Anamchara: Soul Friendship as Spiritual Direction

In the Celtic imagination, the spiritual journey is one which brings us inward to explore the hidden depths of our souls. This journey can be treacherous as we face those demons which are only reflections of ourselves. It can be joyous and liberating as we free ourselves from their grasp. It can be exhilarating as we uncover new aspects of ourselves we never knew existed. It can be exhausting as we start to realize how far off base we’ve been for so long. It can be many things and like most things – it is better with a friend.

In Medieval Irish Christianity, going back to the earliest texts we have, the method of training new monks was based primarily on a direct mentor-student relationship. There was a wonderful balance between the emphasis on the absolute importance of having a spiritual director AND the final responsibility of each individual to take their spiritual progress into their own hands.

I think this dynamic tension is shown so beautifully in the rule of Comghall from the medieval community of Bangor. The natural tendency of Irish Christianity for nondual thinking may be in part due to their distance from the Roman dualistic world. The rules from this time period were austere to say the least and after explaining the rigorous physical, mental, and spiritual practices the monks were to undertake, it goes on to describe the monastic life like this:

“The service of the Lord is light, wonderful, and pleasant. It is an excellent thing to place oneself in the hands of a holy mentor, that he may direct one’s path through life. The advice of a devout sage is a great asset.”

I absolutely love their capacity to describe a life of rigorous ascetic practice, poverty, and celibacy as “light and wonderful.” While I don’t myself live the rigorous life described in these medieval rules, I do think that these spiritual heroes have a great deal to teach us about what it means to be Christian. And I think that the combination of patience, love, and humility which are the key elements in these rules goes hand in hand with their practices of fasting, prayer, and spiritual direction.

While these monasteries were communal in every sense of the word, and even though the monk was to place themselves under the direction of their mentor, the final emphasis is still an individualistic one. An anamchara is of great value, but the final responsibility lays on the individual to exercise their free will and uncover the blessedness hidden within their soul.

The balance between spiritual direction and individual effort resurfaces later in the rule when it says:

“You must yourself strive after holiness if you wish your soul to be bright as a swan. No one else can do this for you.”

A spiritual director was referred to in the Old Irish rules as an anamchara which literally translates as “soul friend.” The initiation and tutoring of new monks was overseen by more experienced monks who could help navigate the stormy waters of our inner sea.

This inner journey has been described by many metaphors. It is the immram which great adventurers like Brendan have embarked on, launching their little boats into the ocean and landing wherever the tide carried them. It is the journey into the desert which Jesus made, where he met with wild beasts and was ministered to by angels. Eriugena, perhaps the greatest of Celtic philosophers, described it as the flight of the spiritual eagle.

In his homily The Voice of the Eagle Eriugena describes the path of deification as the inward journey of a spiritual eagle soaring up through the cloud of unknowing, beyond all that is and is not, and into the presence of God. This is the same flight that the apostle John took when he received the words to write in the opening of his gospel. Eriugena described the spiritual flight of John, when he was lifted into the the heights of divine wisdom, like this:

“The Voice of the spiritual eagle strikes in the hearing of the church. May our outer senses grasp its transient sounds and our inner spirit penetrate its enduring meaning. This is the voice of the bird of high flight – not of the bird who soars above the material air or over the aether, orbiting the entire sensible world – but the voice of that spiritual bird who, on swiftest wings of innermost theology and intuitions of most brilliant and high contemplation, transcends all vision and lies beyond all things that are and are not.”

In whatever way you describe the spiritual journey, no truly wise person will pretend that it is anything other than deep fog that you enter into. Obscure mists cover the mountains you long to explore. The way is unclear, the path unknown. This flight of the spiritual eagle trying to soar beyond all that is and is not leads through the clouds and there are great winds which can push it about.

