"In our earthly life, next to the love of parents and siblings, one of the best expressions of affection is friendship. Every day, I thank God for giving me such good friends, who are a precious guide for my life."
-Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati
Yesterday I finished Pier Giorgio’s biography with teary eyes on the metro. I knew it would end with his sudden and young death and still it caught me off guard. The story of his life- “an ordinary Christian” -is really amazing. He’s known for his compassion and charity, caring for “his poor” with all his heart and strength in God’s name.
He was athletic, funny, handsome; respectful and humble; he pulled friendly pranks and got in fist fights, though he climbed a mountain each morning to receive the Eucharist and served the poor in secret. He’s admirable for too many reasons to start listing. It’s clear why JPII calls him a saint for the young.
Yet out of everything, two things struck me the most about him: his deep and real affection for his friends and his constant awareness of death. For me- the two are inevitably related. I find the deepest, most satisfying friendships are those rooted in the fact this life is fleeting. When I first met death, my initial responses were anger and fear. I thought it would be better to never love anyone that much again, if loss could feel like that.
It was frankly an obstacle in all of my relationships. It’s hard to get close to anyone, fearing they will die and another part of you will die again. It takes time to move past the feeling like your loved one dies each day again.
My family and my dear friends from childhood were already etched in my heart indelibly. I would love them unto death, for sure. It was everyone else. At eighteen, I felt I had no room left in my heart. As I moved to Florida alone, I knew I would have to make friends- but they would never have to know. How could they know I was a robot? It was a chance to start fresh, where I could really start over, keeping everyone around me at arm’s length. (Ha. That really worked out.)
As time went on, the numbness started to fade. Life tends to fling us forward even when we’re busy looking back. I prayed for the fear to subside, to feel again, to let myself care for others the way my heart longed to. I thought I would somehow get back to “normal.” Frankly, He had other plans for me. I felt as if the embers of my heart had turned to stone. So instead of relighting the flame, He just set my whole life on fire….burning lifelong friends deep into my heart. He sent me to people I couldn’t ignore; whose smiles were too joyful; whose laughs slowly sunk into my soul; whose passions were too strong to ever let me go.
The friendships I formed in college- either with new friends, or building on maturing friendships from home- saved my life. He’s given me people I’ve loved more than I knew was possible, and who love me in return, sometimes more than I deserve. They helped me see I was afraid of the wrong thing: death is not our enemy, but rather lacking something to die for.
Friendship….real, hard, wonderful friendship….that’s worth dying for.
Back in January, in the office of the readings, there was an excerpt from one of St. Gregory Nazianzen’s sermons about his friendship with Basil the Great. It’s really quite moving, a link for the readings is at the bottom. Here are my favorite parts:
“Basil and I were both in Athens. We had come, like streams of a river, from the same source in our native land, had separated from each other in pursuit of learning, and were now united again as if by plan, for God so arranged it.
When, in the course of time, we acknowledged our friendship and recognized that our ambition was a life of true wisdom, we became everything to each other: we shared the same lodging, the same table, the same desires the same goal. Our love for each other grew daily warmer and deeper.
Between us there was no envy. On the contrary, we made capital out of our rivalry. Our rivalry consisted, not in seeking the first place for oneself but in yielding it to the other, for we each looked on the other’s success as his own.
Our single object and ambition was virtue, and a life of hope in the blessings that are to come; we wanted to withdraw from this world before we departed from it. With this end in view we ordered our lives and all our actions. We followed the guidance of God’s law and spurred each other on to virtue. If it is not too boastful to say, we found in each other a standard and rule for discerning right from wrong.
Different men have different names, which they owe to their parents or to themselves, that is, to their own pursuits and achievements. But our great pursuit, the great name we wanted, was to be Christians, to be called Christians.”
It’s just beautiful. These words are often in my mind, for as much as I think of my friends, which is a lot. I stand constantly in awe of them- and we all appreciate the value we have found in one another- but reading Pier Giorgio’s biography let it really sit in my soul.
I have incredible friends. And if you’re reading this, you’re probably one of them.
Pier Giorgio’s satirical name for the group of friends he climbed mountains with was the “shady characters society.” It’s nice to know even saints have their favorites…and silly names for them. He said, “We believe that even when we reach the tomb, the 'shady characters' will remember each other in prayer.” Surely, his friends mourned his passing greatly. Their descriptions of his irreplaceable spirit, his "purifying joy," make that clear. Yet they knew, out of them all, he was always prepared for that day to come.
He once said after experiencing the death of a classmate, "Since one never knows when death will come to take us away, it is wise to prepare ourselves each day as if it were our last. Therefore, from now on I am going to try to do a little something each day to prepare myself for death, so that when death finally does come I will not be caught unprepared and regret those wonderful years of youth wasted from a spiritual point of view."
With my friends, I am alive again, because they point me back to Him. When life is really hard and we question everything we believe in, everything we give our lives for, everything we die for, they say, “Hey, I know this sucks, but it's worth it. Everything will be okay.” They teach me patience, loyalty, fortitude, charity. They teach me how to pray, how to forgive, how to let go, how to love.
So thank you, my dear friends. I think you know what you mean to me. Your faces are in my mind when I wake up and my prayers when I lay down at night. This post is getting long- so next time I’ll expand on how to be a kick-ass friend like you. I could really go on for days. For now, know I’m thinking of you always. Happy Valentine’s Day (the joke holiday before we drink with St. Patty…. Just kidding. Sorry St. Valentine- your (assumed real) martyrdom epitomizes my entire point, actually.) Long live friendship and consumer driven holidays.
*Biography: Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, An Ordinary Christian, by Maria di Lorenzo
(Toward the bottom of page: Sts. Gregory and Basil, Jan 2nd)