Friends are a good thing. People, after all, are social in nature. We rightly feel sorry for the person with no friends because he or she is trapped in a solitary existence. Friends are people who, by their very existence, call us out of ourselves. A good friend is one of life's richest blessings.
In that regard, it is shocking to read St. Francis de Sales' warning, "Friendship is the most dangerous of all types of love." One should not form any friendship except a spiritual friendship, he says.
Read a little further, however, and one finds Francis de Sales saying that the pursuit of virtue does not come from having no friendships, but from having only those that are good, holy and sacred.
Many of us will know what he is saying. We have had friendships that brought out the worst in us. They were a forum for gossip or slander, or for leading us into activities that were little more than opportunities for sin.
We may have enjoyed those friendships for a time, but we also hated what they did to us. Eventually, those friendships either evaporated of their own accord or we deliberately pulled out of them.
"Everyone has enough bad inclinations of his own without burdening himself with another's," wrote St. Francis. "A friend who would lead us into sin has become our enemy."
Francis did not believe that people in religious orders needed friendships with particular individuals. But people who live in the secular world do. Virtuous friends need each other "to keep safe and assist one another in the many dangerous places they must pass through."
No argument there. The world is a spiritually dangerous place.
Aristotle distinguished three types of friendship. Friendships are based on utility, pleasure or virtue. In those based on utility or pleasure, one's friend is not valued for him or herself. The person is a means to an end and is thus essentially an object. Such relationships are inherently unstable.
However, a friendship based on virtue values the person and the person valued is a righteous one. "Perfect friendship is the friendship of people who are good and like in virtue," Aristotle wrote. Such friendships are rare but they have the quality of permanence because goodness is itself an enduring quality.
Marriage, says St. Francis de Sales, is a true and holy friendship. "In marriage there is communication of life, work, goods, affection and indissoluble fidelity." Indeed, in any good marriage, one's spouse is one's best friend, a person who makes you more whole, more fully oneself.
Francis, however, is quite concerned about what he calls "fond loves" - relationships between a man and a woman where there is no intention of marriage. "Such relationships are always evil, foolish and vain."
People may convince themselves that they can keep such friendships free of carnal attractions. "Unfortunately, you deceive yourself, the fire of love is more attractive and penetrating than it appears to be." The final result is to "rob God and a husband or wife of the love and consequently the heart that belong to them."
Such a result is an enormous tragedy. A holy marriage is compromised or lost completely. For what?
Francis' counsels in this regard might seem overly protective. But the abundance of adultery and marital breakdown in our society should be a sign that we can be far too liberal with our affections.
Friendship should always be oriented toward virtue and the deepening of faith. Remember that Francis' book is called Introduction to the Devout Life. Every aspect of one's life should be oriented toward increased devotion and the fostering of holiness.
Few people see their lives in such terms. We have, however, been created to give glory to God and to love our neighbour. In that context, it only makes sense that all our friendships should aim at a mutual increase in virtue.
Confining oneself to friendships that are good, holy and sacred is a novel idea in our highly secularized society. However, if we want to live lives devoted to God, we would do well to realize that some friendships can and will lead us astray and that others will help to bring us closer to our ultimate destination.