[Thoughts on a new book by William A. Barry, SJ. A Friendship like No Other: Experiencing God's Amazing Embrace.Chicago: Loyola Press, 2008, 203 pp. Paperback, $14.95. Not reviewed is a second edition of a prior work , now published simultaneously as a companion book: God's Passionate Desire. Chicago: Loyola Press, 2008, 130 pp. Paperback, $14.95.]
William A. Barry, SJ, is a veteran spiritual director who is currently serving as tertian director for the New England Province of the Society of Jesus. He has taught at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology and Boston College.
A Friendship like No Other: Experiencing God's Amazing Embrace is the latest in his many books on spirituality and prayer. It presents a radical idea: God wants to be our friend. Not many Christians would be so daring. To them God is remote, buried in the theology of scholars or the crossword puzzles of catechisms with questions and answers dutifully to be memorized. Few of us would dare say, "God is my friend." Whether casual, close or best.
Barry, well known and respected the world over for his skill in the spiritual direction of others, has lived daily what he preaches, teaches, writes and counsels. In referring to the encouragement given by three of his fellow Jesuits, he wrote they "embody what all Jesuits are asked to be for one another: 'friends in the Lord.'" With a lifetime of experience like this, he asks, not that we be like Jesuits, just that we know we are friends with God.
"In this book, I will confront another daunting question: what does God want in creating us? My stand is that what God wants is friendship." [p. xiv]This work is not a theoretical foray into the high scholarship of contemplation, that peculiar province of those saints who were mystical, and whom we deem so far beyond us that we keep them at arm's length and admire. It is written in a language we all know and understand, the words we use with our own friends, with whom we live and move and have our daily being. Barry shows us how to take down our saints from their stone pedestals and experience what they did all their lives, the friendship of and with God. Like Dan Berrigan when he wrote, "Lord, send us mystics with hands."
There are three parts to this book: "Experiencing God's Desire for Friendship; Understanding Ourselves and God; Experiencing God." The keen eye of the knowing pray-er will notice the magic word "experience" immediately and nod assent, for it is in our own personal experience where Barry urges us to sit and be still and know that he is God. Not knowledge, nor theory, not even the inspiring words of others, but simply for us, for real, for "a friendship like no other."
Part One – Experiencing God's Desire for Friendship -- makes a startling suggestion: substitute "like" for "love". It's easier to swallow, because it's not so heavy. We just don't say to a neighbor's wife, "I love you," and hope we can get away with it, when what we meant was, "You're a nice neighbor. I like you." Try: "God likes me, and I like him, too." Somehow it means more than the duty-laden, almost forbidding if not foreboding, "Thou shalt love God with all your heart, etc." Then Barry gives us a short biblical tour of God's friendship with his people, in which he uncovers banter between God and Abraham and Sarah that I never saw there before. Friends do that.
Jesuit that he be, he then opens up the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius in a new way, as "a developing pattern of friendship with God" and not a technique for making or manual of directing retreats. Again, hitherto unseen by me, despite many retreats including that first and only Long Retreat. This book is so new, so different, so real, so alive with meaning, because it is so filled with common sense and talks to us about friendship, in the simple way we share with our friends.
Spiritual Director that he be, he takes the time to offer practical tips from the years of his own experience in helping others, to overcome their fear – or even dislike - of God, and get to like him a little bit, then more, and want him as friend. There are more exercises offered, particularly when he warns us not to be so harsh on ourselves for our shortcomings especially in the way we may have treated some of our friends. These practical exercises keep this as a book on friendship and not a treatise on religiosity or churchism.
