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By Gretchen Crowder

I have always labeled God’s love for me as agape, but the more time I spend immersed in Ignatian Spirituality, the more I am open to considering that the best representation of God’s love for me might just be philia instead.

If you are not familiar with the four Greek words for love, they are agape (unconditional love), eros (romantic love), philia (friendship love), and storge (empathetic affection). The English language is limited when it comes to love, and so when the bible was translated into English, love became the simplistic word used for all these various types mentioned. The old adage that “some things are lost in translation” is definitely true, especially when it comes to love.

In today’s Gospel passage from John, the original Greek word used was agape. We read that God so unconditionally, so magnanimously, loved the world that God sent Jesus to be human like us. As a human like us, Jesus desired friendship, and he found friendship in his apostles. In fact, later in the Gospel of John, we hear Jesus say, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:12-14). Jesus looks at the apostles before him and says, “You are my friends.” In fact, they were friends that he loved so much, he was willing to lay down his life for them.

Jesus not only desired friendship with his apostles back when he walked this earth, but he desires friendship with us as well right now, in this very moment. But to be honest, I am a little intimidated by that desire. I think in some ways it’s easier for me to stick with agape as the way Jesus loves me. The friendship love, philia, that Jesus also has for me scares me a bit.

Why?

I think friendship is complicated. As a child and even as a teenager, friendship was somewhat easy to find and develop. Friendships were formed right where I stood: in the classroom, on the playground, in the choir, or on the soccer field. In college, my friendships were formed where I laid my head, the dorm I had randomly been assigned to when I accepted my admission to Notre Dame. Friendships also were formed with the people I stayed up late at night studying with for the engineering classes I insisted on taking my first two years. Some of my best friends in college were discovered through proximity alone.

Now, as an adult, I find friendship to be a bit more difficult. I have work friends, fellow parent friends, workout friends and more. I still have those friends that have been born out of proximity. I find, however, that as I age, I desire more than just friendships of proximity. Despite this increasing desire, however, I also find that in the busy-ness of life, I do not have the bandwidth most days to put forth the effort that those kinds of friendships would require. True friendship, virtuous friendship as Aristotle would describe, requires both effort and attention. True friendship requires availability and vulnerability. True friendship requires more of me than I can offer in this season of life.

So, perhaps thinking of God’s love for me as solely agape was the easy way out. If God’s love for me is so magnanimous, so other-worldly, then my response of love will inevitably pale in comparison. It has to. I am only human after all. But if instead God’s magnanimous love for me, God’s agape, was transformed to philia in Jesus, then my return of love to God is something actually within my reach.

If the love Jesus invites me to is philia, then I am afraid I have some work to do.

God Desires Friendship

According to Fr. Edward Vacek, SJ, who wrote about agape and philia and God, agape is a love that is offered solely for the sake of the beloved whereas philia is a love that is offered for the sake of the relationship. In the Christian context, we worship a Trinitarian God – three persons in one God, the purest example of relationship. This philia among the persons of the Trinity does not remain among them but overflows and spills out to us inviting all of us into relationship. The prime difference between agape and philia is that the relationship is paramount.

This is what Ignatius discovered through his conversion – that God desired, above all, a friendship with us. Our relationship with God was the end for which we were created. It is what all of our efforts should be directed to. God desires an ongoing relationship with us where we are – not as simply creatures worshiping our creator, but as co-creators with God every moment of every day. In fact, the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius invite us to get to know who we are and who God is, so that we may develop this relationship, this friendship with God, and let the graces of this friendship overflow to the rest of humanity.

The challenge of responding to the philia Jesus invites me to, however, is not just the effort and attention it requires from me, but the challenge is also how expansive this philia is meant to be. If I truly consider who Jesus regarded as his friends, I will recognize that they were not limited to a particular insular circle. Instead, Jesus’ circle was so expansive that it included everyone, particularly the marginalized, those typically considered outside the bounds of societal relationship. The challenge of Jesus’ philia for me is that it invites me to a radical, almost absurd kind of inclusivity.

Father Greg Boyle, SJ, in his book Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion explains the kind of friendship, or kinship, that Jesus offered. He writes: “Kinship – not serving the other, but being one with the other. Jesus was not “a man for others”; he was one with them. There is a world of difference in that.”

Father Boyle explains that Jesus’ expression of friendship was principally about compassion. But what is real compassion like? He writes: “Compassion isn’t just about feeling the pain of others; it’s about bringing them in toward yourself. If we love what God loves, then, in compassion, margins get erased. ‘Be compassionate as God is compassionate,’ means the dismantling of barriers that exclude.” (75).

God so magnanimously loved the world that God sent God’s son to be one with us. God’s agape for you and me resulted in Jesus, fully divine and fully human, who desired nothing more than friendship with us. In return for this love, we are invited to enter into relationship with one another, to offer a kind of compassionate friendship that extends beyond the invisible boundary lines we have drawn around ourselves and our lives.

This is not an easy invitation.

So, I’ll ask again, as much for myself as for you, are we truly open to God’s offer of friendship? Are we ready to accept the philia that moves among the persons of the Trinity and flows outward to us? Are we ready to make an offer of philia in return and make our circle wider than we ever thought possible?

Prayer Suggestion

This week, I invite you to reflect on the Beatitudes, the invitation from Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew to spiritual intimacy with him – the eightfold invitation of Jesus to release our hearts so that we may be open to the friendship he desires to have with us. The following Examen on the Beatitudes engages the writing of Fr. Monty Williams, SJ, in his book The Gift of Spiritual Intimacy: Following the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius, in which he uses the Beatitudes as a prayer exercise connected to the examination of oneself as a loved sinner during the First Week of the Spiritual Exercises. I invite you to pray this Examen throughout the week ahead, perhaps pausing to contemplate one beatitude each day if that deepens your prayer. Note there is a brief period of a dark screen (about 30 seconds) following Gretchen’s introduction before the examen begins. 

 

Gretchen Crowder

Gretchen Crowder wrote Leaning into our Belovedness, an introduction to her theme this Lent. Full of inspiration and prayer suggestions, you can download it as a PDF to pray with throughout the Lenten season. Gretchen is a campus minister and educator at Jesuit College Preparatory School of Dallas, as well as a writer, retreat director and podcaster. You can find her at gretchencrowder.com and on Loved As You Are: An Ignatian Podcast, available anywhere you get your podcasts. 

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