THE NEED FOR OF
Donald X. Burt, OSA
Some years back I
read a news-report of an incident that occurred in the New Orleans
French quarter. Any of you who have ever been there probably remember it
as a vibrant place filled with bright colors and delicious smells and
joyous music coming from the open doors of cafes and restaurants. It is
usually filled with happy tourists strolling down the crowded streets,
stopping now and again to watch the street performers, some of them
little kids dancing merrily to the jazz music from the surrounding
cafes. In the midst of this frivolity a kind police woman discovered a
little boy standing on the corner with a scared and forlorn look on his
face. He was not lost. He had been abandoned. He was too frightened to
talk at first but finally, back at the police station, in answer to the
question "What do you want little boy!" He answered "I want someone to
It was a simple and very human request. All of us need someone to love
and someone to love us, someone who is willing on occasion to hold us
tightly with their arms or at least with their caring affection. We need
to be hugged during the good times in our life but even more during
those times which are not so good. Augustine once said that the basic
challenge of human life is to be detached from the good times and to
endure the bad times. What he meant was that we must not hold onto our
good times so tightly that we are destroyed when they end and we must
endure those times that are not so good lest they destroy our hope. In
our good times and bad times it is good to have friends because, in the
words of the popular song:
"I can get by
with a little help from my friends."
With friends, with
human loves beside me, my good times become even more precious; with
friends, with human loves beside me, I can endure my bad times.
Humans need love, they need friends, because they are not turtles. Now I
like turtles. I am constantly fascinated by the National Geographic
specials that depict the creation of new turtles. It is quite different
from the propagation of human beings. Turtles do not date. They seem to
have no intimate interaction with their peers beyond the passing contact
between male and female necessary to insure the continuation of the
tribe. Once the father turtle makes his contribution to process, we hear
nothing more about him ... nor indeed, I suspect, does the mother.
Turtles do not worry about relationships. There never will be a T.V.
program called "friends" featuring turtles. If turtles had a sit-com it
would be more like "Seinfeld" with turtles that come together briefly
but never get involved.
The making of baby turtles is a solitary adventure with the mother doing
most of the work. Her labor period involves dragging herself up on a
solitary beach, laboriously digging a hole and therein depositing the
multitude of her still "egged" offspring. And then she takes off. Having
done her duty she crawls back to the sea, never to be seen again, at
least by her children. They are left to fend for themselves. Their first
challenge is to make it to the sea, not an easy task for a little fellow
with short legs. Some, the philosopher turtles, seem to have no sense of
direction. As they wander in the wrong direction they seem to cry out
(as philosophers do): "Who am I?", "Where am I going?" Some make for the
trees perhaps under the mistaken impression that they are hard-shelled
birds with short legs. The travails of the infant turtles are further
complicated by being surrounded by sea birds who think of the turtle
migration as being a sign that Thanksgiving has arrived and the feast
has begun. And for the little beasts there is no savior, neither God,
man, nor turtle. Once hatched, the baby turtles demonstrate the same
indifference to each other that was manifested by their anonymous
parents. Tiny turtles emerging from their sandy incubation holes show
little or no concern for their fellows as they make their mad dash for
survival in the distant ocean. If one poor fellow falls on his back,
there is no rush from his brothers and sisters to right him. And as far
as getting together to prevent their siblings from being eaten alive,
their principle seems to be "EVERY TURTLE FOR HIMSELF!" It is true that
they are not especially aggressive towards each other. They do not eat
their young or each other, as some other more violent species seem to
do. They are just indifferent to each other. But what can you expect?
They are just turtles. They are not social animals.
But we humans are, even though we do not always act that way. Augustine
once observed: "Nothing is more social by nature or anti-social by sin
as the human being." (The City of God, bk. 12, ch. 28) To say that we
are social animals means that we fulfill ourselves as human beings only
through love, love of God first but also love of our fellow humans. We
are driven to search for a friend and to love them; and, when that love
is returned we are lifted outside of ourselves ... we become literally
ecstatic ... we "jump out" of ourselves. Augustine was so convinced of
the need for human love that we once told his people:
In this world
two things are essential: a healthy life and friendship.
Sermon 299D, # 1
his whole life about both. He was both a hypochondriac and paranoic
about friendship, seeking new ways to acquire health and friends and
constantly worried about losing both.
Unfortunately neither health nor friends are completely in our control.
Sadly, there are many humans who have neither. Back in the 60's Harvey
Cox wrote his famous book "The Secular City" describing the plight of
the multitude of humans who live out their lives anonymously in the
midst of crowds. They are never alone, but they are forever lonely
because they are unknown. They have no one who cares enough about them
to become a friend.
The sad fact is that such loneliness in the midst of crowds is not
unusual. I have known couples who have lived in the same building for
years and were yet strangers to each other, not knowing or caring what
was happening to the one next to them. I remember a woman who came to
see me about pursuing a degree at Villanova. She was trying to make her
own life. Married for 25 years, once the kids had left the homestead was
turned into two apartments. She lived downstairs; her husband upstairs
and he had made it plain they he was tired of her and intended to live
his life without her. They were still married but they were strangers
and she was preparing for a career after the inevitable divorce.
