this, he concludes: “Hence, when I come to Communion, or make a visit to my Friend and find I have nothing to say, let me say nothing, be silent, wait for Him to speak; at least be glad that I am near Him.”
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