This part ends with getting to know God deeper, becoming a friend with Jesus and his community around us, with the help of people like P.D. James, the novelist, N.T. Wright, an Anglican bishop, Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury and J.R.R. Tolkien, who gave us The Lord of the Rings. The most poignant part of this section is this:
"I was deeply moved during a province retreat when Kenneth Hughes, SJ, one of the retreat leaders, had us imagine someone meeting Jesus after death. The person says to Jesus," I wish I had known you better in life. Jesus replies, "I wish I had known you better." Imagining that scene was life-changing for me." [p. 70]
Part Two – Understanding ourselves and God -- dissolves the bugaboos of our insignificance and unworthiness, dismisses the Me-Stuff of self-sanctification, and uproots the way we use names and nicknames, in coming to understand ourselves. Barry then gives God the same treatment, in showing us that God is vulnerable as we are vulnerable, and brings up this unusual question.
"We feel compassion for our friends and are moved to take risks to help them. But have you ever felt compassion for God? Perhaps the reason we don't often do so is that we do not sense the mutuality in our friendship with God." [p. ]To understand God, insofar as we can, we need Barry's help in handling God's remoteness, anger and justice, our excuse, perhaps, of not seeing that God "abases self in order to win us over to friendship." Friends need to understand friends as only friends can.
Part Three -- Experiencing God -- opens with the unusual suggestion that prayer is not the only place in which we experience God and calls on us to pay attention to other places, especially "thin places."
"The Irish speak of 'thin places,' where the border between heaven and earth, sacred and secular, seems especially porous and God is believed to 'leak through' more easily. Because I believe that God can 'leak through' anywhere, I prefer to say that in such places people find the presence of God more easily. Where are the thin places in your life? What makes a place thin?" [p. 163]
And then he surprises us by offering scripture as a thin place; liturgy, too; married and family life as well; and nature. That last thin place with help from the poet Mary Oliver. And, or but, there are unlikely thin places: Dachau, a nursing home, a difficult ministry, Golgotha "the unlikeliest thin place in all of history . . . "
"God, who invites us to friendship, is present and active everywhere. As the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins put it, 'The world is charged with the grandeur of God.' Every place on this earth can be a thin place. All that is required to experience God is our openness to God's presence." [p. 176]
Good. But how do we know we are "experiencing" God? For Jesuits the thin place for this answer is St. Ignatius' discernment of spirits. Barry gives us a short review of some of its rules, while describing them, with great insight and humor, as only a friendly friend can.
"Ignatius began to learn how to discern the spirits through paying attention to his feelings while daydreaming. God and the evil spirit, Ignatius came to believe, were working in his daydreams to different ends. This story should remove some of the mystery associated with the term discernment of spirits." [p. 179]
This small book, truly a thin place, ends with the profound simplicity with which it was written:
"God wants friendship with you and with me and with all our brothers and sisters in the world. Let's take the offer, shall we? Bless you all."[p. 194]
There are five short pages of notes at the end of the book. Do not miss them. Short, sweet and to the point, as the saying goes, these few notes show how Barry opened up the world of friendship to explore. Each reader can do the same, with the help of this friendly book.
My father loved to tell the story of the learned Jesuit, degreed as no other, fond of his flowing cape as ineffable as his words, who conducted a St. Francis Xavier Novena in our parish so long, long ago. At the close of each evening's session, the Jesuit prayed quietly at the rear of the church, noticing a gentle, elderly woman halfway down the aisle, also praying quietly. After several evenings of waiting long for her to leave, he dared ask, "And why do you stay so long afterwards, my dear?"
"To pray," was her simple answer.
"Really, and how is that you pray?" asked the gifted theologian of so many years of study and scholarship in matters spiritual.
"Oh! I just sits here and looks at Him. And He sits up there and looks at me."
Barry has the same emoluments as the preacher of long ago, the same two initials after his name, "SJ", but he identifies much more easily and friendly with the gentle woman, who loves to sit with her friend, long after others have gone home, and is thus able to speak to us in the same words she uses and understands. Friends talk to each other that way. That's the way friendship is. It is not an idea but a relationship, a bond between two persons, in such a simple way that neither one is one.
I met Bill Barry the day he entered the Jesuit Novitiate at Shadowbrook, another thin place, on August 14, 1950, the day our friendship began.