As most of us are increasingly aware, the modern or “Digital Age” has affected us in ways both great and small – some for the better…some for the worse…and most, a mixture of the two. I mean – as compared with the arduous undertaking that travel was a century ago – who isn’t grateful that our modern technology can enable us to board a plane in New York City in the evening, only to wake the next morning on a completely different continent. This modern convenience of course comes with a downside too, as borders are no longer barriers for life’s vicissitudes in a globalized age – the current Ebola outbreak being the most recent and graphic reminder.
Technology has even encroached upon what had at one time been the most intimate part of our lives even a generation ago. Take for example that most human and humane aspect of our personhood: friendship. A generation ago, your friends were those whom you saw – physically – with regularity; people whom you shared your most intimate thoughts and feelings with: “fellow travelers” who accompanied you on the journey down life’s road. Today, friends are still those that you share intimate thoughts and feelings with – but with the advent of social media, this can be done halfway down the block or halfway around the world. In fact, with the advent of Facebook, “friending” somebody has – for some – taken on an aspect of competition: while I am quite content with my collection of friend numbering – respectably I think – in the hundreds, there are those who are not satisfied unless their “intimate” circle numbers in the thousands! (must be exhausting keeping up with everybody’s news!) Add to that the anxiety that some people feel today about having the “right type” of friends – as an author recently did in “The Cut” blog of New York Magazine, and the recipe for creating instances of unnecessary anxiety and modern angst about a subject that was once considered as natural as breathing is just about complete.
Blessedly, this is a playing field I have never felt the need to compete on: friendship was for me never a numbers game – I much prefer quality over quantity; and when selecting my friends I like to think that we mutually have found one another over shared interests, views and goals as opposed to more extraneous factors, choosing each other because of the content of our character to borrow a great man’s words of wisdom. I am lucky enough to live within a city and work in an industry that has exposed me to many different people of varying backgrounds, and it has been through my encounter with all of these many folks that have enabled me to see that deep down – regardless of the myriad of external differences that we all may all have – that people are people, all made in the Image and Likeness of God – whether or not we always choose to remember this and behave accordingly!
I think today – when friendship has taken on the attributes of being just one more thing to categorize, collect, and crow about – it’s important to step back and reflect on its importance. On the most intimate level, friendship is about connection….and in a world that is as fractured as ours is today – where “leaders” are more vested in keeping people apart in separate, little, controllable camps than in bringing folks together- it is exactly such connection that we need to bind up the global society so broken by strife.
I don’t think that belief in the importance of such connections is Pollyannaish at all: from my vantage, the more people are – and feel- connected with others who may be “different” then themselves, the more likely they will comport themselves is peaceable ways as God intended. It was just this past weekend – In fact – that I noticed such a “connection over differences”, right there on-line amongst the community of my friends on my Facebook wall.
This past weekend was of course the occurrence of the holiest day on the Jewish Calendar Yom Kippur – the “Day of Atonement” for Jews – where they set aside a 25 hour period to fast and atone for whatever sins they might have committed over the past year before God seals the Book of Life for the coming year where Jews believe God records His judgments. Interestingly enough, on the same weekend that Jews were holding their great fast of Yom Kippur, Muslims were celebrating their great feast Eid al-Adha – the feast of the sacrifice – where Muslims believe that the Prophet Ibrahim, in response to God’s call, prepared to offer his son Ismail as a sacrifice only to have God interceded and prevent him from offering his own son, accepting a ram for sacrifice instead. In yet another circumstance of spiritual alignment, for Christians, this past Saturday was the feast of someone who is arguably one of the greatest Saints on the Christian calendar – St. Francis of Assisi – the namesake of our current Holy Father, who has not only taken up the moniker of this great saint, but who has also adopted some of the Saint’s simplicity, compassion for those on the margins and embrace of peace. In taking on the name of this ecclesiastical superstar – who is almost uniquely admired in circles sacred and secular alike – I think Pope Francis is hoping to raise Francis up as a model of someone uniquely suited to speak to our contemporary, diverse society: a former soldier and son of a wealthy merchant, Francis eventually took on a life on non-violence and voluntary poverty as part of his conversion to a life grounded in a deep belief in God’s love and providence. A believer in peace living in a time of crusade, Francis undertook the quest for peace in the most personal way – risking life and limb in 1219 in the midst of the 5th Crusade to cross enemy lines in Egypt in order to gain an audience with Sultan Malik al-Kamil, nephew of the great Muslim commander Saladin. It was St. Francis’ hope to win the peace by a conversion of the Sultan to Christianity. This of course did not happen; however the meeting of the Saint and the Sultan left both men changed – and both convinced that Christians and Muslims could indeed encounter each other in peace. A reformer as well, St. Francis took on corrupt practices in both society and the Church at the time, addressing them in corrective ways – not primarily by words, but by actions. He is often remembered by the advice he gave to his first followers: “Preach the Gospel always…use words when necessary”….Francis was a spiritual giant who reminds us that prayers are not only just words – but that our very lives can be conduits for making this world a more gentle and livable place for all!
On my Facebook wall – where this weekend I wished all of my friends collectively a Blessed Yom Kippur, a Happy Eid and blessings on Saint Francis’ Feast Day respectively – I noticed how those of various backgrounds “liked” and commented to one another from various traditions, electronically crossing boundaries with wishes of good will, friendship and peace. Will actions like these alone single handedly usher in a “Peaceable Kingdom” as was prophesied in the Book of Isaiah (Isaiah 2: 3-4)? I could only wish! But encounters such as these – virtual and actual – do I think help to build trust – build connection – that over the long run can help to heal old wounds, and – with concerted effort – help hold a fractured world together. What St. Francis knew eight centuries ago remains as true today as it was back then: encounters can and do change history!
In the final equation: friendships matter!