Before becoming Catholic, I was in talk therapy. The therapist gave me plenty of information about setting boundaries with others without telling me how to carry this out in a practical way. She told me to “check in with my feelings” before determining what to do, which felt pretty arbitrary. I didn’t know it at the time, but by following her loose instructions, I was trying to control other people based on how I wished they would behave.
One Christmas I turned down an invitation to a party because some people I didn’t like were attending. Then a few weeks later, thinking that I was being assertive, I tried throwing my own party and invited only the people I liked; to my humiliation, no one came. It was only after joining the Church and beginning to study the catechism that I realized assertiveness is a communication style not a virtue, and that authentic virtue is the hinge on which good communication and friendship rests.
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As I prayed daily for answers to my questions about how I could love others better and become more charitable, my feelings of loneliness and isolation began to shift into something else. By the grace of God and as an answer to my prayers, I found myself with the resources to focus on growing in virtue. I took a course in moral virtues taught by an intelligent Dominican friar. I read “After Virtue” and relevant passages of the “Summa Theologiae,” among other books. I also found myself reaching out to some of the most difficult people I knew during the lockdown, which was already a very difficult time. This practice (of growing in virtue through study, prayer and outreach) did more to strengthen my relationships in one year than any other communication strategies I’d tried over a lifetime.
Looking to the examples of the saints
St. Francis de Sales says, “the higher the virtues you share and exchange with others, the more perfect your friendship will be.” In passing this sounds like a nice sentiment, but what does he mean by “more perfect.” Mainly, how can such a friendship be lived out?
Let’s look at two famous saints who demonstrated this level of friendship: St. Francis of Assisi and St. Clare. When she met Francis on Palm Sunday in 1212, Clare wanted to live the life of a saint. By choosing to live alongside Francis, she was already exercising good judgment, and it’s easy for us to see how the fruits of the Holy Spirit were already working in her life. Meanwhile, Francis knew that the best way he could help Clare become a saint was to show her how to follow his monastic rule of life as a religious. Thus they became friends.
Let’s take it a step further. What exactly was the basis of their friendship? Did St. Francis like helping Clare because it made him feel good about himself as he exercised his own generosity of spirit? Did he expect to win favor with God for making her into a saint all by himself? And what attracted Clare to Francis? Was she seeking to gain his personal approval so that he’d give her more of the love of friendship she desired? No, no and no. The simple yet mysterious basis of their friendship was their faith in God and their desire to grow in virtue together.
Growing in virtue
During the lockdown, I reached out to a friend who was living alone. It turned out she wasn’t doing particularly well, and when I checked in again, she began offering her perspective on my being unmarried and single. When I had talked about this with her before, the conversation had ended badly. As a result, this topic wasn’t something I talked about with other people anymore; now it was reserved for Jesus in prayer. I listened impartially as she spoke and then set a boundary to stop the conversation, saying, “I don’t know how I feel talking about this right now.” I didn’t feel guilty as I realized that my communication habits had changed and become more effective because of my reliance on virtue.
There are four cardinal virtues, and each is useful in forming and maintaining friendships. First, by making ourselves unavailable for certain conversations, we’re practicing the first cardinal virtue of temperance. Temperance, in general, helps us to restrain ourselves from overdoing things. Next, remaining strong in our own thoughts and opinions means that we don’t need as much validation from others; this is the second cardinal virtue of fortitude, which also keeps us from becoming offended. The third cardinal virtue is justice and, put simply, it’s exercised when you give someone what they are owed. So, for example, when my friend spoke to me, I acknowledged her and responded to her. I didn’t ignore her nor did I overreact. Lastly, prudence is the virtue that helps us decide what best to say and do and when best to say and do it. Prudence only works when the other three virtues are engaged.
But first, start with prayer
For help setting boundaries in my relationships now, I pray to Mother Mary under the titles Our Lady of Good Counsel and Mother Most Prudent. There are specific devotions and prayers to Our Lady of Good Counsel that I found online, while Mother Most Prudent is one of the Blessed Virgin’s titles in the Litany of Loreto. Prayer trains us to think in Godly ways, attuning our minds to his will while taking the necessary time to discern. We enter into our friendship with God when we pray, and, in turn, God blesses all our earthly friendships by making them more perfect.
These days, I set boundaries all the time, but not because of the way I feel about people and circumstances. I set them according to the New Commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you.” It’s the rule we all must follow. And when we break a rule — i.e., sin — we can always turn to the Sacrament of Reconciliation for forgiveness, knowing that by God’s grace we can keep growing in virtue and, in turn, friendship with others and God.