Tag Archives: friendship

Friends on Earth and Friends Above

Meeting someone in real life whom you’ve been communicating with via social media for ages is something of an odd experience.  It’s not quite like meeting an acquaintance with whom you’ve had an extended, written correspondence via e-mail, even if the messages have been going back and forth for quite a long time.  Social media outlets allow not only for an instantaneous exchange of words and images, but also of reactions: it’s their speed which makes said exchanges seem more like friendly chatter.

Yesterday for example, I got to hang out for an hour with my friend, writer and film critic Steven Greydanus, as he was in Washington recording some television appearances.  Although we’ve been chatting on social media for awhile, this was the first chance we’ve had to sit together and have caffeinated beverages.  As often happens on these occasions, I experienced an initial sensation of adjustment – this is a real person! – followed by very easy conversation.  When you’ve been conversing on social media, most of the preliminaries we human beings tend to go through when we initially meet are already well out of the way.

On the way home afterwards, I thought about how many good people I’ve met through social media over the years.  Cliff way up in Nova Scotia for example, loves the old-time radio shows broadcast online Sunday nights through our local DC public radio station, while Vicki out in Arkansas loves discussing art history and British TV murder mysteries.  And I have superbrethren all over the place, from the US and Canada, to the UK and France, since apparently I’m not the last son of Krypton after all.

However, it’s entirely possible that I may never meet any of these people. Technology has come quite a long way, but we’re still not at the point where Star Trek-style transporters stand in our office buildings, ready to zip us off to wherever we need to go in a cascade of light.  We remain dependent to a large extent upon circumstances, as to whether our online friends from Nevada or Australia are ever going to be passing our way, or whether we are going to find ourselves in their neck of the woods.  And yet as maudlin as that may sound, I don’t think it reduces the genuine good that social media can do, in forming permanent friendships.

There’s a lovely old hymn called “For the Beauty of the Earth”, which in America tends to appear on the hymn boards at Mass around Thanksgiving.  It was written by the English High Church Anglican poet Folliott Sandford Pierpoint in 1864, and is usually sung to the music of the hymn “Dix”, written by the German Evangelical Lutheran composer Conrad Kocher in 1838.  While the hymn’s structure of giving thanks and speaking to the beauties of nature make it a natural choice for singing at Thanksgiving, in Pierpoint’s verses there is a wonderful allusion to human relationships that transcend earthly limits.

In his litany of things to be thankful for, Pierpoint lists, “friends on earth, and friends above,” reminding us of the long-held Christian belief in the “communion of saints”.  That connection among both the living and the dead, as all await the Last Day, is something that helps to bind the Christian community together, even with all our divisions and disputes.  People of faith recognize that human limitations of time and space are no boundaries whatsoever to God, and so in that spirit we can direct our thoughts and prayers to those with us now, including those whom we may never get to know in real life, and also those who have gone before us.

Forming genuinely good, mutually beneficial friendships in real life through initial contact on social media is absolutely possible, whatever others may say to the contrary.  Sociologists tell us that online relationships are not real, even if they may feel real; they can be abusive, parasitic, and shallow.  Fortunately, I am not a sociologist, and I’m quite happy to give you many examples from my own life where true friendships have formed through initial online contact.  Such things are not automatic of course, since not everyone you meet through social media is going to become a close, personal friend, but they do actually happen.

Yet even in those relationships that never go beyond social media – someone with whom I share a laugh on Twitter, or whose travel pictures I “like” on Facebook – I find that I can and should still be of service in some capacity.  All of us, whatever our station in life, need other people. We seek words of encouragement, hope for the future, and new, helpful ideas.  We want to laugh, shed a tear, or share our frustrations with the difficulties of this life.  In that regard, dismissing the possibility that anything good can come out of social media, is a bit like questioning whether anything good can come out of Nazareth.

Never discount the fact, gentle reader, that not only may your words, your example, or your prayers have a profound impact on someone else whom you know in real life, but you may also have such an impact on those whom you only know through an online account.

