“….so anam cara in the Celtic world was the ‘soul friend’. ….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. 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’”
John O’Donohue, Anam Cara
I have been thinking about spiritual friendship recently: what it is, how it is different from other kinds of friendship, how I recognize it, what it means in my life.
In the last few months I’ve been spending time – for the first time in many years – with someone who was a soul friend, an anam cara, when I was a child and a young person. I knew, even then, that there was a different quality to this friendship, and that I needed it the way young fish need the water, or the way young birds need the air. As a teenager I entered a long time of darkness and depression, and the light of this friendship was the only light I could see. I didn’t have a name for it then. What I would say was, “Without Colleen I wouldn’t have any hope at all.”
Colleen was a student of my mother’s, thirteen years older than I was, and a Christian Scientist. You could say that we had little in common, in a relative way. But what Colleen showed and shared with me – above and beyond her love for me, which was a great gift – was the life of a person – a woman - on a spiritual path, Homo spiritualis. That was the hope that sustained me as a teenager: that a spiritual path was possible, even if I was lost, even if I didn’t know how to find it. She gave me faith and hope to walk through the darkness….showing me that the darkness itself is a prerequisite to the path.
Now, thirty years later, when Colleen and I meet, as we did the other day in the courtyard of the Heard Museum in Phoenix, sitting and talking beneath the delicate green leaves of the ironwood trees, we meet outside time, outside the particulars of our lives. Our concern is always, “What are you seeing? What are you learning? What is the leading edge of your understanding about how to live this life?”, and this concern and leaning forward is surrounded by our love for one another, which flows as easily as breathing. Without “teaching” each other anything, what each of us has come to understand shines a light on the other person’s understanding, like two ladders side by side, leaning against the sky. We walk away nourished and widened by the field between us.
Since Colleen first offered her friendship to me, I’ve been graced (and graced is the word) with an extraordinary number of anam caras, soul friends. And this is the strangest thing: in many cases these friendships have transcended every possible human difference – age, culture, faith, race, education – all that matters so much in ordinary relationships. It’s a recognition that goes beyond divisions. My friend Willie Cooper was an elderly Lummi Indian woman, married at fourteen, thirteen pregnancies, a person who loved spirituality in any form, from a weekend tent revival to the deepest secrets of traditional Salish religious practice. My friend Echodu is a Ugandan, an evangelical Christian who has witnessed sufferings that I can barely imagine. My new friend Patricia is 87 years old and sitting in a retirement home, trying to find her way. But when we look each other in the eyes, there’s just two souls meeting.
In each case we recognized each other, very quickly, as if the heart knew something the mind could barely imagine. “This person is on the path. No matter how different it may seem from my own, we are walking together.”
Time and space are shockingly irrelevant to anam caras. Colleen and I have sometimes gone years without speaking or seeing on another. It doesn’t matter. Willie Cooper is gone now, but I still hear her wisdom and feel her love. I have met people just once and felt that deep recognition, and yet we’ve never crossed paths again. Others have been life-long friends, or lovers, or teachers. But however often we meet, or whatever we may speak about, there is only one thing being said: “I know you, I see you, I understand.”
This is not to denigrate other kinds of relationships and friendships, or to elevate the anam cara to some special position. I am grateful for the people who have shared my life in all sorts of forms, and where love is between two people, what one calls it hardly matters. But I’ve come to see that I might not even be alive today without this particular kind of friendship. I might have gotten lost and never found my way. At Lummi it was understood that someone who chose to walk a spiritual path assented to a special kind of vulnerability, and they needed all the help and protection that those around them could give them. I feel that vulnerability, though I think I was born that way, rather than choosing it. I felt strange and alone as a child, different in some way I had no words for from the people around me.
My anam caras have shown me that I’m never alone.
“This, I say, is what is broken by no chances, what no interval of time or space can sever or destroy, and what even death itself cannot part.” John Cassian, Conferences