I was distressed you wouldn’t come [to visit] and have been worrying about what could be the matter. I started to call you up and try to persuade you to change your mind and then I decided I had better mind my own business and didn’t do it. Now I am sorry I didn’t because I think too many people and especially me mind their own business when their real business is somebody else’s business. I feel very strongly that your business is my business, even if I don’t always act quick enough on the feeling. . . . [After discovering the reason] I doubly wished that I had called up and insisted that you come and I also wished I were up there so that in the spirit of Christian charity I could knock you in the head with the nearest stick of wood.
– from a letter of Flannery O’Connor to Betty Hester, 25 November 1960
Now here is a shining example of authentic friendship—although, thankfully, being an authentic friend does not often require knocking others in the head with the nearest stick of wood. What I mean is that here is a touching display of one friend’s charitable concern for the other.
Flannery O’Connor and Betty Hester, both writers from Georgia, were close friends for the nine years before O’Connor’s death in 1964 and sent each other more than three hundred letters over that span. Hester’s life was a difficult one: as a child she watched her mother commit suicide after her father left the family, she was dishonorably discharged from the Air Force for a sexual indiscretion with another woman, was never published as a writer, asked O’Connor to be her confirmation sponsor when she entered the Church only to leave the Church and become an agnostic a few years later, struggled with alcoholism and depression, and shot herself in 1998 on the day after Christmas. O’Connor’s life, on the other hand, was no cakewalk but was not marked by the same sense of tragedy: she remained a Catholic her whole life (she even had a great love for St. Thomas Aquinas, calling herself on occasion a “hillbilly Thomist”), lived most of her adult life with her mother and raised peafowl, was a successful writer of short stories and two novels, and for fourteen years suffered from lupus, to which she had lost her father when she was 15 and from which she died at age 39. Hester’s letters to O’Connor are not publicly available, but O’Connor’s letters to Hester reveal the depth of their friendship and the light-hearted solicitude she had for her friend even in her sufferings; they also reveal something about what true friendship is.
O’Connor’s comments above on whose business is whose is one of the best examples of what I mean. The goings-on in the lives of two true friends are just as important to the one as to the other: the business of one is the business of the other. Aristotle says that a true friend wishes and does what is good for the sake of his friend and that true friends rejoice together; this much is easy enough to accept. But he also says that they grieve together, and this implies much more than a shallow pity. The burden of one friend becomes the burden of the other. A true friend truly loves his friend as he loves himself, and this extends to bearing each other’s burdens (see Gal 6:2). Bl. Diana d’Andalò, an early Dominican nun, once hurt her foot and wrote to her friend Bl. Jordan of Saxony, an early Dominican friar, about it, to which he responded, “Your poor foot, which I hear you have hurt, hurts me too.”
What then of friendship between man and God? St. Thomas emphasizes the role of communication in any friendship: mere well-wishing isn’t sufficient to constitute a real friendship; there must be mutual love communicated between the two friends. In this way we can speak of our friendship with God: his love for us is manifested in his communication of his own happiness to us, and our love for him in return is called charity: “wherefore it is evident that charity is the friendship of man for God” (Summa theologiae, II-II, 23, 1). Thus does our Lord say, I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you (Jn 15:15).
And a true friend he truly is. For he made our business—the forgiveness of our sins and the salvation of our souls, neither of which we could accomplish ourselves—his business; and thank the Lord that he did. And he made our burdens—our poverty, weakness, and sufferings—his burdens; and thank the Lord that he did. His mercy which he revealed in his Incarnation, death, and resurrection, is a sign, the sign, of his friendship. Of course we cannot have mercy on him in return; but he invites us to share in this true friendship by grace, and even makes his business—the conversion of all nations—our business. True friends share their whole lives with each other. Our Lord, then, shares his very life with us; and thank the Lord that he does.
Image: Archibald Thorburn, Peacock and Peacock Butterfly