Abba Agathon was a bit of a prodigy among the Desert Fathers. Early on in his monastic life he was recognized for his wisdom much to the surprise of others who worked for years to gain their wisdom. It is said that he held a stone in his mouth for three years so that he would learn silence. That is commitment, to say the least. Let us listen to what this wise abba has to say about friendship.
Abba Agathon said, “If someone were very specially dear to me, but I realized that he was leading me to do something less good, I should put him from me.”(1)
Abba Agathon said, “If someone were very specially dear to me, but I realized that he was leading me to do something less good, I should put him from me.”From The Saying of the Desert Fathers translated and edited by Benedicta Ward, SLG
Let’s face it, you are not going to find this quote cross-stitched and hanging in anybody’s home. More likely you find this quote from Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 6:14, “Faithful friends are a sturdy shelter; whoever finds one finds a treasure.” We all depend on our friends to get ourselves through life. If we find someone who is ‘very specially dear’ to us why on earth would want to distance ourselves from such a friend? “Hey Abba Agathon, put that stone back in your mouth! Your advice sounds like nonsense!”
But is it nonsense? Why is Agathon telling us to distance ourselves from a dear friend? It is because while they are leading us to a good (say companionship and support) they are barring us from a good that is greater. For these ancient Christians the greatest good was union with God. To find this union they were willing to give up much. Some even gave their lives. Every Desert Father and Mother left behind friends in their villages or neighborhoods in search of a greater good. They stopped what they were doing and headed out into the desert to be alone so as to focus on their relationship with God.
For us who do not go to such extremes, what wisdom can we take from Abba Agathon? To begin with I would say that we need to understand that their are different sorts of friends that we can have. According to the ancient philosopher Aristotle there are three sorts of friendships. The first sort are those friendships that exist because you are useful to each other, friendships of utility. For example, it makes good sense to build a relationship with someone who can help you when your computer starts to act funny. There is nothing wrong with such relationships, but they are ad hoc in nature.
The second kind of friendship are those we have because we enjoy another person’s company, friendships of pleasure. These are people we go and do stuff with, whether it be going out on the town, exercising, attending concerts, or simply chatting away during the lunch hour. These friendships can become quite dear to us. For who among us disdains the pleasure of good company?
Which brings us to the third kind of friendship, friendships for the good. These are based on mutual love for the other and so are few in one’s life. To love another is to want the best for the other person, even if it is not the best for us. Abba Agathon is recommending to us that we should only commit ourselves fully to this kind of friendship. While the first is useful and the second is pleasant, only the third sort of friendship do we become fully ourselves and fully alive.
Sirach, of course, realized this too. “Pleasant speech multiplies friends, and gracious lips, friendly greetings. Let those who are friendly to you be many, but one in a thousand your confidant” (6:1-2). Wise persons will have all three sorts of friendships, yet will always seek to create and sustain the one in a thousand friendship that will lead them to there ultimate good. If that person is a committed Christian, that friend will lead them to God.