For years I longed for a best friend. It wasn’t that I didn’t have meaningful friendships growing up, it was just that I never felt as though my friends truly understood the depths of my heart. In many ways, I felt like Anne of Green Gables, dreaming for “a bosom friend—an intimate friend, you know—a really kindred spirit to whom I can confide my innermost soul.”
More specifically, I longed to find my “Elizabeth”— a friend who loved the Lord, a woman to whom I could entrust my joys and sorrows and would help me make sense of those joys and sorrows in the Light of Christ, a companion who would encourage me to live as a daughter of God and to see the world through His eyes.
It took 25 years until my Elizabeth entered my world, and it revealed to me the precious gift of holy friendship.
The story of the Visitation is one of my favorite stories in Scripture. Mary has just been told that she will bear the Son of God, despite the fact that she’s a virgin. Through an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, Mary is filled with courage and grace, and freely gives her yes to God. And yet, in this extraordinary moment, she is so beautifully human, too — she wonders how this can be and then she leaves immediately to visit her cousin, Elizabeth, as if she is running away from Nazareth to Judah. But from what is she running?
It’s important to remember that Mary was engaged to Joseph. The expectation was that the two of them would remain chaste until marriage. A pregnant Mary would suggest to Joseph — and to others — that she had committed the sin of adultery — a sin punishable by death. Understandably, Mary must have felt anxious, unsure, perhaps even afraid. To want to disappear from the prying eyes and the gossip of fellow citizens would have been understandable. Who would believe what she had been told?
Still, there’s another reason Mary leaves Nazareth. The angel has just delivered the most incredible news, and to prove that “nothing will be impossible for God” (Luke 1:37) a sign is offered: “And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren” (Luke 1:36). And so, Mary travels in haste to her cousin Elizabeth — to confirm the sign, perhaps to find sanctuary, and to revel in the joy and goodness that the Lord has bestowed upon them.
Upon Mary’s arrival, Elizabeth welcomes the young girl into her home. But more importantly, by following the promptings of the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth confirms Mary’s identity as a blessed daughter of God and Mother of the Lord, affirming her obedience to God:
“Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled” (Luke 1:42-45).
Elizabeth’s joyful reception of her cousin gives way to Mary’s song of praise in which she exults the Lord for having found favor upon his lowly servant.
The Feast of the Visitation reminds me once again that everyone ought to have an Elizabeth in his or her life. In his Introduction to the Devout Life, St. Francis de Sales wrote: “Love everyone with a deep love based on charity . . . but form friendships only with those who can share virtuous things with you. The higher the virtues you share and exchange with others, the more perfect your friendship will be.”
The gift of friendship is something that many of the saints commented on, because at the heart of friendship is a deepseated truth: God never destined man to be alone. Together, we are called to aide each other on the journey to heaven.
Indeed, this is a truth that St. Elizabeth Ann Seton was aware of. In a letter to her dear friend Eliza Sadler, Seton wrote, “The longer I live and the more I reflect and know how to value the realities of friendship, the more precious that distinction becomes.”
Elizabeth and her friends shared their joys and sorrows, grew in virtue together, and cultivated lives of service and charity. It is unsurprising then that out of these virtues was born the Sisters of Charity of Saint Joseph, the first congregation of religious women in the United States.
While there are many types of friendships, the most important ones lead us closer to God — the friendships that help us hold up a mirror to ourselves, affirm our God given dignity, and challenge us to become not just a better person, but a saint.
To be an “Elizabeth” is an important task; to find an Elizabeth is a rare blessing from God. May we — like Mary, Elizabeth, and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton —respond to the promptings of the Holy Spirit with obedience and joy. And may we cultivate within ourselves the virtue of charity so we may accompany our bosom friends to heaven.
CAITLIN SICA received her MA in Theology from the University of Notre Dame. She currently teaches Theology at Bishop Guertin High School in Nashua, NH. You can read more of Caitlin’s writing at www.caitlinsica.com.
Image: La Visitation, Alonso Cano (1602-1667), Musée Goya