I had intended for Words Wednesday today to quote from a beautiful section regarding friendship from The Keys to the Kingdom, A.J. Cronin’s novel about priest Fr. Francis Chisolm, one of the great dads in fiction I wrote about Sunday.
In the last few days, perhaps because I’ve had friendship on my mind, friendship (or actually, writing about it) is what I keep discovering.
I was particularly interested in Sally Thomas’s fine reflection of childhood friendship, based on a New York Times article that explains how some professionals who work with children say that “best friends” is not a good thing.
And when I opened Universalis this morning to pray Morning Prayer, there was site creator Martin Kochanski’s breathtaking reflection on the beauty of passionate friendship and how our modern culture has all but destroyed it. (If you are reading this after today, you might need to search for the “About Today” page of June 23. The reflection is every year on that date). Kochanski wrote this based on the first & second reading from today’s Office of Readings, about the holy, passionate friendship of David & Jonathan, and St. Aelred’s reflection on it.
So there is lots to ponder and consider lately, it seems, about when we consider the nature of friendship and what it means to be a true friend. In The Keys of the Kingdom, friendship plays an enormous role in Father Chisolm’s life. Isn’t that true for all of us? We are all affected by our friends, both for good and ill. And navigating the terrain of friendship can be alternately easy and treacherous, and a lifelong work.
In The Keys to the Kingdom, Fr. Francis Chisolm is going back to England after many years living as a missionary to China. A powerful man in the community who had after much time become Fr. Francis’ friend, an influential friend of the town, Mr. Chia, comes to say goodbye. Earlier in the novel, Fr. Francis had healed (through normal medicine, not miraculous means) Mr. Chia’s son, and Mr. Chia had offered to convert out of gratitude. Fr. Francis would not let him.
On this visit:
An odd silence fell. Mr. Chia broke it with constraint. “Since our time together is limited it might not be unfitting if we talked a moment regarding the hereafter.”
“All my time is dedicated to such talk.”
Mr. Chia hesitated, beset by unusual awkwardness. “I have never pondered deeply on what state lies beyond this life. But if such a state exists it would be very agreeable for me to enjoy your friendship there.”
Despite his long experience, Father Chisolm did not grasp the import of the remark. He smiled but did not answer. And Mr. Chia was forced in great embarrassment to be direct.
“My friend, I have often said: There are many religions and each has its gate to heaven.” A faint color crept beneath his dark skin. “Now it would appear that I have the extraordinary desire to enter by your gate.”
Dead silence. Father Chisolm’s bent figure was immobilized, rigid.
“I cannot believe that you are serious.”
‘Once, many years ago, when you cured my son, I was not serious. But then I was unaware of the nature of your life. ..of its patience, quietness and courage. The goodness of a religion is best judged by the goodness of its adherents. My friend…you have conquered me by example.’
Father Chisolmn raised his hand to his forehead, that familiar sign of hidden emotion. His conscience had often reproached him for his initial refusal to accept Mr. Chia, even without a true intention. He spoke slowly. ‘All day long my mouth has been bitter with the ashes of failure. Your words have rekindled the fires in my heart. Because of this one moment I feel that my work has not been worthless. In spite of that I say to you … don’t do this for friendship–only if you have belief.’
Mr. Chia answered firmly. ‘My mind is made up. I do it for friendship and belief. We are as brothers, you and I. Your Lord must also be mine. Then, even though you must depart tomorrow, I shall be content, knowing that in our Master’s garden our spirits will one day meet.’
At first the priest was unable to speak. He fought to conceal the depth of his feeling. He reached out his hand to Mr. Chia. In a low uncertain tone he said, —
‘Let us go down to the church.’