Augustine would feel sorry for such a person. He himself could not
imagine living such an unfriendly life. For him not having a friend, or
having a human love and then losing them, was one of the great tragedies
of human life. As an old man, looking back over the joys and sorrows of
his life, he mused:
What is there
to console us in this human society so full or errors and trials
except the truth and mutual love of true and good friends?
The City of God, bk. 19, ch. 8
Writing to one
of his own good friends he explains why this is so:
Good friends seem to spread no small comfort about them even in this
life. For, if poverty pinches, if grief saddens, if physical pain
unnerves us, if exile darkens our lives, if any other misfortune
fills us with foreboding, let good people be present to us, people
who know how to "rejoice with those who rejoice" as well as to "weep
with those who weep" (Romans, 12.15), people who are skilled in
helpful words and banter. If such people are with us then in large
measure our bitter trials become less bitter, the heavy burdens
become lighter, perceived obstacles are faced and overcome.
Letter 130, ch.2, # 4
It is extremely
difficult for a human being to be happy in this life without loving and
being loved by another human being. Of course, God IS love and his love
for each of us is enduring and permanent, and perhaps some great saints
could be satisfied with that alone. But for most of us (Augustine
included) there is a deep felt need for another human being to care
about us and, if the occasion arises, to kiss us and then hold us
quietly in a loving embrace. Most of us have known the reality of
Augustine's simple statement:
It is hard to
laugh when you are by yourself.
Confessions, bk. 2, ch. 9, #17
And most of us have also known the truth that it is quite easy to weep
when you are all alone.
Most of us need human loves, human friends, but to find them is a
difficult task. Friendship is not a matter of physical proximity. Living
with another does not make them a friend. Indeed, the love of friendship
can and does exist over vast expanses of space and time. This is so
because human love does not depend on a union of bodies. Rather it is
found in a union of hearts, what Augustine calls concordia .. being "one
in heart." When such a union exists it is possible to be connected with
a loved one over great distances. When a love is the last thing you
think of at night and the first thing you think of in the morning they
are not far away. You can kiss them with your spirit because you hold
them in your soul.
Friendship depends more on spiritual "oneness" than physical union
(though the former logically wishes the latter whenever possible), but
for "oneness of heart" to exist, there are a number of requirements.
First of all the love must be reciprocal. We can love in the sense of
"desiring" many things without any return of love, but to be a friend to
someone demands that they also be friends to us. When love ceases to be
reciprocal, friendship ceases. (The Trinity, bk. 9, ch. 4, # 6) We
cannot be a friend with someone who does not know us or does not care
Such reciprocal love would seem to demand some sort of equality between
the lovers. We love the other as ourselves and neither more nor less
than ourselves. The eyes of friendship neither look down nor look up to
a friend; they look at the friend. Like a delicate rake caressing soft
sand, the love of friendship has a leveling power, smoothing out the
differences which come from our being unique individuals. We must love
both ourselves and our friends in the same way, not as ends in
themselves but as means whereby we can together each achieve our one
eternal good: God himself. (On Christian Doctrine, bk. 1, ch. 22,
Friendship must be characterized by a benevolence, literally "wishing
well" to the other. True love does not mean that we always agree with
each other but we must always care for each other, desiring that only
good things will come to our love. The love of a friend must be an
altruistic love, a love which values the good that is in the friend
rather than the good or the pleasure that the friend can bring to
oneself. (The Trinity, bk. 8. ch. 10) It is not a jealous love. It does
not stand in the way of our loved one loving others. Indeed, perhaps the
greatest sign of friendship is to be happy when the one we love is happy
with someone else.
The purest friendship between humans occurs when we love the other
because of the good we see in them, the good which is the reflection of
the good God who is the exemplar for each of us. Ideally we should love
our human loves for the sake of God. In the words of Augustine:
He truly loves
a friend who loves God in the friend, either because God is actually
present in the friend or in order that God may be so present. This
is true love. If we love another for another reason, we hate them
more than love them.
Sermon 336, ch. 2, # 2
is that love cannot be present when we cease to respect our friend's
place in creation. Only God can be enjoyed in and for himself. We must
enjoy our human friends for the sake of God, "loving the love of God in
them." (Against Faustus the Manichean, bk. 22, ch. 78) As Augustine
To love the
neighbor in the right way demands that we act towards them in such a
way that they come to love God with all their heart, soul, and mind.
On Christian Doctrine, bk. 1, ch. 22, # 21
To truly love
someone, to be their friend means that we must be willing to bear their
burdens and (perhaps even more difficult) to allow them to bear ours. In
a perfect world friendship would only need to express itself in the
enjoyment of the other in unending good times. In such a world we would
embrace them not because they needed us but because we rejoiced in them.
