Posted November 10, 2014:
Two Friendships

by Patrick Stewart.

Love your neighbor as yourself. This is at the heart of Christianity, and it is a huge challenge. Often it is a challenge to even know how to begin. Often it is oh-so-tempting to give up, to stop trying. Here are two stories of the author’s struggles to love two very different people.

A number of years ago, before I joined Madonna House, I lived next door to a man I’ll call "Mike," and I was experiencing some difficulties with him.

It wasn’t that we were in direct conflict with one another. We weren’t; we weren’t even on unfriendly terms. But we weren’t chummy either.

Basically, I couldn’t stand the way he was interacting with other folks in the community. Often he was impatient, sharp, critical. His behavior was bothering me so much that I decided to talk about it to a priest friend.

After patiently listening to me, the good Father gave me a simple suggestion. At church, social situations, and other gatherings where I found myself in the same space with my neighbor, I was to make it a point to sit beside him or to make my way over to him and share a few words.

I didn’t have to do this every time I saw him, and conversations needn’t be profound or extended, but I should do it with some regularity.

Well, much to my surprise, after a few months of these simple encounters, I found that we had actually developed a simple friendship.

This was so much so that when I had to move to another city, we took time to express to each other our gratitude for the friendship.

This is not the end of the story.

A few years later, when I returned to visit my family, I discovered, to my dismay, that Mike was once again getting under my skin. He was still relating to the neighbors in that same distressing way; and I was going to be home for a few weeks!

After acknowledging my interior disgruntlement and judgment of his behavior, I decided to practice the technique my priest friend had suggested to me before. And lo and behold, by the time I left town, my grouchy neighbor was my friend once again.

This pattern continued for years until I finally moved back to my home town. Then, once I had crossed over the annoyance barrier yet again, I saw him as a friend, a person in whose company I liked to be.

It would be unfair of me to take credit for having any impact on my friend’s behavior with the neighbors. It never changed much, as far as I could observe, and I never came to like his grouchiness or the sharpness.

But I did come to see, just within the simple times of chatting at a reception, of giving and receiving a simple nod of the head or a hand wave on the sidewalk, that affection grew and that something quite wonderful and tender in his heart had revealed itself to me.

In all those years, I never told my neighbor about the dislike/like pattern, and I never inquired about his feelings toward me. And there’s no telling whether or not I annoyed him. God alone knows if he wasn’t going more out of his way to befriend me than I was to befriend him.

But be that as it may, I did and do pray for him. And as often as I remember, I send him to the Mercy Seat of God (not God’s judgment seat.), something I do as a way of praying for someone. I think he prays for me, too.

This second story is a very different one, and it began soon after I arrived in Madonna House for my first visit in the summer of 1988. It was then that I met Donna Surprenaut, a member of the community, and learned in casual conversation that she was an artist, a painter.

I, too, am a painter and artist, and we decided to get together on the following Sunday afternoon and have an artist’s conversation and share photos of our paintings.

We did get together, but the conversation did not last long, and the sharing of photos was very brief. We quickly hit up against our different personal styles both in art and in human interaction.

I am a very extroverted artist, and I enjoy the journey as much as and often even more than the destination. The door to my art studio is usually open, and if you happen to walk in while the painting "is happening" you’ll be welcomed in and shown what’s on the easel.

Donna, on the other hand, kept her studio tightly closed and unavailable to any uninvited guest. Her joy was in showing off the completed work, and then she was delighted if the crowd pressed in to see the painting.

Our approach to both crafting and style were also very different. I admit that I was intimidated by Donna’s precision, her very fine craftsmanship, her grand execution as a still life painter, and in her later years, as an exceptional figure and portrait artist.

I paint with a much looser brush and tend to a brighter palate: more "out there" like my personality.

For the most part, I kept my work far out of her sight. Too bad I couldn’t take what helpful criticism she might have offered me.

Donna died of cancer in 2009. By the time of her death, some twenty years after our first encounter, we had become friends. How, you might ask, did that happen?

Well, it was a slow process, years long, bumpy at times, but always evolving toward the final few years when we were able to have heart-to-heart encounters.

I think that our growing in confidence in our individual gifts of style, craftsmanship, and inspiration that we had been given by the Lord, helped. Year by year, I anyway, compared my art less and less to hers.

We were each on our own inner healing journey, particularly of our early life hurts and disappointments so that, year by year, we each became more complete and unified within ourselves.

During most of those years I was in the missions and came to Combermere once a year for the directors’ meetings. We would get together then.

These encounters did not always go smoothly. One of those times, when we were strolling together between meetings, I shyly showed Donna a photograph of a painting I had just finished.

Though she was quite complimentary, I quickly put the picture away and stumbled along in a short conversation, then walked on. In retrospect, I can see that she was ready for the encounter between artist and artist, and brother and sister, ahead of me.

Nevertheless, that encounter helped us cross a line in our relationship, and she later invited me to come to her studio for a cup of tea and to show me what she was painting.

It was through these encounters that there grew between us a simple regard and an interest both in one another’s artistic endeavors and in our lives within the Madonna House family. Gradually our respect and gratitude and even awe at God’s wondrous work in one other’s hearts and souls grew.

On one of our last tea time visits, Donna allowed me to photograph her at work in her studio with the hope that I might someday do a painting of her.

By then, Donna had become to me a friend, fellow artist, and a spiritual guide in ways that are only now becoming clear to me.

I started that portrait of her the day of her death. It now hangs in the studio in which I have the great blessing to paint, Donna’s studio where her life as an artist reached its full maturity.

From this painting on the wall, I sometimes sense her looking over a painting I am engaged in and giving a gentle affirmative wink or a wincing eyebrow. But likely this is just my imagination.


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