08 June, 2019

Pentecost: God's gift of friendship

On Pentecost, we celebrate the promised gift made by Christ to his disciples, and by extension to the entire Church, of the Holy Spirit.   A divine presence that would remain with us until his return in glory to help us remember, comprehend, and fulfill our obligation of love to God and between each other. In other words, the Holy Spirit is the continuation of the incarnation of God, except this time instead of taking the form of one human man, he enters into each one of us through the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation. In this way, God extends a great act of friendship to those who claim and desire redemption through Christ. So to understand the awesome power of Pentecost, we need to comprehend what is a ‘friendship’ so that we can better take advantage of this great gift.

Friendship is defined as a relationship with ‘another self.’ It is a relationship, or better put a variety of relationships in which we find another who resonates with the same frequency that vibrates within us. Since we are all individuals who march to the beat of our unique drummer, it isn’t possible for us to say that everyone is our ‘friend’ even though we strive to be ‘friendly’ with all.  The fact is that not all vibrations are harmonious with others.  Some are downright discordant when they come together.

As a pastor, I live this reality all the time. So do all the lay members of our Church.  Most parishioners are old enough to have been served by different clergy over the years, some of whom they liked better than others. This difference has little to do with the talent or skill of the pastor so much as it’s about with how we connected with something in their character; some admirable quality that we could admire and want to emulate in our own lives.  Just as we are pleased when we happen to have a pastor who fits that bill, so too can we become discouraged when one arrives who doesn’t. In either case, it’s not the pastor that is the critical partner in that assessment. Instead, it’s how he resonates with each parishioner that is the determining factor. And for better or for worse the fact remains that parishioners have virtually no say in who is to be their pastor. Even the priest has very little influence in that decision. The authority to make that decision rests exclusively with the Bishop. Thus in every parish, the pastor and his parishioners must strive to do the best they can to arrange their different unique vibrations to produce the ‘music’ that is pleasing to God and each other.

Thankfully, we don’t have to make this music entirely thanks to the gift of the Holy Spirit first poured upon believers at Pentecost. When we accept his direction, he becomes the conductor who helps us to produce spiritual music pleasing to God. Just as choir directors lead and keep the various members of a choir singing harmoniously and productively, the Holy Spirit guides us in singing God’s praises both when we gather together and when we leave the Church to return to our daily lives.

There is however an important question that needs to be asked: If we have God himself as our spiritual conductor, why do we so often sound more like some amateur garage grunge bad that produces little more than loud, unpleasant noise instead of the beautiful strains of the celestial music he desires us to create? I believe that the answer has to do how we see and respond in friendship to the Holy Spirit and with each other. Do we insist that everyone has to sing to our tune or are we more concerned with the respecting the notes coming from our spiritual friends, ‘our other selves’? Are we willing to let our friend lead us, or do we insist that we have the right to sing in whatever key we think is most pleasing to our ear? God gives us the power to accept or reject his guidance in making that decision.

Aelred of Rievaulx, a 12th-century monk, took it upon himself to write a short book (Spiritual Friendship) in which he instructed his brother monks on this subject. Drawing upon earlier works by Cicero, Aristotle, and Augustine, he explained that there were three types of friendship, but only one that correctly cooperated with the direction of the Holy Spirit. The two that failed he called ‘carnal friendships’ and ‘friendships of utility.’ The former is a relationship that leads both parties to self-satisfaction and mutual sin (think of two alcoholics who regularly go out drinking together) whereas the latter is a relationship in which each party is concerned only with what the other can do for them. Neither one of these friendships is capable of bringing us closer to God, and he warned his fellow monks to be wary of becoming deluded into thinking they were of any real benefit.

But the third type of friendship, which he called ‘spiritual friendship,’ is one in which both parties are primarily concerned with helping the other attain salvation by cooperating with God in their lives. This type of relationship is one where one is not afraid to offer correction to a friend since the goal of such counsel is for the highest good of the other. Thus, if the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is God’s great act of friendship to us, it would serve us well to be willing to heed the prompts of conscience he inspires that keep us from sin. It is by striving to grow in ever more profound friendship with the Spirit that we can be brought back into a correct harmony and play our proper role in God’s symphony of life.

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