It would truly be delightful because (as Augustine observes),
Love is more
precious when it issues from the richness of beneficence rather than
from the burning arid desert of need.
Catechizing the Uninstructed, bk. 1, ch. 4, # 7)
A love based on
the richness of our friends is not tempted to subordinate the them
because of their need for us. It simply rejoices in being with them
because of the good that they contain, most especially the special
presence and the image of God found in them alone. In this life,
however, the ideal state where friends never "need" each other does not
last very long, if it exists at all. Bad things happen and it is then
the love of friends is tested. Augustine uses an analogy to make this
proves friendship as bearing the burden of a friend. Take the
example of deer. When deer swim across a river to an island in
search of pasture, they line themselves up in such a way that the
weight of their heads carried in the antlers is borne by another.
The one behind, by extending its neck, places its head on the one in
front. By bearing each other's burdens in succession, all of them
are able to successfully navigate the raging river.
83 Diverse Questions, ch. 71, # 1
There comes a time
in life when each of us needs a place to rest our weary head and there
is no better place than in the arms of one who truly loves us. Friends
may be delightfully sunny and breezy in good times but if they go away
at the first threat of a storm, they are not true friends at all.
Accepting the moments of strength and weakness that we share with our
friends is an aspect of another essential quality of friendship.
Friendship must be based on truth. Two human beings cannot be brought
together as friends without some agreement about the goods they want,
the goals that they have in common. At very least their friendship must
have some understanding of the reality of the person who is the other.
If I do not know the reality that is my friends, if they do not know the
real me, there is the danger that the friendship is a fantasy based on a
fiction. Friendship cannot be established on ignorance or error. In the
words of Augustine:
A person must
be a friend of truth before they can be a friend to any human being.
Letter 155, ch. 1, # 1
that there was only one way to create truth in a friendship. We must be
frank with each other, feeling free to share each other's passion,
fears, hopes, and dreams. A friend is one who is able to hear what we
like and dislike. (83 Diverse Questions, ch. 31, # 3) Our knowledge of
our human loves will always be less than perfect in this life. We may be
able to experience their physical presence but we cannot see that inner
spiritual core where friendship has its home. This is not strange. We do
not even know ourselves too well, much less others. Each individual is a
well of darkness surrounded by thick walls and these walls cannot be
pierced completely by love nor can they be scaled by words. As Augustine
journey of earthly life, each one carries his own heart and each
heart is closed to every other.
on Psalm 55, 9
Augustine warns that this difficulty in truly knowing another must not
make us overly cautious, refusing to give our love to anyone until they
prove themselves friendly to us beyond a shadow of a doubt. The paradox
is that we can never be completely sure of the heart of another, but the
only way to truly know another is by opening our heart to them as a
friend. (83 Diverse Questions, ch. 71, # 5)
Since we cannot know what is going on inside others, friendship must be
based on trust. Only in heaven will we have perfect knowledge of others.
Only there will ...
... we see the
thoughts of others which now only God can see. Only there will no
one seek to conceal their thoughts because only there will there be
no evil thoughts.
Sermon 243, # 5
Just now we must
make do, knowing as best we can and trusting for the rest, realizing
that our inability to communicate perfectly is no one's fault. In order
to have a friend we must first believe in them and in order to keep a
friend we must continue to trust them. We must take chances on others
and friendship is too important to human life not to take such chances.
It is bad enough to betray a trust, but it is worse still to refuse ever
to trust again. In Augustine's view such caution, far from being
prudent, is hateful. (Faith In Things That Are Not Seen, 2.4)
It is a fact that true friendship is rare and when it occurs it brings
its own sort of trials and tribulations. There is the sadness that comes
when we offer our love to another and find that they love someone else.
And when we have a friend, or (worse still), many friends, there is the
sorrow that comes when things go badly for them and we can do nothing
about it. Finally, there is the sorrow that comes when our loving friend
leaves us ... perhaps to get on with their lives, perhaps through death.
Indeed, there are special sorrows in having a loving friend but these
are not to be compared with the sadness that comes from having no friend
at all. We must still reach out in love to other human beings because
only in so doing can we move towards God. Augustine once wrote:
My love is my
weight drawing me wheresoever I will go. Confessions, bk. 13, ch. 9)
It is our love that draws us into our future and it is our innocent
love of our friends that will draw us eventually into the arms of
In heaven the
perfection of our love will "glue us to God" just as even now in our
imperfect state the objects of our love become glued to us, leaving
"footprints" in our mind even when they themselves are absent.
(Commentary on Psalm 62, # 17; The Trinity, bk. 10, ch. 8) Indeed, our
ultimate union with God and our human loves will be much more than a
cold intellectual examination of "footprints" of past experiences. We
will not simply recall what our human loves were; we shall embrace what
they have become. Finally and forever we shall be at home with our flesh
and blood: those human loves which have made our life here bearable and
that God who wishes to be our friend for all eternity.
If such a prospect displeases us, we can always go to the beach, dig our
hole, and pretend we are turtles. But watch out for the birds!