Selfie with Steven Greydanus (Courtesy the latter)

Selfie with Steven Greydanus
(Courtesy the latter)


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Saying Farewell: A Friend Ascends Mount Carmel

I write this post with somewhat mixed emotions, because this is probably the last blog post of mine my friend Channing Dale, blogger and hostess of the “This Catholic Life” podcast, will ever read before she heads off into a life without new media.  Who knows, perhaps she (and many of you) would see this as a good thing.  So before she logs off for the last time, allow me to share some of my thoughts with you about this remarkable young woman, who has been called to the challenging, deeply spiritual life of the contemplative Carmelite Order.

You can listen to the story of Channing’s discernment of her religious vocation, and how she has been preparing for the new adventure of her life, by listening to this recent episode of the Catholic Weekend show, where she joined us to talk about how she came to realize that God was calling her in a very special way to be a bride of Christ.  As you can see, Channing has already taken down her website, This Catholic Life.  After tomorrow, she will be deactivating her social media accounts, as she enters into the contemplative, cloistered life in just a few weeks’ time.

I had the privilege of meeting Channing for the first time in real life at the Fortnight for Freedom closing mass celebrated on Independence Day last year at the National Basilica.  Not only did we attend mass together, but we ended up on the front page of The Catholic Standard, the newspaper of the Washington Archdiocese! Well, sort of:



It is safe to say that was one of the absolute hottest, most stifling days I can recall being out and about in the Nation’s swamp capital, but spending time with such a poised, smart, and fun-loving young woman deeply committed to her faith, was a source of great hope and inspiration, knowing that gifted and intelligent people like her are responding to the call to religious life.

Then in January of this year, I got to meet up with Channing in person again, when she returned to Washington to participate in the March for Life.  I managed to record a special segment for the Catholic Weekend show with her and over a dozen other Catholic new media users, who gathered for a meet-up at the National Gallery of Art before the March began.  You can listen to that episode here, and to see more pictures of Channing and the rest of us, here is the link to the original post.

Though our friendship has not been one of very long duration, Channing has always been ready with prayers, encouragement, and humor throughout.  I shall miss being able to simply type her a message and have a near-immediate response, or seeing her ask for prayer intentions for those who need them.  Indeed, I shall particularly miss having her around during those moments when I lose my temper – not an infrequent occurrence, sadly – and need a bit of perspective on how not to pummel people into the ground on social media.

However I, do know that the calling which Channing is about to follow into the contemplative life is one which will bring her into an even deeper and more wonderful communion with Our Lord, and that she will be praying for all of us even as we pray for her.  The great Doctor of the Church and reformer of the Carmelites, St. Teresa of Avila, described the experience of her own entry into that life in a rather powerful way, in her “Autobiography”, and I can think of no better way to conclude this post as she prepares to tread the same path.  God bless you, Channing, as you enter into this new life with Christ, and please know that I and many others will be praying for you and wishing you well.

When I took the habit, the Lord soon made me understand how greatly he favors those who use force with themselves in serving him. No one realized that I had gone through all this; they all thought I had acted out of sheer desire. At the time my entrance into this new life gave me a joy so great that it has never failed me even to this day, and God converted the aridity of my soul into the deepest tenderness. Everything connected with the religious life caused me delight; and it is a fact that sometimes, when I was spending time in sweeping floors which I had previously spent on my own indulgence and adornment, and realized that I was now free from all those things, there came to me a new joy, which amazed me, for I could not understand whence it arose. Whenever I recall this, there is nothing, however hard, which I would hesitate to undertake if it were proposed to me. For I know now, by experience of many kinds, that if I strengthen my purpose by resolving to do a thing for God’s sake alone, it is His will that, from the very beginning, my soul shall be afraid, so that my merit may be the greater; and if I achieve my resolve, the greater my fear has been, the greater will be my reward, and the greater, too, will be my retrospective pleasure. Even in this life His Majesty rewards such an act in ways that can be understood only by one who has enjoyed them. This I know by experience, as I have said, in many very serious matters; and so, if I were a person who had to advise others, I would never recommend anyone, when a good inspiration comes to him again and again, to hesitate to put it into practice because of fear; for, if one lives a life of detachment for God’s sake alone, there is no reason to be afraid that things will turn out amiss, since He is all-powerful. May He be blessed for ever. Amen.