In his book Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom, John O’Donohue describes the role an anamchara plays in this spiritual journey:

“It is precisely in awakening and exploring this rich and opaque inner landscape that the anam cara experience illuminates the mystery and kindness of the divine. The anam cara is God’s gift. Friendship is the nature of God. The Christian concept of God as Trinity is the most sublime articulation of otherness and intimacy, an eternal interflow of friendship. This perspective discloses the beautiful fulfillment of our immortal longing in the words of Jesus, who said, Behold, I call you friends. Jesus, as the son of God, is the first Other in the universe; he is the prism of all difference. He is the secret anam cara of every individual. In friendship with him, we enter the tender beauty and affection of the Trinity.”

While Jesus is the primary anamchara of all Christians, it is still wise for one who wishes to explore their inner landscape to get directions from a fellow mortal who has made the journey themselves. I was so blessed in my youth as to have such a mentor. I spent the better part of a decade learning, praying, and fasting with an experienced elder deep in the Canadian bush near where I live. There is no replacement for the direct guidance of one who has taken the flight of the spiritual eagle and healed themselves from within.

My anamchara was not a Christian but rather an Ojibwe elder. Even though I am not indigenous, I was raised in Ojibwe ceremony from a very young age. After my elder retired I went out with my trees and prayed for guidance. It’s a long story for another day, but the answer to my prayer was that I needed to be a preacher, and God provided me a church in short order.

However, I quickly realized that there was no anamchara for me to turn to. There was, instead, a seminary and an educational supervisor. Now, before I say any more, I would like to acknowledge that my educational supervisor was great – a kind and loving woman. And my seminary had many positive aspects. But, I was not able to find the same kind of guidance on the spiritual path that I had grown accustomed to with my elder.

In particular, when The Spirit led me to learn about my Celtic heritage, I spent many years wandering aimlessly – unable to find the depth which I knew the Celtic tradition had to offer. With a great deal of diligence I was able to finally find the medieval texts where the wisdom I had sought was hidden. I was amazed to see how much the Irish monastic tradition resembled the Ojibwe tradition I was trained in.

The time spent with my elder, my anamchara, opened my eyes so that I could see spiritually, and I believe that without that I would not be able to understand the breadth of what I am now reading in the sacred texts of my ancestors. It took many years of training, with periods of time spent fasting in the wilderness, before my eyes began to open and it was the guidance of my anamchara which made that all possible.

In the Celtic tradition there is something which is referred to as ‘the darkness of the inner eyes’. This is something I talk about in another article called Thin Places: Where Heaven and Earth Meet. In fact, it is an important part of Eriugena’s homily I talked about above. He goes on to say:

“All humanity is in darkness – not darkness of the outer eyes that sense the forms and colours of sensible things – but darkness of the inner eyes that discern the kinds and beauties of spiritual things; not in darkness of a gloomy atmosphere but darkness of the ignorance of truth.”

The spiritual journey, which is the illumination of the inner eyes, can be illusive – as we are blind when we first start out. This is why the guidance of one who has been taught to see is so essential. Such a person can help you to stay balanced and to find your way through the darkness.

In my own work as an anamchara, I use a combination of the practices I was taught in the living Ojibwe tradition I carry, the wisdom of the Celts throughout the ages, and all the mystics of the great and diverse Christian tradition. I also draw heavily from the Quaker tradition. My mother’s side of the family are Quakers way back and I grew up in a very traditional, rural, unprogrammed meeting.

Part of Quaker society is to support one another in silence and sharing. One might ask for a committee of care to help them through the death of a child or one might ask for a discernment committee if they are trying to decide what to take in college. The process is different for every situation, but we use a lot of queries. A query is an open ended question that is designed to help a person explore possibilities they had not considered. Rather than providing direction, a discernment committee is there to ask probing, and often difficult, questions.

I believe that the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) is a resurfacing of the Celtic way of life. The similarities between Friends and Pelagians are undeniable, but that’s a story for another day. Either way, the practice of sacred listening and asking open ended questions is an essential part of how I help people explore their inner landscape. If you would like to explore the possibility of spiritual direction with me click HERE to learn more about it.

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