Anam Cara & Celtic Wisdom
John O’Donohue’s Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom introduced me to the Celtic concept of “soul friend.” That meeting came in 1998 as I was leaving work at Blue Ridge Community College to teach in a graduate program at Appalachian State. A friend gifted me with the book. From its opening lines, “Human presence is a creative and turbulent sacrament, a visible sign of invisible grace,” I was captivated by the idea that being wholly present to another human being was a sacramental act.
I’d been hosting a women’s group for several years and, although we’d read several books about spiritual practices including Marjorie Thompson’s now-classic Soul Feast, nothing had sparked my imagination quite like O’Donohue’s description of an Anam Cara: “a person to whom you could reveal the hidden intimacies of your life.” A friendship that “cut across all convention and categories… and was an act of recognition and belonging.”
As I read the book, faces of soul friends throughout the years flashed like still frames from a movie. My earliest: Elliotte Tucker, a minister who invited me to lead a prayer service when I was only ten, and Ruth Peterson, an aunt who advised me to heed the “still small voice.” In college: Elissa Landy Kaplan, whose Jewish rituals and Midrash opened new worlds in my own spiritual landscape. As I grew older, Diane Rhoades whose unbridled creativity modeled freedom. Fay Walker, a warrior to dismantle racism, who gifted me with holy listening. John Fenner with whom I convened circles of trust, offering safe space for people to explore role and soul connections. My spiritual director, Don Kelley and Sufi friend Karen Harding who walked with me through personal and professional upheavals. And I could name others. What abundance manifests when we open ourselves to the Divine and become truly present to another human being.
In Anam Cara friendships, I’ve felt witnessed and wrapped in unconditional love. Some were with peers, others with elders. Formal education was not a factor. These relationships, like an array of ice cream, offered different flavors - dark chocolate, peaches and cream, tart raspberry - but all contained a sweetness similar to communion described by mystics.
Since that year of teaching at Appalachian State, I’ve offered contemplative retreats and one-on-one companioning to younger people, as the minister and my aunt did me, a kind of “pay it forward blessing.” Each time, each meeting, we stand together on holy ground.
Questions for Reflection
Who has been an Anam Cara in your life? In what ways has that relationship enriched your journey? How might you express gratitude?
Have you been an Anam Cara in another person’s life? How did you meet and come to be in that relationship? Name some of the blessings that friendship has offered.
What is the role of sacrament in your life? How can our presence be “a visible sign of invisible grace”?
What does standing on holy ground mean to you?