Saturday, February 18, 2012

"A faithful friend is a sturdy shelter; he who finds one finds a certain treasure" (Reflections on the Gospel, 7th Sun. Ord Time, Mk. 2:1-12)

"Without friends," says Aristotle, "one would not choose to live, though he had available to him, all other goods". "For without friends," he continues, "wealth and prosperity would have no use, for there would not be as many opportunities for generosity; nor can wealth and prosperity be safeguarded without friends. As for poverty and other forms of misfortune, where is one to take refuge, except in friends?"

I've always thought that one of the most peculiar, as well one of the least noticed points of today's gospel reading is verse 5:

“When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralyzed man, ‘My son, your sins are forgiven'."

The New Testament does record a good number of Jesus' healing-miracles. And yet the account in today's reading adds an interesting and important side-note to these healings, namely, the role that the paralyzed man's relationships and friendships played in his being once again made whole.

In fact one of the least discussed parts of the gospel is precisely the fact that it wasn't the paralytic who himself came to Jesus. Rather, it was his friends who brought him to the house where Jesus happened to be at the moment. It was they who saw that the crowd inside was too big for their sick friend whom they were carrying in his mat to be brought in through the door. It was they who then took him up the rooftop. And it was they who then proceeded to make a hole in the roof large enough to lower his mat down so he'd get there, right in front of Jesus.

It was the faith of this man's friends and their love and care for him that became the means, the instruments by which he was healed. "When Jesus saw their faith, he said to him, 'My son, your sins are forgiven'."

"Those who wish their friends well", says Aristotle, "are truly friends... and such friendships are infrequent, just as such individuals are rare".

One of the things I’ve come to realize throughout my many years in seminary is the importance and value of making and nurturing good and wholesome friendships, not just with priests and seminary students, but with some amazing laypeople as well, men and women who have not only encouraged me in my vocation and ministry, but who have served as sources of inspiration and strength.

Each time I look back and remember moments of serious challenge I’ve encountered, as a seminarian, as a priest, and as a man, one thing has always stood out as a constant; and that is the undeniable movement of God’s grace effected through the friends He has sent me along the way. I would not have made it to ordination if it weren’t for these friends.

And I doubt I would have remained a priest had it not been through the grace of God at work in and through them. There truly is a power to good friendships that we must never underestimate. For true friendship, to paraphrase Aristotle yet again, initiates men, not only to justice, but to goodness and virtue.

Monsignor Stephen Rossetti, in his book “Ten Steps to Priestly Holiness”, counts good friendships among the ten steps, putting it at number five. He says:

“In my study of priesthood, a solid 87.5 % of the 2441 priests said they had close priest friends, and 93.1 % said they had good lay friends who are an emotional support for them. A summary finding on the newly ordained, found that those who left the priesthood generally felt lonely, isolated, unappreciated, and disconnected. There is a very strong connection between solid friendships and healthy living for celibate priests”.

More than this, however, he adds that the presence of “good friendships” is strongly predictive of the quality of a priest’s relationship with God.

“The truth is unmistakable”, he says, “if we want a deeper relationship with God, we must nurture deeper relationships with others”. Great words of advice, for priest and layperson alike.

“When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the man, ‘My son, your sins are forgiven”.

The paralyzed man was brought to Jesus, received forgiveness, was healed and made whole, because of the care, concern, and faith of those whom he called friends. It is, for us all, both an encouragement and invitation, to develop and nourish, the same kind of bonds. For as the book of Sirach says:

“A faithful friend is a sturdy shelter; he who finds one finds a certain treasure. A faithful friend is beyond price, no sum can balance his worth. A faithful friend is a healing remedy, and he who fears God such friend shall find". (Sir 6:14-17)

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)