My friendship with Fr. Didier Marie, and the Community of St. John, has become a spiritual treasure to me. One of the reasons for this is deeply rooted in the nature of this order. The Community of St. John began in 1975 when several students of Fr. Marie-Dominic Philippe, who had been their professor at the University of Fribourg (Switzerland), asked him to be their spiritual director. Five of these students began to meet regularly with a priest from the diocese of Versailles (France) in the summer of 1975. This priest had been a student of Fr. Philippe and had been authorized by the bishop to undertake studies toward a doctorate in theology at Fribourg, where Philippe still lived. Communal life was begun when these five students, and the priest who was there to study theology, met at 5:30 a.m. each day to pray silently and then celebrate the Mass.
Initially Fr. Philippe was not directly involved with these brothers since he did not believe the church had given him responsibility for them. His official duty was to teach philosophy thus he took care to send students back to their bishops or to their various religious congregations. The decisive change took place in Fr. Philippe through the intervention of a mystic named Martha Robinson. Philippe presented his dilemma to her and she said that he should not abandon those he had influenced so deeply. Based on this counsel Fr. Philippe accepted these brothers but would did not intend to found a new religious community. He sought an existing order to accept these men so they could find their place within the church. This led to a search. On December 8, 1975 the order was begun on a retreat at the abbey of Lerins. The date and place are significant because the brothers soon discovered that Pope Paul VI’s apostolic exhortation, Evangeli Nuntiandi, corresponded to what they deeply longed to be and to do.
Father Philippe, whose writings I have discovered through the Community of St. John (there are only a few of his written works in English), was born in 1912 in northern France. (My dad was born in 1912.) He only died last year. From almost the beginning of this young order there was an emphasis on what are called the three wisdoms: philosophical, theological and mystical.
The philosophical wisdom was central to my friend’s teaching on friendship last week, as it was for Fr. Philippe. My first impression of this philosophical wisdom was not entirely positive. I am not an admirer of Thomism, the philosophical tradition of those who have followed St. Thomas Aquinas. But I have discovered, to my surprise in a way, that those who followed Thomas are not always using Thomas in the best sense. I have discovered the same experience with people who call themselves Calvinists and yet have little relationship to the actual writing and spirit of the Genevan Reformer. Seeing this was an "ah ha" moment for me.
The wisdom of philosophy is used by the Community of St. John to probe the enquiry into who man is, both his purpose and his aspirations. This pursuit follows the thinking expressed in John Paul II’s Fides et Ratio #25-28, which says:
All human beings desire to know, and truth is the proper object of this desire. . . . The truth comes initially to the human being as a question: Does life have a meaning? Where is it going? . . . One may define the human being, there, as the one who seeks the truth.
It is this approach that is pursued by these brothers and it is this use of philosophy that formed Brother Didier’s teaching on friendship.
Fr. Didier spoke of the necessity of holy fear if there is to be truly deep friendship. We must fear that we can displease Jesus more than any other fear. This perspective, noted Fr. Didier, was that of St. Thérèse of Lisieux (1873–1897), the French Carmelite nun who was so loved by John Paul II. You cannot prove love mathematically. Love requires trust, not logic. We are afraid of friendship because we do not want to truly trust. To love a person requires us to entrust ourselves to that person in a unique way that is deeply rooted in our trust in Christ. Real friendship, when rooted here, will not seek to escape from others when problems arise. (How the monks must learn this or they cannot survive!) True friendship will seek all the more to grow, learn and trust. I want to know my friends in this way.