Some of life’s best examples of grace come through friendship, in little moments of surprise that remind us of the whole world that exists beyond ourselves. Sure, there are the graces that happen when strangers are unexpectedly kind, but what makes grace in friendship interesting is that we expect goodness from the other person. What is grace when kindness and generosity are the rule (even if moments of prickliness do intrude, as they will)?
Fast friends can feel almost as though they are a part of us, such that their absence seems in a small way like a loss of self. We incorporate them, almost literally. That friends can become so thoroughly a part of our lives is a delightful blessing, but it has its risks—the main one being that the sense of otherness from which the friendship drew its initial life can meld into part of our quotidian sameness.
Thus, when the sharp edges of otherness appear, it can feel like the fabric of our selves is being torn. We don’t like the pain, so we want everything to go back to normal. This response is both natural and understandable, and it drives a good deal of how we interact with other people: we either try to redomesticate them, bringing them back in line with our expectations, or we shun them. This is especially true in the age of social media, where between our own efforts at crafting online personae and the ready availability of the “block” button it can be tempting to try to inoculate ourselves against exposure to otherness.
The grace of friendship, though, transforms these irruptions of otherness into blessings by turning them into new occasions for love. What delight can be greater than learning, again and again, that love is possible in each new moment? At their most glorious, these experiences of otherness open us up to deep vicarious joy, for the covenant of friendship means rejoicing with those who rejoice as much as it does mourning with those who mourn. Such rejoicing shows us a world where we do not sit at the center, and this displacement allows us to see as if for the first time that grace animates the whole, and that through our lives others might come to experience the same joy in which we now exult. The happiness in our lives becomes secondary to the happiness that it engenders in our friends.
Viewed in this way, friendship opens new windows on Zion, granting us vision of a community devoted to sharing joy widely and well, until there are no poor among those who dwell in it. To be of one heart and one mind thus means mutually embracing the reality of otherness that makes these experiences of joy possible. In this way, loving our friends prepares us for the trickier task of learning to love our enemies: once a friend becomes more to us than a kind of second self, the ambit of our possible loves expands just a bit, and grace helps us to see, yet once more, the world—and the people in it—as a glorious new creation.
My thinking about the covenant of friendship owes much to Kristine, especially these two posts: