We are in the midst of a summer worship series called: The Souls Slow Ripening: 12 Celtic Spiritual Practices for Seeking the Sacred, by Christine Valters Paintner. The Practice of Soul Friendship. Some people might call the relationship between David & Jonathan; Ruth & Naomi – soul friends.
John O’Donohue – an Irish poet, philosopher, author & priest wrote the two poems about soul friends that are on the front of your bulletin cover from his book “To Bless the Space Between Us”. 20 years ago wrote “Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom”.
In the Celtic tradition, there is a beautiful understanding of love and friendship. One of the fascinating ideas is that of a soul-friend; the old Gaelic term for this is anam cara. Anam is the Gaelic word for soul and cara is the word for friend. Anam cara in the Celtic world was a “soul friend.”
In the early Celtic church, a person who acted as a teacher, companion, or spiritual guide was called an anam cara. Someone you trusted to reveal the hidden intimacies of your life. With the anam cara you could share your innermost self, your mind and your heart. This friendship was an act of recognition and belonging. When you had an anam cara, your friendship cut across all convention, morality, and category. You were joined in an ancient and eternal way with the “friend of your soul.”
The Celtic understanding did not set limitations of space or time on the soul. This art of belonging awakened and fostered a deep and special companionship.
“If you send out goodness from yourself, or if you share that which is happy or good within you, it will all come back to you multiplied 10,000 times. In the kingdom of love there is no competition; there is no possessiveness or control. The more love you give away, the more love you will have.”
It’s not a surprise or rocket science that we need friends. Think about some of the songs we’ve learned about friendship: “Make new friends but keep the old”; “Love is something if you give it away”; “When you’re down…You’ve Got a Friend”; “People Who Need People”; “What would you think if I sang out of tune, would you stand up & walk out on me? Lend me your ears and I’ll sing you a song & I’ll try not to sing out of key. Oh, I get by with a little help”; “Lean on Me”; “Like a Bridge”.
These songs express the critical role friends play in our lives. But an Anam Cara is deeper than just friendship. O’Donohue emphasizes that with a soul friend there is a sense of recognition and belonging. A relationship that flows easily. It exists between people of equal power, and is reciprocal.
Someone is not a soul friend if you try to be what they want you to be in order to maintain the friendship. Activity-based friends are not soul friends, either, if that is the extent of the friendship. Shallow, superficial relationships or acquaintances do not classify either. All healthy friendships or relationships are important, but there is something special about an anam cara.
Imagine a close friend reciting this poem from DAVID WHTE to you –
I Want to Know…
It doesn’t interest me if there is one God or many gods.
I want to know if you belong or feel abandoned.
If you know despair or can see it in others.
I want to know if you are prepared to live in the world
with its harsh need to change you.
If you can look back with firm eyes saying this is where I stand.
I want to know if you know how to melt
into that fierce heat of living
falling toward the center of your longing.
I want to know if you are willing to live, day by day,
with the consequence of love
and the bitter unwanted passion of sure defeat.
I have been told, in that fierce embrace, even the gods speak of God.
This Practice of having a Soul friend, Anam Cara was present for both Desert and Celtic saints. The desert elders were sought out by many desiring a deeper life of faith, seeking wisdom that comes from life experience. St. Brigid:
“Go forth and eat nothing until you get a soul-friend, for anyone without a soul-friend is like a body without a head; is like the water of a polluted lake, neither good for drinking nor for washing. That is the person with out a soul-friend.”
We are a social species and we need a sense of belonging, of being deeply known and appreciated. People to witness our milestones and unexpected changes or transitions in our lives, highs and lows, the celebrations and the sadness. People with whom we can reveal the deepest, hidden intimacies of our lives. Someone you can turn to when things feel challenging and “entrust the secrets of your heart.” A person with whom we can confide inner struggles, who can help us find our path and be midwives in discernment. One who affirms where we are and can offer counsel when we want to run away. We need to share each other’s experiences, inhabit each other’s lives. AND, the truth of it is, it can be so difficult to find potential soul friends, and then find the time to cultivate these kinds of friendships, especially in our adult lives. It takes time and commitment AND perhaps the trickiest of all a certain degree of vulnerability. Full honesty and truthfulness are expected with an Anam Cara.
