Conditional Friendship, Unconditional Love – Br. Lain Wilson

Feast of Richard Meux Benson

John 15:9-17
1 John 4:7-12

“You are my friends if you do what I command you.”

I’m struck today by this little word “if.” “You are my friends if.” When was the last time you said that to a friend? “You are my friend if you take my side.” ”You are my friend if you do what I say.”

But how often does this “if” go unspoken? “You are my friend,” we say, while thinking, “if you do what I expect, if you believe or read or vote the way I do.” How often do we find ourselves unconsciously closing the door on those who do not fulfill our unspoken ifs?

The founder of our Society, Richard Meux Benson, whom we celebrate today, had a dim view of friendship, in large part because of these ifs. He recognized that, in practice, earthly friendships are often divisive, based as they are on “certain idiosyncrasies which we may share in common, and which naturally . . . separate cliques from the rest of mankind.”[1] In short, he later wrote, “earthly friendships are apt to make us feel lonely both in their enjoyment and in their removal.”[2]

Life in community under Father Benson was lonely and often unfriendly. Father George Congreve later remembered that “no affectionate intercourse ever came to life among us.”[3]

But I think today, as we celebrate the life and witness of Father Benson, is an opportunity to hear him afresh. In this season after the Epiphany, we can see how friendship can make God manifest in the world. In particular, we can see how the conditionality of Jesus’s friendship invites us to practice unconditional love.

Think about a close friendship you’ve had. How did it begin? Was it something you held in common—an interest, a hobby, a cause, a value? We all yearn to connect, and it’s natural to connect based on what we have in common. But if we were to stop there, we fall victim to the accidents of group, of clique, of party, of tribe, that Benson condemns. We would be no more to each other than the isolated points that connect us.

But there is more. Because in friendship we discover the fully formed personhood of our friend. We encounter all that makes them themselves, unique and irreplaceable—the things that are like us, and the things that aren’t, the things about them we like and the things we don’t. We come to recognize that Christ dwells in them in all their individuality. They are their own world, and Christ dwells in all of it, not just our own points of commonality. Christ dwells in all that makes them them—and we come to love them for it.

And we can let this discovery of the fullness of others, and of Christ’s presence in all that fullness, invite us to find Christ in all others—and especially in those with whom we hold nothing in common, in those with whom we can’t imagine ourselves being friends. “We must love God in those whom God makes or calls to be the impersonations of [God’s] own loveliness,” Father Benson wrote, “and all . . . are formed in the image of God.”[4]

Friendship, then, is not just a sharing of idiosyncrasies or a catalogue of commonalities. Friendship is a training of our affections, an opening of our hearts, and an expanding of our capacity to love. Friendship invites us to love more and more—indeed, to love all—because we have come to love the fulness of our friends. And the more we love, the more we become like Christ: “If we love one another, God lives in us” (1 Jn 4:12).

But we are not God-filled islands on a map, partially isolated from others. We are nodes in a vast network, our connecting lines shining with the light of God made manifest. Our friendships allow us to love more fully and more widely, drawing new connections, making the network denser and denser, and allowing God to shine out all the brighter.

Allowing us to encounter God in those connections.

Allowing us to see that God is those connections, for God is love. “We must love one another,” Father Benson wrote, “with a love which looks beyond the grave and lives in the anticipation of that higher life, when all mere earthly ties shall have passed away,”[5] to a time when “separatedness will be gone [and] God will be all in all.”[6]

Amen.


[1] Richard Meux Benson to a Lady, July 30, 1878, in Further Letters of Richard Meux Benson (Oxford, 1920), 282-83.

[2] Letter CLXI: Richard Meux Benson to a Lady, July 20, 1901, in Letters of Richard Meux Benson (Oxford, 1916], 312

[3] L. Miller, A Life-Long Springtime: The Life and Teaching of Fr George Congreve SSJE (Durham, 2022), 40.

[4] Richard Meux Benson to a Lady, July 30, 1878, in Further Letters of Richard Meux Benson, 282-83.

[5] R. M. Benson, The Final Passover, vol. 2, pt 2 (London, 1895), 77.

[6] Richard Meux Benson to a Lady, July 30, 1878, in Further Letters of Richard Meux Benson, 283.

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