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You Don't Need Friends in Heaven

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

All Saints Day. Fr Euan Marley preaches on the saints' friendship for us in this present life.

St Thomas Aquinas denies that anyone needs friends in heaven to be perfectly happy (Iª-IIae q. 4 a. 8). The key word here is ‘need’. We are given perfect happiness by the vision of God. To see God is to see something beyond our imagination, beyond in fact the capacity of any created intellect without the special grace which God gives us to see God. If we are invited into that vision of God, we receive perfect happiness from that vision, even if we are alone with God for all eternity. That is in heaven. Of course in heaven we have perfect friendship with all the saints but it is a result of the happiness of seeing God, not a necessary condition of beatitude.

Here on earth, it is quite different. Whatever happiness we can attain on earth is very much dependent on other people. To the line in the song from the musical ‘Funny Girl’, which runs ‘People who need people’, I think St Thomas would respond by saying, ‘Yes, that would be people in general’. To be human is to be in need of other human beings. This is not just for practical things, though St Thomas thinks that a human being could be self-sufficient in this life, which I find rather unconvincing. Even if human beings could feed and clothe themselves unaided, something hard to imagine in our increasingly complex world, where so much of our well being involves the interaction of others, there is still a deeper need to do good to other people. Aristotle argues that friendship is more than just mutual need, and the example he gives is the rich man who wishes friends so that he may do good to them.

We might think that this desire to do good is motivated by pride, but that is confusing the contaminating effect of pride on human actions: pride gets everywhere, with the deep desire of human beings to have added to the well being of others. The humble sharer of good things does not force them on other people but offers such goods as they possess freely and without reserve. The shared goods include the goods of contemplation, to quote Thomas, ‘indiget enim homo ad bene operandum auxilio amicorum, tam in operibus vitae activae, quam in operibus vitae contemplativae’ (a human being needs the help of friends to act well, as much in the works of the active life as in the works of the contemplative life). The order is odd here, as I would think most people would find it less obvious that the contemplative life needs friendship rather than the active life. In fact contemplation has always grown best in the soil of friendship, which is why so many spiritual lives are associated with orders, religious societies and religious movements. 

So what of the friendship of the saints in heaven for us here on earth, which is what today’s feast is about? The friendship of the saints in heaven is a purer friendship than our human friendship because it is not based on any need they have, except what we might call the need to allow their joy and love to overflow into this world. They offer that friendship in obedience to God, who allows them to be our friends on earth. For us, living in this world, there is need for their friendship because that is the way that God has ordained things. 

It is a friendship which is both in the present, and in our future aspirations, as we see in the Beatitudes. The Beatitudes are framed between two verses in the present, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, theirs is the kingdom of Heaven, and ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted because of justice, theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.’ The other six Beatitudes speak of the future, they shall be comforted, they shall inherit the earth, they shall be satisfied, they shall find mercy, they shall see God, they shall be called sons of God. Really though, the Beatitudes are about the present. The future promises remind us that we have still to live our lives to the end, that human life will continue, and that it will always be a struggle. In faith and hope, the kingdom is already present. The expansion of the eighth beatitude calls on us to be happy and to rejoice, because great is the reward in heaven. Heaven is all friendship, and that friendship is already ours on earth.

Readings: Apocalypse 7:2-4,9-14 | 1 John 3:1-3 | Matthew 5:1-12a

Euan Marley O.P.

Euan Marley O.P.fr. Euan Marley O.P. is Prior at Blackfriars, Cambridge.
euan.marley@english.op.org


Photo credit: Lawrence Lew OP

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