Paul Henry, S.J., explaining Saint Augustine’s concept of friendship with God, writes: “Divine existence is the ideal of all personal existence – to be fully oneself, but only in dependence upon, and in adherence to, another in the communion of unity.” We are naturally ordered to God, and our union with Him can be perfected when, aware of His love, we respond to it by developing a relationship with Jesus Christ. Robert Hugh Benson writes that
the consciousness of this friendship of Jesus Christ is the very secret of the saints. Ordinary men can live ordinary lives, with little or no open defiance of God, from a hundred second-rate motives…. But no man can advance three paces on the road of perfection unless Jesus Christ walks beside him.
He continues by observing that human friendships are incomplete unless these relationships are informed by our friendship with God:
Even the most sacred experiences of life are barren unless his friendship sanctifies them… The purest affection – that affection that unites my dearest friend to myself – is a counterfeit and a usurper unless I love my friend in Christ – unless he, the ideal and absolute friend, is the personal bond that unites us.
Through our friendships with other people we can come to understand in a limited way the sort of friendship we will one day enjoy with God. Aquinas, recognizing the parallelism between the two types of friendship, uses it to explain the dependence of charity on the other two theological virtues:
Charity signifies not only the love of God, but also a certain friendship with Him…. Just as friendship with a person would be impossible, if one disbelieved in, or despaired of, the possibility of their fellowship or colloquy; so too, friendship with God, which is charity, is impossible without faith, so as to believe in this fellowship and colloquy with God, and to hope to attain to this fellowship. Therefore charity is quite impossible without faith and hope.
Saint Francis of Assisi expressed a similar insight. G.K. Chesterton, in his biography of the saint’s life, recounts a letter that Francis had written to a friar who was, in the words of Chesterton, “struggling between humility and morbidity”:
Do not be troubled in your thoughts, for you are dear to me, and even among the number who are most dear. You know that you are worthy of my friendship and society; therefore, come to me in confidence whenever you will, and from friendship, learn faith.
Saint Paul tells us that charity is not only dependent on faith and hope, but is also superior to them: “Faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” Friendship is an instrument through which this supreme theological virtue can be expressed.