"As the Father loves Me, so I also love you. Remain in My love. . . I have called you friends because I have told you everything I have heard from My Father . . . I have much more to tell you now, but you cannot bear it. But when He comes, the Spirit of Truth, He will guide you to all truth . . .It is expedient for you that I depart, for if I do not go, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you . . . These things I have spoken to you while yet dwelling with you, but the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your mind whatever I have said to you."
These words all come from Jesus' Last Supper with His best friends, and you can find them in the Gospel recorded by one of those best friends, John, who that night rested his head on Jesus' chest and heard the beating of His Sacred Heart, as well as His many words and promises of Love.
Last night I had the privilege of attending another sort of last supper among best friends. My husband teaches at Thomas Aquinas College, a small school of less than 400 students. As we did when we were graduating from the same place 31 years ago, the students gathered with their teachers and chaplains for the Presidents' Dinner in St. Joseph Commons.
(Afterward we all went bowling - last night and 31 years ago. Let me just say that although it seems like bad sportsmanship to refuse "double or nothing" after you've won a hard fought game, I'd refuse it if I were you. The likely outcome if you take it and then bowl like me is that you'll end up with nothing, though much laughter will lead you there. Suffice it to say that after my terrible beginning and before my similarly unhappy ending, I did play an impressive game in the middle.)
My favorite part of the evening, hands down, is the toasts the students and faculty make. It's a last chance to give public witness to the friendships that Heaven has given here: the Heavenly friendships which are, in my opinion, the greatest treasures (outside the Sacraments) on this earth; the friendships which, in many cases, will continue with this intensity only when we are re-united in Heaven forever.
This was the 11th such farewell dinner that my husband and I have attended since we returned to our alma mater exactly 20 years after our own President's Dinner. In the interim, we were blessed to be part of the Christendom College community where my husband taught for 14 years. There, too, this time of year is a season of warm and poignant good-byes as students (and faculty) bid farewell to friends made during four years spent living together in the hard-fought pursuit of virtue and Truth.
The news in the world and the Church can be so depressing. My advice is to ignore it as much as possible. Christ alone gives true peace; as He said, "Not as the world gives do I give." My husband and I have seen the reputations of our two dear colleges rise and fall and rise again, depending on the perspective (often skewed, sometimes hilarious, frequently biased) of the portion of the world momentarily interested in our aforesaid common pursuit of virtue and Truth.
What do I know from long experience living in the heart of these communities?
Only God is perfect. And every perfect gift comes from Him. A college, however faithful to the Magisterium (and these colleges are as faithful as the day is long - and the day is very, very long), is an imperfect institution because it is made up of imperfect men and women. But among our imperfection, the perfect gifts He gives are so beautiful to behold . . . And among these perfect gifts, friendship is among the greatest. Friendship with Him, ripening into Easter vigils full of blooming young lilies whose lives are newly baptized and pledged unto death. Friendship with each other, which will sustain the separate pursuits of virtue and Truth which once were sought together. Friendship which comes from Heaven and will be fulfilled in Heaven.
My best friends of college days were, as with the students who toasted each other last night, almost beyond counting - which is funny when you consider how relatively small Thomas Aquinas College is. But if I was forced to count, if I had to toast in the limited time available, I'd want to remember three friends in particular. One is my husband, who sleeps while I write. The other two (Jackie and Jon, since they were not nameless, but have names I invoke regularly) are even nearer to me as I write - as near as Heaven, which I'm confident they now call Home.
The toasts last night ended with a final benediction from our oldest chaplain, Fr. Cornelius Buckley of the Society of Jesus. He does great honor to his forebears, St. Ignatius and Francis Xavier, for he is as merry as he is holy, and as much a friend (and fan of friendship) as they were back in the day. He thanked God for this time, this dinner among friends, a dinner which he noted was "the last time we'd all be together like this until the Heavenly Banquet."
The evening had, as always, brought tears to my eyes: tears of gratitude that God has let me live in such places, among such saintly people, amidst such Heavenly friendship. With Father's final blessing, I felt a fuller measure of gratitude, love, and joy. While it's true that good-byes are hard, they are always only temporary. Not only do we have the joy of spending time, however long or fleeting, with friends in this life, but we have the hope and promise of spending eternity with them. That means Forever! Toasts unlimited, joy galore, seeing God face to Face and each other in all our future glory. Can you imagine how magnificent that will be? How good God is!
Reading Marcel is such a pleasure because he is so very human (read: poor, weak, little, imperfect), and yet while experiencing the depths of our human condition, he was brought by Jesus to the heights as well. And if I had to choose two words to explain how Jesus brought our brother Marcel to the heights, those two words would be Heavenly friendships.
When you begin to know of Marcel, even the least little bit, the first thing that jumps out at you is his friendship with St. Therese. He asked her to be his big sister and she responded with a resounding "Yes!" and lots more to say besides. They became the best of friends, and it wasn't long before Jesus, too, began speaking to Marcel, speaking as a friend speaks to a friend. Mary's role is that of a Mother, and she is Mother par excellence to Marcel, but as a mother I like to think that this mothering relationship doesn't exclude friendship. Rather, like marriage it is a special form of friendship. So there we have it: Marcel's heavenly friendships are with none other than Jesus, Mary, and Therese. You can see why I cherish his Conversations: they are the record of these intimate friendships with God, His Mother, and His dear little Therese, "the greatest saint of modern times."
