The news of my friend Aris’ death immediately brought the memory of our last encounter to the forefront of my mind. I was sitting at the dinner table with him and his wife in their Upper West Side apartment, overlooking the George Washington Bridge and the bottom tip of the Bronx. It was two days before Christmas, and the conversation focused on my plans for the next semester.
I told Aris that I was considering moving away from the area to continue my studies. This prospect worried him. “But if you move away, will you still come back to visit us?”
“Of course!” I answered, not really thinking that the future might hold an international pandemic.
The weekend before school went virtual, Aris’ wife Rouzan called me, asking in her thick Armenian accent if I’d like to come have lunch with them. Being worried about the possibility of getting infected on public transportation, I declined, implying that we would plan a new date once things started to blow over. Little did I expect that I would receive a text two weeks later telling me that he contracted the Coronavirus and died.
What sense can I possibly make of losing a friend so suddenly…that our plans to “meet up soon” would now be impossible? In the face of death, we’re usually offered one of two consolations. “That’s why you have to cherish your loved ones while they’re still around…you never know when you’re going to lose them!” The other, perhaps a little more cheery, goes something like this: “well at least we will see our loved ones again in heaven…besides, they’re already with us in spirit!”
I found these cliches—the former looking to the past while the latter looks to the future—to be totally inadequate responses to my present circumstances. Valuing people while they’re alive doesn’t take away the pain of wanting to see Aris again. Looking forward to our spiritual unity doesn’t enable me to sit down at the table with him again and eat his delicious Armenian home cooked dishes.
What is the purpose of friendship if we know that they won’t last forever? Hanging out, enjoying each other’s company and sharing common interests, as pleasant as all this is, cannot withstand the test of time. Even more intimate moments like having deep, honest conversations, or helping each other during times of suffering will fade away.
This question inspired me to refer back to the writings of Saint Aelred of Rievaulx, the twelfth century Cistercian abbot whose abbey we visited during the Scala Foundation‘s 2018 Summer Seminar. In his seminal treatise on Spiritual Friendship, Aelred explores the Christian understanding of friendship as a virtue with one of his younger confreres.
Through faith in the Incarnation, human beings can reach perfection in their pursuit of virtue, precisely because God, the source of all virtues, has extended His friendship to us. Aelred’s attitude toward the pre-Christian philosopher Cicero’s De Amicitia, though full of affection and appreciation, is inflected with a hint of pity. He laments that “pursuers of true virtue were rare among the pagans since they did not know the Lord, who is the Dispenser of virtue,” but rejoices in the grace that has been bestowed upon mere human beings by the Incarnation, namely the capacity to live lives of perfection and to experience true unity with others. It then becomes possible for friends to be fully in “agreement with all things human and divine”-an essential criterion for virtuous friendship according to Cicero.
Monsignor Luigi Giussani, another author we read at the Scala Summer Seminar, offers a more contemporary treatment of friendship as virtue in Tu (o dell’Amicizia). In the communion of Christ’s body, friendship becomes “an instrument to discover our destiny.” Friendship lived as a virtue is an “instrument to our destiny–it is what makes us walk on the true path.” People “reach the phenomenon of true friendship when they pass the ‘sound barrier’-which is the limit in which we define human experience.”
Virtuous friendships orient us to something that lasts beyond both ephemeral moments of enjoyment and sentimental pietisms. The death of Aris has made me realize how much I want my friendships to be rooted in something eternal. I want them to strive toward an ultimate value that transcends the boundaries of time and space…a value that is powerful enough to remain present even when we are apart from each other.
As I look back at my notes on Aelred and Giussani from the Scala Summer Seminar, I think of Aris’ son John who died last year from cancer. I think of how indebted I am to John for initiating the first Summer Seminar, for enabling me to forge the connections I made with the others as we delved into those texts and explored those sites that allowed us to discover what a virtuous friendship in Christ really looks like. I think about the first time Aris and Rouzan invited me over to dinner, after they came to speak about his life at the 2019 Summer Seminar. And I realize how mysterious this journey of life really is.
And while this more nuanced view of friendship doesn’t take away the pain of loss, it allows this pain to spur us further on our journey toward the One who truly fulfills us. And the more we devote ourselves to this journey, the more deeply we unite ourselves to our friends who have passed on.