HOMILY to high school students by Tony Banks O.S.A., Provincial.
Delivered on Patron’s Day at St Augustine's College, Brookvale, Australia: 25th August 2006.
Friendship is at the core of human existence. John Donne tells us that “no person is an island”.
The Gospel relates that there is nothing better than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. And Augustine’s life story is a story of evolving friendships and deepening his understanding of friendship.
At an Augustinian school, we value true friendship above all other core achievements within the school. It is beyond academic excellence, above winning at sports or extra-curricular activities, greater than administrative or disciplinary structures within our schools.
To live friendship is to live as one with each other in truth and love. It is Communitas, Veritas, Caritas. We value true friendship.
In Augustine’s life there are many stories of friendship but his book Confessions is not a story of those friendships – Confessions, his best known book, is a story of how he comes to understand the mirror relationships of friendship with one another in terms of our relationship with God. For while Augustine has many friends in his life story, be it in Confessions or in the book by Saint Possidius on the life of St Augustine his friendships are not always the healthiest or most productive.
So that we can explore the ideas of friendship and all their implications I need you to think out who are your friends?
And when you have some people to think about to work out why you call them friends? What makes them friends?
I now want you to apply some of Augustine’s criteria on true friendship based on some of the experiences of Augustine.
About the age of 12:
Augustine and his friends nick someone else’s pears and then have a fruit fight. Not the worst of activities but not acceptable behaviour then or now, but something anyone could get caught up in.
Augustine would ask later if his friends at that time were those he tried to impress rather people who showed mutual concern for one another. Are your friends a group that get each other into trouble, or who need to impress each other by their exploits?
About the age of 16:
Augustine and his friends set themselves up as an elite group, mocking outsiders and being experts at all things they see as important. They do all the things that make you important in life at that time – they talk a great line (Augustine will become a renowned orator), they love the theatre and one of them becomes a fanatic of the gladiatorial sports. They see themselves as talented and going places. They find the company of women fascinating, with the norms of the day being many adventures in love. They practice the art of drinking; but leave the art out of it on occasions.
Augustine will eventually challenge himself and his friends at the time as to the values that they exercised and the lack of calling each other into question. His own love affair is to have a relationship with just one woman and to be faithful to her, even though she was below his rank in life and custom did not demand any fidelity or any commitment – but while he expressed his value in actions he did not address his values in words to his friends. He saw the weaknesses of others, and even some within himself but these were not uttered for fear of damaging friendships.
Are your friendship groups mutual admiration societies or do they exercise common care for one another and recognise both talents and flaws?
About the age of 25:
Augustine has abandoned any traces of his religion. Christianity doesn’t seem to answer any of his questions and simply places restrictions on him, his friends and their lifestyle. He places intellectual rigour at the forefront and attempts to come to better answers. He tries some of the offbeat sects and the popular movements of the day, the equivalent of the Hare Krishnas or the extravagant evangelical movements of today. The mind games he will write are of people who never look at the realities of life and seek direct answers to complex relationships.
Are your friends knockers of the struggles that constitute life and of the strugglers?
About the age of 30:
Augustine has moved out of Africa to Italy lying to his mother about where he is going and what is happening in his life. The customs of the day means he has to let go of his lover and begin the search for a wife. Yet this creates a huge hole in his heart. He addresses the hole with another woman in his life but she does not remain with him as long.
He addresses the aches in his heart by reading and waiting for someone to come along with all the answers. Yet at the moment when he understands that God has been with him all his life he sees that his friend Alypius has been with him yet has already been at this point of conversion waiting for him to arrive.
Are your friends waiting for you to arrive at yourself and are they working to let you be yourself.
This notion of Christian friendship is about being ultimately true to the God who resides within you and calls you to be the best person you can be. Augustine struggles with friendship even while he has friends around him. His life was dominated by friendships but in the end he begins to see what makes true friendship as opposed to that which meets his immediate needs.
He loves the unnamed woman even after her departure as he sees beyond his need for gratification to the gifts that she bore him within the relationship and what she brought out of him from that relationship.
Augustine sees the friend as the one who stood by him in his years of need and who tried to steer him in the direction of his own core goodness.
Augustine dismisses the ones who saw the sharing of good times as the epitome of friendship, and will conclude that it was those who could celebrate moving beyond the hard times because they had stuck together as the real friends. Augustine values those who challenged him; who were true to themselves in the midst of crisis, change and opportunity. Augustine valued those who saw him with his flaws, named the flaws yet still loved him as a human being.
Augustine will see friendship in terms of those who risked the friendship by being true to themselves and seeking the truth in others. Can there be a greater way to be human, to be adult than to be a true friend laying down one’s life for your friends? Is this not what we are all called to be?
Augustine will see his friends as
- his mother who chased and challenged,
- his friends who questioned whether the theatre, the sports or the intellectual pursuits were the real goals of life when he was rapt in them
- his teachers who shared with him their loves
- his pupils with whom he sought to be fellow students on the path to learning
- those who were faithful even after they had left his company .
Who did you name as your friends? Are they the true friends or should there be more names, more faces, more truth.
Truth conquers and true friendship creates the building of love, relationships that last forever.