By Amelia Stieren
On Sunday afternoon last August, a car hit 21-year-old Vinny Kurtz while he was riding his bike in the small college town of Marion, Indiana. In critical condition, he was airlifted by helicopter to a hospital in Fort Wayne where doctors removed part of his skull to alleviate swelling and attempted to amend his collapsed lung. Vinny did not live past the next morning. On that Sunday night, my best friend Allison texted me explaining what had happened to Vinny, asking that I would pray for him. I had actually met Vinny once while visiting Allison at her college, but other than that, he was only a friend who she occasionally talked about to me. For Allison, though, Vinny had been a constant friend throughout her freshman, sophomore, and junior year of college. The two of them and the rest of their friend group had intended on continuing their friendship throughout the rest of their senior year and beyond, but, sadly, death did not permit it.
Yet, friends, if bound together by Christ, has the power to transcend both death and separation. In his Confessions, St. Augustine tells about the death of a childhood friend. “He was not then such a friend to me as he was to become later,” Augustine wrote, “because friendship is genuine only when You bind fast together people who cleave to You through the charity poured abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who is given to us.” Here, Augustine seems to argue that although there can be many types of friendships here on earth, there is a highest form, or a “true” friendship, which can only occur when the two members are united in Christ. Although tragic, the death of Augustine’s friend helped him understand what true friendship looks like: true friendship finds its roots in Christ’s love, which surpasses the death and separation that we know in this world.
Death teaches us that anything can change in just one short moment, that life is fragile and unpredictable, and that we cannot do much to prevent the brief moments that alter our entire perspective on life. As I prayed, mourned, and listened to my friend’s pain and laments over the death of Vinny, I understood, in a deeper sense, that we cannot alter the past. This truth is particularly difficult to accept in light of the death of a friend. In some respects, Allison regretted the ways in which she felt she had failed as a friend to Vinny; his death served as a reminder that she could no longer deepen their friendship, or even tell him that he mattered to her. After his friend died, Augustine tried to examine the significance of the grief he felt. He writes, “I had become a great enigma to myself, and I questioned my soul, demanding why it was sorrowful and why it so disquieted me, but it had no answer. If I bade it, ‘Trust in God,’, it rightly disobeyed me, for the man it had held so dear and lost was more real and more lovable than the fantasy in which it was bidden to trust. Weeping alone brought me solace, and took my friend’s place as the only comfort of my soul.” The death of this friend showed Augustine that there is something valuable in life, since the loss he felt signified that he once had something that belonged to him.
During the weeks following the death of Vinny, I developed a more meaningful understanding not only of how precious friendship is, but also of why it is so important. Death, in a sense, gives the opportunity of new life. When a friend dies, existing friendships are brought to life; the loss of one friend highlights the importance of how we interact with other friends, whether through a kind word, an effort to understand, or the love we express through Christ. I began to ask myself questions: how do we be good friends to someone in need? How do we mourn when there is loss, and celebrate when there is gain? How do we encourage one another to become better people, and, most importantly, how do we edify one another in our faith and in our relationship with God? Augustine was deeply marked by the loss of his friend. Yet the removal of one thing gives space for something new to develop. When one thing dies, something else grows in its place. For Augustine, it was God who continued to grow in his life; though Augustine did not fully know it at the time, God was present in his grief and continued to reveal himself through the removal of his friend.
Similar to the ways in which the death of Augustine’s friend showed him how much he loved and missed that friendship, the five months I spent studying in Germany proved to be a time of learning what valuing friendship means for me. It was difficult not having my good friends around me all the time as I do when I am at Hillsdale. Yet the absence of my friends, especially because I was in a foreign country, helped to further define what these friendships meant to me, and affirm the fact that they were not determined by distance. Although most of us would prefer to live close to our dear friends, friendships that exist partially out of convenience learn to sustain themselves in spite of spatial distance. Some of the inconveniences of studying abroad in Germany were six to nine-hour time differences, poor WiFi connection, and semesters and schedules that did not match up with my friends and family back home. These minor disadvantages, however, gave me ample opportunity to grow in my being a friend to others: I wrote letters, began to pray for my friends when we could not manage to talk, and incorporated why these friendships were important to me into conversations I had with the friends I was making in Germany.
It is no surprise that I was excited to return for my senior year and continue to engage in the friendships with the people I had dearly missed. Vinny’s death only augmented this excitement: I realized that it should never be an option to neglect the people I love and consider friends. What does this mean on a more concrete level? It means cherishing the brief (and quiet) conversations in the library, in between studying and writing essays. It means making every meal at the cafeteria intentional. It means celebrating with a friend when she makes Homecoming Court, and it means encouraging and praying for a friend who has made a difficult and painful decision. It means giving your housemate a hand when she needs it, though you are short for time, and it means building intentional community with the people who surround you. Friendship means making inconvenient choices for the sake of another person, because we cannot always know when our opportunities to be a friend to someone will come to an end. Indeed, we have the choice to build one another up in the Holy Spirit and encourage one another in prayer and genuine love. Every day, we get to love both the people who are physically near us and those who are geographically far away.
As I learn about what friendship means through these experiences and through reading about Augustine’s story of his friend, I have realized that all of our friendships should direct us toward God. In Augustine’s case, he had not yet converted to Christianity when he had an intimate relationship with his friend. In other words, Augustine had not yet experienced true love in Christ, and could not comprehend the kind of friendship that two people could develop when immersed in that love. God used Augustine’s friendship to point him towards a higher friendship: that which is found in God himself. Although Augustine was unaware of it at the time, Christ was working in his life in a significant way through the mourning of this friend. Augustine reminds God of this, saying, “you were pursuing close behind us, O God of vengeance who are the fount of all mercy and turn us back to yourself in wondrous ways. You took him from this life after barely a year’s friendship, a friendship sweeter to me than any sweetness I had known in all my life.” If this friendship that fell short of true friendship was sweet to Augustine, how much sweeter can two friends bound together in Christ’s love be? In the face of the inevitable times of death and separation here on this earth, we can hold onto the permanency of Christ and his promise to us. Friendship means endeavoring to love our friends for the purpose of bringing one another closer to God and knowing his promise of permanency.
Amelia Stieren is a senior majoring in German.