The first thing you normally require of your friends is that they be human beings!  A friend is someone to hang out with, who will keep the conversation going and stand up for you in tough times. That kind of friendship is one of the sweetest things in life. But I want to write here about a different kind of friendship: broader - so broad that it can include just about anything!
This friendship can be with persons, yes, but it can also be with a thing, a place, a situation… or even with things that challenge us or make us suffer. The point I want to make is that all of these can also be our guide, our teacher. There is a saying that when the student is ready, the teacher appears. Whether we are ready or not, teachers are constantly appearing in our lives, but sometimes it is difficult to recognise them because we are looking for someone who matches our idea of ‘teacher.’ Or, we regard this person or thing as an obstacle in our life, rather than as something that can awaken us to life’s meaning.

There was once a famous spiritual teacher named Gurdjieff, a Russian, born in 1877, died in 1949. In his community there was a very difficult person who seemed to rub everyone up the wrong way. One day, Gurdjieff learned that the man had left the community because no one liked him. Gurdjieff went in search of him and begged him to return, because he saw that this man was in fact a great ‘teacher’, without knowing it; he brought people to their edge - the only place where you learn anything.
In every community, in every group, in almost every family, there are almost impossible people.  And each of us is the impossible person for the others at some time or other! Even saints are often known to be impossible.  A child, praying, was heard to say, “…the holy impossibles Peter and Paul.” We may think that the world would be better without impossible persons, but remember Gurdjieff! An Italian cardinal said recently (in reference to criticism of the Church), “One who loves does not criticise.” I would prefer to say, “One who is perfectly indifferent, who doesn’t give a fig one way or the other, doesn’t criticise.” But people who love, and people who hate, both criticise: one out of love, the other out of hate. Jesus often criticised severely because he cared and loved beyond measure. Your indifferent friends never criticise you; your true friends always do, in one way or another (to your face, of course!).

Sometimes it may be an illness that becomes our new teacher, or a bereavement, or the birth of a child.… Anything that shakes us out of our slumber, and opens us to wider and deeper experience, is a spiritual friend worthy of gratitude.

It may be difficult to regard a painful experience as a friend. We instinctively want to push such experiences away, or grasp something else by way of compensation. But wisdom lies in learning to sit in the midst of our suffering, much as we would do with someone in need. Just sit, just watch, just be present, just taste and touch your suffering.  Keep that inner soft spot soft.  Don’t build a hard shell around it.  Don’t give in to blaming others, or life (or even yourself) for your suffering. Just stay with it, as you would stay with a frightened and weeping child. “Take care of your suffering,” someone said once. It is your best teacher. It may become your best friend.

Donagh O'Shea

These are brief articles, one per month,
on a wide variety of topics concerning the living of the Christian life.