Christine writes in her book: Risk is a key ingredient in an anam cara friendship. But it isn’t just the risk of opening up and being vulnerable, it is the risk of change. We don’t always like to look in the mirror. And we don’t ever like to admit that we have some growing or maturing to do. But an anam cara isn’t one who judges or accuses – they simply hold space for us to be completely honest about who we are and where we are, and they offer us the room and loving space and presence to heal and grow. A soul friend offers us the courage needed to say yes to the dreams being birthed in us. They help us gain clarity over places of self-deception and denial. Soul friends withstand the test of time, they are non-judgmental, safe, trustworthy and empathetic.
Power of storytelling can be transformative. What happens for me when I am in the presence of a soul friend – my breathing begins to slow and gradually becomes deeper, I feel my guard let down, and tears are closer to the surface as I sense the presence of safety and acceptance.
John O’Donohue: In the caring, loving presence of an Anam Cara/Soul Friend, you are understood as you are without mask or pretension. The superficial, half-truths of social acquaintance fall away, you can be as you really are. Love allows understanding to dawn. . . . Where you are understood, you are home. . . . When you really feel understood, you feel free to release yourself into the trust and shelter of the other person’s soul. It is in awakening and exploring this rich inner landscape that the anam-ċara experience illuminates the mystery and kindness of the divine. Friendship is the nature of God. This art of belonging awakens and fosters a deep and special companionship.
We all have a longing for a soul friend. Perhaps we should also look at our capacity to be an Anam Cara, as soul friend as well. In her book, Christine pairs a Celtic Saint with each of the Celtic spiritual practices she presents. In this chapter, she talks about
St. Kevin and the Blackbird – 6th century monk and abbot – soul friend to many. He lived as a hermit for 7 years. Intimacy with nature and animals. He would pray every day in a small hut, with arms outstretched. The hut was so small that one arm reached out the window. One day, a blackbird landed in his palm and started to build a nest there. Kevin did not pull his hand back when he knew that new life was being hatched in his hand. He spent however many days it took for the eggs to be laid, the tiny birds to hatch, and the fledglings ready to fly.
Image of yielding, surrendering to something that was not in the plan and receiving it as gift. He entered into the moment with hospitality instead of trying to figure out how to remove the nest.
What if we offered this kind of tender, patient yielding to those around us – waiting for the story to emerge, slowly, with an open-palm approach to life,
Awareness is one of the greatest gifts you can bring to friendship. Inspired by awareness, you may discover beside you the anam ċara your longing has always desired. Call upon St. Kevin to help you find a soul friend, someone with whom you can be your most vulnerable self.
Poems by John O’Donohue:
“To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings”
May you be blessed with good friends,
and learn to be a good friend to yourself,
Journeying to that place in your soul where
There is love, warmth, and feeling.
May this change you.
May it transfigure what is negative, distant,
Or cold within your heart.
May you be brought into real passion, kindness, And belonging.
May you treasure your friends,
May you be good to them, be there for them
And receive all the challenges, truth, and light you need.
May you never be isolated but know the embrace Of your anam cara.
Blessed be the longing that brought you here
And quickens your soul with wonder.
May you have the courage to listen to the voice of desire
That disturbs you when you have settled for something safe.
May you have the wisdom to enter generously into your own unease
To discover the new direction your longing wants you to take.
May the forms of your belonging – in love, creativity, and friendship –
Be equal to the grandeur and the call of your soul.
May a secret Providence guide your thought
and nurture your feeling.
May you come to accept your longing as divine urgency.
May you know the urgency with which God longs for you.”
God of our journey, we bless you for abiding with us throughout our pilgrimage in this Anam Cara Community.
As we seek to know and love you more deeply encounter us in our journey of silences, of dry deserts and green pastures.
Enable us to be soul friends to each other, and to be constant and courageous seekers after you.
As Christ shared his life with others, he always spent time alone with you.
May we grow to resemble him our beloved friend, redeemer and guide.
May our Community grow and flourish through your grace. Amen