Group(L to R) Mike Gannon, Channing Dale, Fr. Kyle Sanders, the author, Pat Denny

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The Courtier Pays a Call

Last evening I visited some good friends after work for a couple of hours, having a drink outside on their balcony and enjoying both the conversation and summer-like weather.  One of the benefits of getting older is realizing how often such evenings are infinitely more pleasurable, memorable, and even educational than ones spent either surrounded by a great deal of noise and activity, or entirely on one’s own.  The reason I suspect this is the case is something that Count Castiglione himself understood very well, for in fact it forms the framework for his “Book of the Courtier”, from which this blog takes its inspiration, and that is the importance of actual conversation between human beings, and what that conversation does to examine and to build up our society.

Back before the Western world turned in on itself in selfishness and the worship of fleeting images projected onto flat screens, people of all social classes used to engage in what was collectively referred to as “paying calls.”  This involved physically going to visit a neighbor, friend, or relative, in order to discuss how everyone was doing, the news and events of the day, and so on.  The manner and timing of the visit would vary according both to personal desire and local practice.  In one part of the world for example, it might be customary to pay calls after church on Sunday; in another, it might be that one visited one’s neighbor only in the cool of the evening after chores were finished for the day.

When calling upon others was considered standard practice, the “people from the manor” visited their neighbors and friends, and received visitors in turn, just as the farm laborers working in their fields did in their own cottages.  The merchants in the towns and cities engaged in it, as did their customers.  Please note that in observing this fact, I am not making reference to some dreamy fantasy of what life might have been like in the days before television and the internet: it was simply a fact of life that unless you were desperately poor – and even the poor would visit one another to bring comfort and solace in their commiseration - you had a duty to behave this way if you were to be considered civilized. Ask your grandparents about what life was like when they were younger, and chances are they will tell you about paying calls, or whatever the practice may have been referred to where they lived, where the adults relished the opportunity to sit and talk with other adults.

We can see just how essential this practice was, for paying calls takes place among all classes of society throughout the canon of Western literature.  It is recounted throughout centuries of fiction: without even having to go look up the actual passages, I can think of such scenes in the work of writers such as Jane Austen, Mark Twain, Leo Tolstoy, Honoré de Balzac, Eudora Welty, James Boswell, Bailey White, Arnold Bennett, Laura Ingalls Wilder, James Joyce, and countless others.  It was such a common practice, with so many local varieties, that sometimes the rules surrounding this practice could become quite rigid – even comically so.

Take the beautiful BBC miniseries “Cranford”, for example, based on the novels of Elizabeth Gaskell.  The spinster sisters Miss Deborah and Miss Mattie Jenkins inform their recently-arrived houseguest from the metropolis of Manchester, Miss Mary Smith, of all the multiple protocols adopted locally over the years, as to when and where and how such visits are to take place.  These unwritten commandments on paying calls provide a seemingly endless source of amusement for the  viewer, as the maid repeatedly errs in how she announces visitors, or the visitors themselves stay too long, or raise subjects that are not supposed to be addressed during such get-togethers.

Yet comedy aside, the important thing to note from the practice of visiting and holding conversation on a regular basis in the home, was that it held families and communities together.  When we started building Western civilization through working together, these practices helped to both create and give life to society, and to thereafter keep that society going.  And this marvelous feat of not actually slaughtering each other in the street was accomplished by bringing people face to face within a framework of behaving with respect in someone else’s home, however grand or humble that home might be.

As I wrote about earlier this week, with the coming of shorter days and colder temperatures, many of us are going to become more isolated, turning to television and the internet for company, and we need to make an effort to reach out to those who might be isolated because of the change of seasons.  However I would also suggest that regardless of the time of year, for the larger health of our society, paying calls on a regular basis with those in our community is something we ought to consider reviving.  Perhaps not in as formal a way as it was practiced previously, but we can use technology to make such meetings easier to arrange.  And once we do meet, then the technology can be switched off or ignored, and the type of conversations which led to the building up of Western civilization can once again take place.

“Rev. Thomson paying a call on Mr. and Mrs. Harris in their home”
Life Magazine


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Bring Warmth to Someone

It is difficult to say exactly what it is about the autumn that makes many of us go into a kind of social hibernation.  It may be the angle of the sun as it skims lower along the horizon which reminds us of time flying past, or the curl of the leaves as they turn brown and rustle off the trees to the ground.  With less sunlight, shorter days, and colder temperatures, you would think that, logically, human beings would seek to come closer together to share warmth and solace.  Only nowadays we don’t tend to do this: we bundle up and go off to our respective hobbit holes, which may be nice and snug, but they are not very communal.

