“The Celtic understanding of friendship finds its inspiration and culmination in the sublime notion of the anam cara. Anam is the Gaelic word for soul; cara is the word for friend. So anam cara means soul friend. The anam cara was a person to whom you could reveal the hidden intimacies of your life. This friendship was an act of recognition and belonging. When you had an anam cara, your friendship cut across all convention and category. You were joined in an ancient and eternal way with the friend of your soul.” ~ John O’Donohue, Anam Cara
When it comes to describing friendship, I think our English language falls short. We have acquaintances and friends, but if we think about it, there are many other levels in there. Celtic Spirituality gives us at least one more category: anam cara. A discussion of “soul friendship” will begin our sermon series about friendship. You see, keeping balance in our souls requires not only having a circle of belonging (friends), but creating friendships in the areas of our bodies, nature, aging and death. Those five things form the series we are about to embark upon.
(For the full video version, click here.)
So, let’s talk about anam cara – soul friend.
In John 15:15, Jesus makes a distinction between treating his disciples as subordinates (other translations say “servants”) and treating them as friends.
“I no longer speak of you as subordinates, because a subordinate doesn’t know a superior’s business. Instead I call you friends, because I have made known to you everything I have learned from Abba God.”
This distinction seems to be that he has taught them everything he knows, has confided everything he has learned, and he has held nothing back.
This may be a good start when talking about soul friends; however, I believe there is much more. Soul friends withstand the test of time, they are non-judgmental, safe, trustworthy and empathetic. O’Donohue emphasizes that with a soul friend there is an immediate sense of recognition and belonging. It is a relationship that flows easily. I believe a soul friendship can only exist between people of equal power (note again raising the disciples from the level of subordinates), and that it must be reciprocal.
Someone is not a soul friend if you must try to be what they want you to be in order to maintain the friendship. Activity-based friends (soccer parents, work associates, neighbors) are also not soul friends if that is the extent of the friendship. And, certainly shallow, superficial relationships don’t cut it either.
Granted, all healthy friendships, even the activity-based friends, or ones you call only for certain things (I might call another pastor if I was having pastor stress) are important, but there is something special about your anam cara.
O’Donohue states,“In the early Celtic church, a person who acted as a teacher, companion, or spiritual guide was called an anam cara. It originally referred to someone to whom you confessed, revealing the hidden intimacies of your life. With the anam cara you could share your innermost self, your mind and your heart.”
Obviously the early Celtic church was unique because “friend” is not a word I’ve heard used to describe priests and pastors. A priest in a confessional has never struck me as a friend, but more as an authority figure doling out adequate punishment to receive forgiveness. And, as a pastor, I was always warned not to become “friends” with parishioners lest they see your human side and you lose your spiritual authority. It was made clear to me that a pastor was not supposed to depend on their congregation for emotional or spiritual support.
Another place we may bare our souls is to our therapists or a spiritual director. But those aren’t reciprocal relationships.
Many religious traditions hold that you really don’t need any friends other than God. Some might even suggest that living alone as a hermit would get you closer to God than a friendship. That concept, however, emphasizes the dualism of body and spirit. In Celtic spirituality, there is no duality, hence we have the concept of the anam cara.
With the anam cara the love you feel for each other allows for true understanding of the other. When you feel understood, you feel free to be yourself and to share your deepest self with the other. Then an anam cara serves as a mirror reflecting you back to yourself so that you might see yourself more clearly and, hence, might learn and grow emotionally and spiritually. In this loving friendship, the kindness, light and mystery of the Divine is experienced. These friendships are rare, incredible gifts.
Rachel Remen, in My Grandfather’s Blessings, tells a story of a man who used to spend time with his son before he got cancer. “We would hike a mountain, a difficult climb, side by side, both focused on reaching the top. Then we would come down a different way, one behind the other to the car, and drive home. We did this many times. In thinking back, I have a clear memory of many of these climbs, but no memory of anything my son said to me or I to him.”
Remen explains, “In child psychology what this man is describing is called parallel play and is normal for children between two and three. At this age, children use the same sandbox and even the same toys, but they are playing alone, next to each other and not with each other. Rather than relate to each other, they relate to a common activity which they do in parallel.”
“The man makes a great contrast between this and the way he and his son relate once the cancer has prevented him from climbing mountains. “I can’t do much just now, so we sit and talk. I ask him about his life and how he feels about it. For the first time I know what is important to him, what sort of a man he is, what keeps him going. And I talk to him too. I know now that I am important to him, that he wants to spend time with me and not because we can do physical things together. Sometimes we just sit together, being alive. The mountain got between us before. I had not known that.””
Sadly, many people live their lives in this way, sharing life, homes, work, and even families with others, but not connecting at a deeper level.
Do you have a soul friend? Are you aware of the specialness of that friendship and honor it as such? If not, perhaps the question is: why? Is it because you are afraid to be really, truly vulnerable with another? Or is it something else? It is possible that we have an anam cara in our lives, we’re just not aware of the potential of that friendship, or we’re “carrying around the corpses of past relationships,” as O’Donohue says, and are afraid to risk again.
Oddly enough, I think 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 to do. But an anam cara doesn’t judge or accuse, they simply hold space for us to be completely honest about who we are and where we are, and they offer us the room to heal and grow.
May we all be blessed to have and be a soul friend.
Love & Light!