For St. Thomas Aquinas, friendship with God is at the heart of the Gospel and of a human life lived to its fullest. It’s no wonder, then, that he reflects on friendship in many contexts. His treatments of the topic in his commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics or in the discussion of charity in the Summa theologiae are perhaps best known. But his teaching on friendship reaches some of its most profound depths in two chapters on the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Christian, found in Book IV of the Summa contra gentiles (chapters 21-22). In the midst of explaining why the Christian’s friendship with God is rightly said to be the effect of the Holy Spirit in a peculiar way, St. Thomas outlines seven acts of friendship, revealing brilliant insights that can strengthen and even transform our friendships of all kinds, marital, familial, preferential, as well as our friendship with God.
What are those seven acts of friendship that St. Thomas chooses to highlight in explaining the Holy’s Spirit’s union of the soul with God? Friends, says Thomas, share a life, exchange gifts, agree in the good, reveal secrets, forgive offenses, serve from love, and discover joy. In this post and those to come, let’s briefly look at each in turn.
Sharing a life. In his commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (n. 1600), Thomas insists that the proper act of friendship—that which makes it precisely friendship, and not some other kind of relationship—is to live together (convivere). Aristotle himself qualifies this point by arguing that friends do not live together as cows in a field, feeding together but not engaging in thought and discussion (NE Book IX, Chapter IX). Friends do not just live alongside each other; they live with each other. The physical presence, of course, is essential for embodied creatures such as ourselves; St. Thomas even derives an argument for the fittingness of the Real Presence from Our Lord’s desire to remain with his friends in the fullest possible way, even bodily.
Nevertheless, there is more to the sharing of life in friendship than mutual bodily co-presence. When St. Thomas talks more explicitly about life, he explains that we attribute it to whatever has the source of its activity within itself . So God is Life Itself because he is pure act, with no admixture of potential waiting to be actualized. And the contemplative and active lives are distinguished based on the characteristic activities that serve as organizing principles for each. So to share a life means to share an activity of a central and organizing type, expressive of our rationality.
The Holy Spirit makes us friends of God in this sense because he makes us to dwell in God and God to dwell in us, through the act of a faith informed by love . Further, according to Thomas, we share life with God especially through contemplation. We cannot, of course, become subjects with him of his own act; that would make us God ourselves. There is an infinite asymmetry between God and us. But through contemplation we share in God’s own act by a receptive and loving gaze; and the Holy Spirit, says Thomas, makes us contemplators.
In our human friendships, though, there is sometimes substantial equality and never the kind of asymmetry that makes our friendship with God such a marvel. Those friendships are sustained by becoming subjects together of some common activity. And, as a general principle, the closer that activity is to the central and organizing principle of our life as a whole, the deeper and more lasting such a friendship can be.
In future posts, we will consider the remaining six of these acts of friendship, along with some of their counterfeits, and such other topics as: the kinds and varieties of friendship; the place of the seven acts of friendship in marital and familial friendships and in the life of prayer; some virtues and skill necessary for choosing authentic acts of friendship; and perhaps others.
Next post: Friends exchange gifts and agree in the good
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