Friendship: Gospel Value & Wellness Benefit

Vicki Masterpaul, OSF Features

This is the tenth in a series of articles provided by members of the Province Wellness Committee. Information about both the committee and health concerns is available through Chair J. Patrick Kelly, OFM, at 201-280-7644.

Spirituality involves the entire human person in all of his/her relationships, as opposed to just one area of life. I am firmly convinced that our attitude toward relationships, in particular, healthy friendships, is key to our overall wellness.

Wilkie Au, theologian and former Jesuit, submits that, “Friendship, like leisure, is often sacrificed on the altar of pragmatic concerns.” Because we tend to live such busy lives, as the pace of life quickens, we put off much of what is entailed in developing and nurturing cherished relationships.I believe that as Franciscans who hopefully live from an incarnational stance, friendship should be a core value, rather than a frill in our lives. While philosophers have written and spoken eloquently for years on the importance of friendship, Jesus affirmed it repeatedly, in the scriptures, as a Gospel value.

Jesus not only had close friends, but more importantly, he used the love of friendship to describe the very meaning of giving his life for us on the cross. (John 15: 13-14).  To be able to demonstrate the love that Jesus did, evidences his deep commitment to, and experience of, the love of friendship.  (John 14: 9-10)  Monika Hellwig, the late George Washington University professor, maintains that, “As Christians we see Jesus as the unique image of God in humanity.” Close friends, then, who embody the love of Christ, can become for us a sacred encounter where we meet God face to face.

Celibacy Requires Friendship
Living as celibate religious does not preclude friendship, but in fact, requires it.  As religious women and men whose vow of chastity symbolizes the universal love lived by Jesus, we have not only the capability, but also the responsibility to personify that universal love in our relationships. I remember reading an article on friendship which pointed out that the spiritual life is inseparable from communion with others, but communion with others is impossible without a spiritual life. Yet, at times we try to escape encounter with others, and in so doing, deny our sexuality. The following story points to the fact that this type of denial can lead to fixation.

The story is told of two monks — one young and one old — walking through a forest in medieval France. Upon reaching a river, they encountered a shapely young maiden with golden hair, stranded on the bank, unable to ford the river on her own.

Without a moment’s hesitation, the old monk lifted the young lass into his arms and carried her across. Miles later, as they continued their trek through the forest, the young monk confronted the old one. Recalling the incident with the girl at the river, the young monk confessed utter disillusionment with his supposedly more experienced brother in religion. Complaining, the young monk asked in righteous indignation, “How could you, a religious bound to the vow of chastity, be so casual and unguarded in your contact with such a beautiful woman?”  The wise old monk responded calmly, “Yes, but I left her back there at the bank of the river. You are still carrying her with you.”

Chaste love challenges us to be like the old monk who carried the woman across the river.  Celibacy, lived as it is meant to be — to the fullest — frees us to love universally without fear.

The Rosetto Effect
All this said, you might ask:  What does this have to do with wellness?  While searching out material on this topic, I found an article entitled, “Is Love the Best Drug?” It began with the following story about the Roseto effect.

Until about 1965, the people of Roseto, a small town in the eastern part of Pennsylvania, seemed all but immune to heart disease. They smoked as much as their neighbors in nearby Bangor. They ate similar food and they relied on the same physicians and hospitals. Yet their death rate from heart attacks was significantly lower. It seems that Roseto’s most striking distinction was its tight-knit social life.  Founded in 1882 by immigrants from southern Italy, Roseto was full of three generation households with strong commitments to church and family. However, when those traditions eroded in the ‘60s, so did Roseto’s health. By the mid-‘70, the residents were as mobile and anonymous as other Americans, and apparently just as prone to heart disease.  The Roseto effect had vanished.  The suspicion is that social change was the culprit.

Friends Boost Emotional Health

Taking the time to make friends and keep friends is among the most important investments of our personal energy.  Statistical research by behavioral scientists, points to the fact that friendship is a crucial factor in emotional health and happiness.  In his book, Love & Survival: The Scientific Basis for the Healing Power of Intimacy, Dr. Dean Ornish stresses that the quality of our relationships can have a profound effect on our health status.  More and more evidence points to the fact that people without close, durable ties to family and friends are at high risk for several conditions — heart disease, high blood pressure, and infections to name a few.  “Love and intimacy are at the root of what makes us sick and what makes us well,” Ornish said.

“I am not aware of any other factor in medicine — not diet, smoking or exercise — that has a greater impact,” he continues.  A growing number of specialists are striving to tap the healing power of companionship; however, the forces that transformed Roseto are still changing the world.

The joy, understanding, support and security that come with close friendship often help to decrease the stresses and strains of daily life. When I look back on both the good times and the difficult times in my life, right in the center of those memories are close friends who either were the reason for my treasuring the events, or who were there for me during the pain.

Why, then, do we not take the time to foster the gift of friendship? Many of us, especially those who entered religious life prior to the ‘70s, were “formed” with the repeated warnings regarding particular friendships. We were reminded again and again that these relationships were suspect, divisive and thus, an impediment to living community life.  Thankfully, our formation programs have moved from that negative focus to a more wholesome approach to relationships.

Even in healthy relationships, we risk experiencing pain due to misunderstandings, betrayal of trust, and subsequent loss through illness and death, of those we have loved and with whom we have shared our journeys.  We all know that whatever is worthwhile in our lives, calls us to live out the underside of joy — a measure of sorrow and pain.

As Franciscans trying daily to live out the Gospels, we need only to revisit Jesus’ life for validation of living “by way of the heart.” (John. 11: 1-44, Luke 22: 54-62)  May we have the desire and the courage to do so, and the blessing of the joys that come with this commitment!

— Sr. Vicki, a registered nurse, resides at the St. Elizabeth Motherhouse in Allegany, N.Y. She can be contacted there  by phone  or by email at