Spiritual Direction in the Celtic Tradition

A couple weeks ago I shared with you a teaching from Aelred of Rievaulx on spiritual friendship. This article is a continuation of that discussion in that it speaks about the ancient understanding of spiritual direction as a kind of friendship in early Irish monasticism. You can find the previous article that this article references HERE.

Spiritual friendship can take many forms. The way it is described by Aelred it applies to all human relationships which are loving and good. Within the framework of spiritual friendship is where we can best understand the relationship of anamchara. Anamchara is an Irish word which translates directly as “soul friend” but more effectively as “spiritual director.” We can see the importance of having a spiritual director in many places within the Celtic tradition. What makes a relationship with a spiritual director different from other kinds of spiritual friendship is that a spiritual director acts as a kind of confessor. In fact, the tradition of having a confessor has its roots in the Irish anamcharas. 

The stages of spiritual friendship which Aelred described apply to anamchara as well. First we choose someone based on the virtues they display, their ability and experience, and the advice of others who know them if we do not. Once a friend has been chosen we then test them. Not a malicious testing but a generous and honest one. One with truth and friendship as its goal. By incremental trusting and mutual exchange we come to accept our new friend. With acceptance begins the true growth and perfection of friendship which prepares us for, and in some ways even carries us into, friendship with God.

In an ideal situation a person will have an anamchara who knows them well. Unlike modern therapists or counsellors, the ancient anamcharas would often be a wise member of the community who has known the person under their direction for a long time. The Irish did not have cities at this point in history and lived in small rural farming communities. An anamchara was often a wise elder and a priest or monk. But, our modern world is very different and that doesn’t always work for us. Oftentimes spiritual directors today work with people they have no previous relationship with and they are not required to be priests. I am not a priest and in my own work as an anamchara I often work with people I did not know previously. If you are interested in doing anamchara together, send an email to justin@newedenministry.com and we can chat about it.

In the early Celtic monasteries the anamcharas were also expected to be people who dedicated a serious amount of time to their own spiritual practice. There was a great emphasis placed on both parties involved to discern wisely if they were a good fit. Anamcharas made a point not to take anyone who was already under someone else’s guidance or who they thought would not follow their directions. It was understood that in this special and sacred friendship the two people became, in a certain sense, one in spirit. The anamchara would take upon themselves the eternal rewards and consequences of those whom they directed. This would sometimes even mean that a spiritual director would fast and do penance on behalf of the person they were directing if they failed to complete the practices prescribed to them.

In the Teaching of Maelruain, an 8th century Irish monastic rule, this idea of a shared eternal fate between soul friends makes for a great deal of caution in spiritual directors. They were not eager to take on new people because that brought with it great risk and great responsibility. A soul friendship was a sacred thing and was not to be taken lightly by either party. The author of the text said in regards to Maelruain,

“He used to say that the office of spiritual director was perilous because, should the director impose on a penitent a penance commensurate with the gravity of the sin, it was more likely to be breached than observed. But if the director did not impose a penance, the debts of the sinner would fall on himself. ‘There are those,’ he said, ‘who regard confession as penance enough.’ It is safer for the director to send them advice, but not receive their confession.”

These ancient texts can often sound harsh because they used language differently than we do. The idea of penance was understood more like the modern idea of spiritual practice. Penance was an embodied practice which was designed to heal the spiritual illness that caused the bad behaviour, not a punishment for wickedness. Even while utilizing such extreme asceticism as was often practiced by the early anamcharas, the belief was never one of punishment and wretchedness but rather a harsh and effective remedy for a spiritual illness. Just like Buckley’s “it tastes awful and it works.”

A little later in the text Maelruain is recorded as saying,

“We regard the first year spent under spiritual direction as a year of purification, and so you will have to spend three periods of forty days on bread and water, except for a mouthful of milk on Sundays, and during the summer Lent a mixture of whey and water. When you place yourself under the guidance and control of someone else you should seek out the fire which will most fiercely burn, that is, which will spare you the least.”

The early anamcharas were noted for the severity of their asceticism and their belief in utter obedience to one’s director. This quote shows both those concepts quite well. One of the lovely things about reading these rules over a thousand years later is that we don’t have to do things exactly like they did. This was written in a harsh time by a harsh people and it reflects the world it comes from. Today I would not recommend such intense asceticism nor complete obedience to your spiritual director. But that doesn’t mean there is no wisdom in how these ancient people lived.

While complete obedience to a religious superior is a concept which has proved itself to be congenial to abuse and mistreatment, our radical independence may go too far in the other direction. We are taught that we should always look out for number one and trust only ourselves, but that is equally prone to disaster. The same goes for the harsh asceticism of the early anamcharas. I in no way advocate for self flagellation or eating nothing but bread and water for forty day periods. Yet, we have perhaps swung too far in the other direction. Our modern culture is often repulsed by the idea of asceticism. Too often we lump fasting and penance together with superstition and cruelty. We need a modern understanding of asceticism if we truly wish to be Celtic Christians because penance is essential to the art of the anamcharas.

Maelruain suggests that we find an anamchara who will light a fire within us. We should not look for ease and comfort in a spiritual director but rather someone who will challenge us to learn who we are. All people like to be reassured that they are perfect just the way they are, but even though we are created in God’s image, there are many other images we have piled on top of it. A good anamchara shines a light on these false images so that we can no longer turn a blind eye to them. These false images and the long habit of doing wrong are what is preventing our inner senses from seeing the spiritual reality all around us. As Pelagius described, there is a fog within us which keeps us from seeing divine truths. A fire lit within the heart will illuminate the darkness and drive away the fog. You can read more about that HERE.

A good anamchara is able to light a fire within you because there has already been a fire lit within them. Their inner senses have been awakened by the light of Christ. This passing of the torch of inner awareness is an essential part of the Celtic tradition. There is a 9th century Irish rule which is normally attributed to St Carthage. Modern scholars believe that it is actually written by Fothad na Canóine, who was a controversial teacher in the Céili Dé reform movement. His rule is particularly interesting because it includes a section which lays out the qualities and duties of an anamchara. 

In typical Céili Dé style, the requirements are harsh and strict by modern standards. A true anamchara, says the author, should do two hundred genuflections (basically liturgical burpees) and recite all of the psalms every single day, as well as a rigorous life of fasting and self denial. An anamchara was also expected to celebrate the eucharist on Sundays and Thursdays (though it says that every day is preferable) and to make prayers of intercession daily while performing the canonical hours. The same rule includes instructions for an abbot, which seem to fit for an anamchara just as well. It says, “Preach diligently what Christ, the holy one commands; what you ask of others should be what you yourself do. You should love the souls of all, just as you love your own.”

This is an essential quality for an anamchara or an abbot (who essentially played the role of anamchara for an entire community). When choosing a spiritual director we should look for someone who practices what they preach. Someone who has a regular spiritual practice and who dedicates their time to prayer and study. The same rule goes on to give this advice to one who wishes to take on the role of anamchara, “If you are a spiritual director to a man, do not barter his soul; be not as the blind leading the blind; do not leave him in neglect.”

So, my dear sisters and brothers, I encourage you to find a soul friend. Choose one wisely, test them appropriately, accept them into your heart, and travel with them home to God. Choose someone who has alivened their own inner senses already. Choose someone who has the fire of the Spirit in their eyes and invite them to light a fire within you as well. Undertake such a relationship with great consideration and treat it as the sacred thing that it is. Do not shy away from difficult practices because they are often the most effective means of understanding who you are and remember that the goal of all spiritual friendships is to bring us closer to God.


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