I remember the first time I realised I had grown-up friends. I had a few friends from school and college, but after I moved back home to Pittsburgh, they were all out of the picture. I was busy working in politics, which for better or worse mitigated the loneliness. In the meantime, my wife and I would go to our parish’s young adult ministry events. We met one couple there who were just dating at the time, and who seemed especially keen on including us in their lives.
They invited us to things like gingerbread-house-making nights and board-game nights at the young woman’s somewhat dingy apartment. It was basic stuff, but I wasn’t used to being comfortable in another person’s home; more precisely, I wasn’t used to others being comfortable with me, in their less than immaculate homes – other than college dorms. It was an invitation to friendship and a little example of vulnerability and trust, the kind of grace-filled choice that bears fruit.
We ended up becoming close with this couple. But before that, my wife and I met some more young Catholics, moved twice and had two children. Our new home was in a neighbourhood with some of these acquaintances, but I wasn’t yet sure it would amount to anything.
Then one day I came home expecting to find my wife and children quietly puttering about. Instead, when I opened the door I was nearly knocked over by the din of multiple families with several children. My wife had thrown an impromptu taco party in my absence. But I immediately integrated into the party, greeted other parents’ children, participated in witty chitchat with fellow dads, and felt completely at home. I realised that I hadn’t felt this comfortable with people, especially in my space, since the special relationships of my college days. I finally had real friends again.
That’s the summary version of what could be a long story. I focused on that first couple from the young adult ministry events, but I could have chosen other anecdotes about other families. In so many cases, the beginning and the nurturing of friendship were about simply extending or accepting an invitation to be with other people. It’s about saying yes to the people God has placed in our lives, which is part of saying yes to God. Then it’s about extending that yes by choosing to go a little deeper into vulnerability and its counterpart, trust.
Vulnerability and trust are in a catch-22 relationship: in order to grow in trust, we must make ourselves vulnerable; but in order to feel comfortable making ourselves vulnerable, we have to trust that we won’t be hurt. Someone has to make the first move. Grace makes that leap of faith possible, and is communicated to others in the process. This is why unfussy domestic hospitality is so important to friendship: letting others into our messy homes is a small step towards letting them into our messy souls. The leap of faith to allow others to see our sour-milk spills, diaper-box décor and laundry explosions gives our guests permission to do the same for someone else. The chain of hospitality is a chain of grace.
One of the clearest symptoms of our culture’s spurning of grace is our horror of vulnerability. It’s important to say here that not all fears are illegitimate or faithless: we live in a fallen world, seemingly falling further every day, and exploitation of vulnerability is real and potentially devastating. In the same way that we wouldn’t give a new plumber a tour of our bedroom, we shouldn’t expose the tenderest parts of our soul to every seemingly friendly person at a party. But our culture’s aversion to vulnerability goes well beyond prudence. We struggle to let others into our lives because we fear they won’t like what they see – and when we lack confidence in God’s everlasting love, their rejection feels like a rejection of our very selves. And because, as a culture, we’ve rejected God’s healing grace, we don’t believe our souls can be made whole again.
So we’re left nursing interior wounds we refuse to expose to anyone who can help, while masking our pain with often pathetic attempts at perfection. The result, often enough, is loneliness and self-doubt – especially among those who appear most social and successful. Only the grace of vulnerability can break the cycle. This is why choosing friendship is among the most radical acts in today’s world.
Excerpted from The Prodigal Church: Restoring Catholic Tradition in an Age of Deception (Sophia Institute Press)
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