The Icon of Friendship

Icon of Friendship
Last week I received a beautiful surprise parcel in the post containing an icon and a book. Those who know me know that this almost equates to being Christmas for me: books and icons, both on my list of 10 favourite things! The icon was one I had actually never seen before and was a gift from Taize, a copy of the Coptic icon which belonged to Brother Roger Schultz, the former prior there. The original icon dates from seventh century Eygpt and is usually referred to as “Christ with the believer” but is just as frequently referred to as “the icon of friendship”.

Although simple in its presentation, it is nevertheless a sophisticated image. Jesus is shown putting His arm around the shoulder of a friend; this man is called Menas, but he represents each one of us. Jesus does not face Menas, rather He stands alongside him; He accompanies him, sharing in the burdens of life. In His left arm Jesus holds the Scriptures, God’s word. The word tells the story of the love between God and humanity; the tireless love of God for His people in spite of the limitations and unfaithfulness of their love. The face of Jesus commands attention, not in a triumphal way, but with a calm and silent authority. His eyes, large and open, accentuated by strong eyebrows, and deep round shadows are not severe or judgmental but gentle. His gaze is still, focused and intense. He looks beyond the world to His Father. Just as, with a gentle hand on the shoulder, Jesus guides Menas to contemplate in wonder the love of the Father for all, so does He guide us. Menas holds in his hand a small unopened scroll; perhaps this symbolizes God’s loving but not fully revealed plan for Menas’ life. The gentle expression of friendship depicted in the icon allows for a glimpse into the all embracing love of Jesus revealed on the Cross and a great reminder to us that Christ is always with us on our journey. He will help us to “to act justly, love tenderly and walk humbly with our God (thanks to Antrim Parish for this description).

We live in an age where we can strike up a new friendship with the click of a mouse, where our “friends,” many of whom we’ve never even met, can number into the hundreds, or even thousands, thanks to social networking sites like Facebook. And yet, despite all the connections and links and “likes” about everything from what we cooked for dinner last night to whom we’re voting for in the next election, most people are hungry for something more, for friendships that dip below the surface to touch the soul.

One of the questions I get asked often as a religious sister is if I can have friends. Usually my answer is : “my friends keep me sane!” and this is true! I am blessed to have people in my life who enrich my existence simply by being in it. They have learned to read me and I allow them to read me. However, the beauty of friendship is that, because it is rooted in Christ,our true friends want to see us continue to grow, even if it is painful. The writer of Proverbs said, that friends help to sharpen us, to become sharp spiritually a little bit at a time. He compares this type of friendship to iron that is banged on by iron. Think of a blacksmith who makes swords! He takes a hammer and takes out a piece of iron and works on it slowly and continuously until it takes the shape and sharpness of a sword. Friends are always challenging us and even pushing us to be all that God wants for us to be.

Sometimes; the value of friendship is something that few people take time to really appreciate. When you need a friend, you realize just what kind of value friendship holds. A recent conversation made me reflect upon this. Perhaps there is no better example of this than the television Sitcom “Cheers.” The theme song says, “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came; You want to be where you can see, Our troubles are all the same; You want to be where everybody knows your name!”.

Often in our lives we have a lot of people in our lives whom we could call acquaintances. But we  may only have a very few that we could term “real friends.” Some one has suggested that we have been successful in life if we have enough close friends to act as pall bearers at our funeral! One can take this a level deeper and speak of spiritual friendships. Aelred of Rievaulx, a 12th-century Cistercian monk who wrote the book on “Spiritual Friendship,” literally says that a true friend is a “guardian of the spirit.” As Christians, these are the kinds of friendships we aspire to because they lead us to the fullness of life which Christ has promised. Even in this age of social networking and instant communication, those kinds of deep and lasting bonds can be forged between any two friends who find common ground in God. May God bless all those who have been friends to me in the past and who continue to walk as pilgrims upon the Way!