If you happen to have more than one pet, or have observed how animals on a farm behave, they tend to stick together, particularly when it is cold and dark, for warmth and companionship.  Yet for all the time we humans spend together outdoors in summer, as soon as the season turns we begin retreating indoors and into ourselves.  Were it not for holidays, many of us would have little in the way of non-work-related interaction at all: and some of us will not have any even then.

It has long been said that one reason the Scandinavians were such early pioneers in mobile phone technology was because they were so isolated from one another during the long winters that ravage their region.  We can all associate in our minds the concept of Scandinavian people wanting to be by themselves, even in harsh weather.  Yet as it turns out this is not really much good for the descendants of the vikings, or indeed for any of us.

The world of cinema is a good way to see this.  The legendary Swedish-American film star Greta Garbo did not actually want to be alone, as it turned out, she wanted to be left alone – but in her case, the reputation established about her ended up isolating her, making a Garbo sighting in New York something like seeing a fluke of nature rather than a human being.  In the wonderful Danish film “Babette’s Feast”, we see how the villagers’ cottages are all huddled together for practical protection, but they are generally such reserved and quiet people that they make no connection with one another outside of church, until the charity of a French cook brings them all, at least for an evening, together into warmth and love, despite the cold.  And in the Norwegian film “Kitchen Stories”, men in an isolated farming community in Norway are so desperate for basic human affection and companionship, that for much of the film they cannot even bring themselves to say so.

Autumn and winter holidays are all very well, but they are one day affairs, and the nights are now going to be long and cold for quite a few months up here in the Northern Hemisphere.  Perhaps as this season proceeds you will consider ways that you can reach out to others in unexpected ways, by offering to drop by or asking them to come over, or even just picking up that mobile device as intended, to make the darker hours pass more easily.  Those with families can bring those without into their circle, for example, or three or four individuals can make an effort of getting those individuals together to share some time in both talking and listening.

In serving others in this way, not only will you be doing good for someone else, in making the dark time of year seem a bit less dark, but you may also be doing yourself a very good service in turn.

Couple Having a Meal Before a Fireplace
by Quiringh van Brekelenkam (c. 1650)
Private Collection

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Zealous and Active Friendships Through New Media

If you have visited this site before then you know that periodically I like to take the time to encourage my readers to get involved in new media, beyond simple passive engagement.  I do so not because I am some great tech-media guru, but because my experience thus far has proven to be so worthwhile, with respect to the connections I have made, and how those connections have opened my mind to new possibilities, new experiences, and new ways of thinking, that I want to encourage others to experience the same joy of learning, discovery, and the formation of new friendships.  Never forgetting that the patron of this blog, Count Baldassare Castiglione, has much wisdom to share with us across the centuries, it might be useful to read some of what he has to say about forming worthwhile connections, and then consider how we might go about using the tools of new media to form them.

Castiglione writes that it is a good idea for us to have a particularly close friend or two, with whom we can be completely open about everything.  However he counsels that such discussions of deeply personal matters should be limited to private moments, rather than broadcast for all to hear – something which our present culture, sprawled out on Oprah Winfrey’s cheap, pop psychology couch with its bathrobe hanging open, ought to take into consideration.  Castiglione suggests that it is in the careful selection of a friend or friends whom we can trust, and who is more or less “another self”, as it were, that we will be able to have the kind of reinforcement of encouraging our character that we all need.  “And in all this I am speaking of the good and virtuous,” he writes, “for the friendship of the wicked is not friendship.”

However he goes on to say that part of that reinforcement of character comes from how we engage with other friends and acquaintances, who are perhaps not quite as close to us.  Castiglione recognizes that being out and about in the world means that we may have to associate with people who are very different from ourselves.  That being said, he writes that the courtier must remain true to himself:

And he will accomplish this if he be courteous, kind, generous, affable, and mild with others, zealous and active to serve and guard his friends’ welfare and honor both absent and present, enduring such of their natural defects as are endurable, without breaking with them for slight cause, and correcting in himself those that are kindly pointed out.