But like a ginsu knife commercial - Wait! There's more!
Recently I've been realizing that Marcel's Heavenly friendships also include two more types. I won't leave you in suspense: the first is with us! But before he got to Heaven in order to initiate friendships with us like St. Therese had with him, he had heavenly friendships on earth with people wayfaring just like he was. And the words he and his friends exchanged are worth noting because they teach us so much about our own experience - that past, and that to come.
When Van was just a boy, shortly after he'd chosen Therese to be his big sister and she'd come to instruct him, he himself became the teacher of his little friend Hien. After Van told Hien much of what Therese had taught (while keeping the extent of his friendship with Therese a secret), Hien responded:
"Van, you are truly very fortunate! Frankly, until now I had never heard it said that there are such intimate relations between earth and heaven. O Van, I wish to have no other spiritual sister than your spiritual sister! . . . Also, Van, from today I am choosing you as my spiritual brother so that you may be my guide on the way of perfection, since I am still very imperfect." (Autobiography 637)
Marcel writes, "From that moment Hien and I, like two flowers from the same stem, lived closely together, helping one another in our ascent towards God . . . I noticed shortly afterwards that the divine grace acting in his soul enabled him to make rapid progress. It could be said that we had both arrived at a level of the spiritual life which could be described as reckless since we allowed ourselves to be guided by this doctrine of Therese: one responds to love by love and a perfect confidence" (638).
Let me interject that Marcel took great joy in the resemblance between his life and that of Therese - and here is a great example of similarity. His account of his friendship with Hien reminds me so much of Therese's account, in Story of a Soul, of her friendship with Celine when they too were young and falling in love with Jesus.
But what captures my heart even more than Marcel's commentary on this friendship is the remark Hien made to him one day: "Van, I think that if I had never met anyone in my life like you to understand me, I would have probably died of sadness" (639).
I have good news. Just as it took Therese to come down and understand Van to keep him from dying of sadness in this exile, and just as Van was immediately (after meeting Therese) willing to share her love (Jesus' love) with Hien, so we too are next in line to receive Heavenly friendships, and in particular the friendship of our dear brother Marcel Van. Listen to what he says after quoting Hien's tribute to him:
"Hien has been my first little brother, the first flower of the season. It is St. Therese who has enabled me to find him, pick him, and offer him to God."
There would be no point in Marcel speaking of Hien as his "first little brother" unless he planned on having more of the same! And there would be no point in my having written about the beautiful friendships I'm privileged to witness and partake in, unless I had such friendships to offer you, dear reader! You don't even need to have (yet) the confidence that Therese and Marcel prescribe. That confidence will come as you more and more see God's goodness, but meanwhile I will have confidence for you. I am completely confident that Marcel, with Therese's help, will become an intimate Heavenly friend to you, happy to teach you his big sister's secrets - the secrets of Jesus' passionate Love for you - and happy to accompany you through this exile until you reach your true Home and all your Heavenly friends at the Father's House.
This year I'm especially moved by the graduations at my two beloved colleges coinciding quite perfectly with Jesus' Ascension. And when I'm tempted to be sad about Jesus seeming to leave us (will you judge me harshly if I tell you I've been saying the glorious mysteries since Easter and making the first two mysteries the Resurrection, while leaving out the Ascension?), I remind myself that He didn't leave without the promise which will keep us from dying of sadness. In Matthew's Gospel, Our Lord's last words (and this at His Ascension) are "Behold, I am with you all days, even unto the consummation of the world."
We have Him here with us in the Blessed Sacrament, and we can meet each other there, in Him, Heavenly friends old and new, those in Heaven now, and those still on earth.
There will be many reunions for friends who must part soon: marriages, ordinations, first vows, baptisms, alumni days, and, dare I say it, funerals. I do not regret my two college friends' departure for better climes, though I sometimes recriminate them for leaving me here while they go to eternal bliss. No matter - I have Jesus as they do, even if I'm more easily distracted from Him. And they will not forget to remind Him about me, even if He could forget me for an instant!
I hope you too are blessed with a multitude of Heavenly friends, and that you are not too often parted from them during our earthly pilgrimage. As to the end of the pilgrimage - may you not be too surprised by the Love of God in Himself and His friends (and yours) when you get there!
Finally, speaking of pilgrimages, my second son Dominic is on one now - after a day in Fatima with friends kind enough to take him with them to Portugal, they are on their way today, on Ascension Thursday, along the Portuguese Way to Santiago de Compostela, scheduled to arrive there on Pentecost. I can only say: never underestimate the power of Heavenly friendships, and please in your charity offer an Ave for their safe and holy travels, as I offer an Ave in thanks for yours! God is really all that good, and then some.
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