For where two or three are gathered in My name, I am there among them. Matthew 18:20
The importance of friendships rooted in Christ and community-building has been on my mind a lot during the last year. I remained in Oxford beginning a new course while most of my closest friends graduated and moved on, leaving me feeling slightly adrift and needing once again to build up my community in Oxford. The importance of friendship was emphasised again at a conference on evangelisation recently where authentic friendship was considered second only to divine intimacy in terms of the crucial elements of fulfilling Christ’s Great Commission.
‘Friendship … is born at the moment when one man says to another ‘What! You too? I thought that no-one but myself …’ CS Lewis, The Four Loves
Coming from a small parish with very few young people, and a school where none of my friends was Catholic, arriving at the Catholic Chaplaincy and getting involved in the Newman Society was the first time that I was able to experience this wonderful epiphany Lewis describes in relation to my faith. Other young people who believed what I did? Students who were intelligent, articulate and enthusiastic about their faith? Others who hungered to know Christ better? I had thought that no-one but myself…
Upon coming to university, we find ourselves surrounded by all sorts of different people, whom we would never have met in school or in our local area. Suddenly, we are not friends with people simply because they happen to be around us, sitting next to us in an English lesson or playing in the same orchestra; we must make the decision to deliberately seek out like-minded people. Far more so than was ever possible in the small, limited worlds of our childhoods and schools, we choose our friends and intentionally cultivate relationships. Coming to Oxford and finding other people whose lives were centred on Christ was a revelation to me.
I feel very blessed during my time at university to have formed friendships with some truly amazing people who have supported me, inspired me, consoled me and celebrated with me at different times. While we may have different tastes when it comes to everything from music to politics, we are united through our baptism and by our love of Christ. I strongly believe that intentional friendships founded in a shared faith and rooted in Christ are different from those which are founded, for example, in a shared interest in a particular author, and I also believe that such friendships are crucial to living the Christian life.
At various points over the last few years, my friends from the Chaplaincy have rejoiced with me when things have gone well, held me when I cried, studied with me, shared many meals and cups of tea with me, gone on many long walks where we have discussed the trivial and the profound: they have made me feel known and loved. Yet a friendship rooted in Christ is all this and so much more. These friends have also encouraged me in my faith and challenged me to grow in it. Together we have come to learn more about God and His plan for us. Often, I feel inspired as I look at my friends and feel that I can learn so much about prayer and virtue from their example. It might be their peaceful demeanour and their evident surrender to God; the sheer joy with which they talk about Jesus; the quiet and unobtrusive way in which they lead a life of prayer and works of mercy; or their zeal for evangelisation. Sometimes, I have been extremely humbled to discover that a person whose example I try to follow thinks the same about me. Because we are all oriented toward Christ, we are all able to help one another to follow Him.
Furthermore, in His goodness, God has so ordained it that our prayers make a difference. When a friend prays for me, they aren’t just thinking nice thoughts or ‘sending good vibes’: they are participating in God’s plan for me and very actively supporting me. I know that at various points in my life, my friends have truly sustained me, not just in their practical and moral support, but through their prayer for me. And the knowledge of the efficacy of prayer means that I need not feel entirely helpless when a friend comes to me in a crisis and I feel unqualified to offer advice. I can pray for that person, and trust God will hear my prayer.
Therefore, building up a community of people rooted in Christ is fundamental to living the faith through mutual support and encouragement. We cannot do it on our own. In Oxford I am so lucky to have found such a community at the Catholic Chaplaincy. Through my time on the Newman Society committee and in other groups, working with others in the library in the lead up to finals, and choosing to live at the Chaplaincy I have got very involved in the community here, and I see the fruits of all the energy I put into community-building in the friendships I have formed. It is a real grace to be surrounded by so many wonderful people, and that amongst the many wonderful people there are several whom I would sincerely consider to be true, intimate, friends with whom I can be authentic and vulnerable, who strengthen me and inspire me in my faith, and who bring me closer to God. We read in Sirach 6:15 that ‘there is nothing so precious as a faithful friend’ and I know that it is rare indeed to find such friendships. I pray that those of you reading this will be as blessed as I in finding faithful friends who will help lead you to Christ!
Anna Branford, MSt Modern Languages