This is rather strong counsel, indeed, on how we are to relate to one another.  Yet I also see it as an encouragement, on the part of our beloved Count, with respect to the formation of new connections.  This is where, for many of us, new media can be a wonderful tool for reaching out to others and forming good, encouraging connections with others, that can potentially become friendships as well.  For as Castiglione notes, a good friendship is one that is both zealous and service-oriented.

Regular readers of these pages know that I am a proud practitioner of popery.  Therefore it should come as no surprise that some of these, highly unusual connections and opportunities have come out of my Catholic Faith.  I would like to share three examples of this which all occurred over this past weekend, as I believe they are illustrative of what can happen if you get involved in new media and make good use of it, hopefully along the lines Castiglione intended.

Via social media, I met my friend Deacon Kyle Sanders, a seminarian in the Archdiocese of New Orleans, and have had the chance to meet him in real life on two occasions so far, when he has visited the capital.  Deacon Kyle recently suffered an horrific ankle dislocation, and was scheduled to undergo surgery this past Friday.  In conversation I pointed out to him that his surgery was to take place on the Feast of St. Toribio de Mogrovejo, a Spanish saint who founded the first seminary in the Americas; I suggested that it might be a good idea to ask for his intercession, seeing as how he was a good patron saint for seminarians.  What happened next is really rather extraordinary, as you can read on Deacon Kyle’s blog post from Friday.

On Saturday, I was asked to be on the “Catholic Weekend” show over at SQPN.com, which you can listen to here.  Toward the end of the program, the guests took part in a Catholic trivia quiz, and one of the questions happened to be about St. Toribio.  This gave me the opportunity to share Deacon Kyle’s experience with others, who might not otherwise have come across it, leading to the possibility of more people getting in touch with him through his blog, or wanting to learn more about the life and work of St. Toribio.

Then on Sunday, via my side project Catholic Barcelona, I received an inquiry through the site’s contact form from a young lady living in Barcelona.  She is a native English speaker studying Spanish there, and was interested in the possibility of becoming a Catholic, but wanted to know whether I knew of anywhere she could contact in the city to discuss this in English.  With the help of a friend in Barcelona, whom I met via social media long before meeting in person, I gave her the contact information for the English-speaking Catholic community there, asking her to follow up with me if that did not lead anywhere.  Hopefully she will be able to find the assistance she needs as she prepares to cross the Tiber, and I wish her the best as she does so.

While the preceding examples all have to do with Catholicism, by no means is that the only way by which I have been fortunate enough to connect to others.  Whether it is Topher Matthews at the Georgetown Metropolitan and Shaun Courtney over at the Georgetown Patch liking and linking to my blog post yesterday on a new show at a local art gallery, engaging in what my sister likes to refer to as online “hoarding” over at Pinterest,  or enjoying exchanges of information and wordplay on Twitter, Facebook, and so on, there are many opportunities provided by these resources to create or deepen friendships and connections.  It is only a question of taking the time to remember that these must be balanced by real-life relationships and interactions as well, otherwise they are merely an exercise in providing the brain with dopamine.  And in all cases, trying to be that zealous and service-oriented advocate which Castiglione describes is something which I often fall short of, but try my best to keep in mind and act upon as best I can.

And with all of that being said, I would turn the mirror in your direction and point  out that there is nothing to stop you, gentle reader, from doing the same thing.  You do not have to be a blogger, or a viral filmmaker, or a podcaster to be able to reach out via new media.  If you like a blog, or a video, or a podcast, for example, then leaving comments and engaging with the creators of that content, as well as with others who enjoy the content, is a terrific way to start building these types of connections.  Yes, I know, many times comment boards and the like are filled with people looking for a fight, but Castiglione would tell you that there is no need to even engage in this: focus instead on engaging with those whom you find interesting.

There is so much negative content now in our media, that there really should be a greater effort on our part to bypass it, rather than deal with the perversity and cheapness of what presently passes for both news and entertainment.  Fortunately, new media outlets provide us not only with such a bypass, but also with a way to connect directly with others who share our interests, and whose support can prove edifying to our character.  I would encourage the reader to take the words of Castiglione to heart, and consider interacting more actively with others through these new resources.  The benefits of building positive connections, productive communities, and being of service to others will be worth whatever investment you make.

Detail from “The Meeting of St. Francis and St. Dominic” by Benozzo Gozzoli (1452)
Chapel of San Francesco, Montefalco, Umbria

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