In the following pages, I will outline the tradition of Spiritual Direction coming through the Celtic tradition of anam cara’(soul friend). On this writing journey, I share my inspiration for the direction of this paper, my thoughts about the fundamental origin of Spiritual Direction, the essence of friendship that is at the heart of anam cara and core of Spiritual Direction. In addition, I will refer to Jesus as a figure that exemplifies an anam cara
When reading Matthew Fox’s book, Confessions, I was intrigued when he shared that his spiritual director was his beloved dog Tristan. Wow, what a concept! In my opinion, Fox’s statement alludes to a larger frame of reference for spiritual direction beyond the confidential confines of an office where a “directee” and director strive to recognize the Divine in each other’s lives. Human to human interchange is not the only vessel to discover the Divine. Fox states, “ We experience the Divine in all things and all things are in the Divine (panenthesism), and this mystical intuition supplants theism (and its child, atheism) as an appropriate way to name our relationship to the Divine” (Fox,1996, p. 286).
I am also reminded of a deep encounter I had with my Border Collie daughter Sadie. One night while lying in bed with her, I looked into her deep brown eyes. Her head was resting on the pillow next to me, and I asked her, “Who were you?” No answer in my language, but my question came from knowing that she was a Spirit, and in that loving moment, my heart melted, and we were in synch. True soul friends, anam cara, to be sure! What a companion and source of unconditional love she is to me as we journey through life together. The source of that love is surely the Divine brought forth by the “creative energy of God” also referred to as “‘Dabhar,’ meaning ‘word’ in Hebrew, but referring to the ‘pre-word’ times of original creation” (Fox, 1996, p.37).
In the Beginning
From a historical faith perspective, I believe the root of Spiritual Direction originates with the creation of our planet. John O’Donohue puts it so beautifully when he states, “Humans are new here. Above us, the galaxies dance out toward infinity. Under our feet is ancient earth. We are beautifully molded from this clay” (O’Donohue, 1998, p. xvi). Indeed, we are beautifully molded and all of our creation molded by the deepest of friend, our Creator God. Fundamentally the source, and the inspiration for all friendship, the best and the finest, of what anam cara is.
Another aspect of friendship that describes this God can be found in Susan Ross’ most wonderful book entitled, Extravagant Affections, wherein Ross articulates her concerns about the institutional church and also God’s affection towards us. She notes:
The tradition, I believe, has all too often come to interpret, preach, and practice the sacraments in ways that all too often constrict their grace-filled potential: by stressing strict divisions between clergy and laity, divine and human, men and women, by turning to legalistic conception of gender roles that is both limited and limiting. [Italics mine] As the gifts of God’s “extravagant affections”, and our own for God and for others, the sacraments provide opportunities for Christian women and men to express, play, celebrate, and live out the “riotous plenty that is God” (Ross, 1998, p. 13).
I contend that Ross’s terms “extravagant affections” and the “riotous plenty that is God” describes a true friend and a healing friend.
On a human level, Bernard Cooke (1994) underscores the importance of being aware of our life experiences, and from them he believes we can shape our personhood and live our humanness fully. Instead of coasting along in life, we can seize the opportunity to examine our experiences more closely. We learn and develop as we make meaning out of them. Often times key experiences shape us more profoundly that those of our daily existence and can be of a tragic or ecstatic nature. “For some people there may be a peak experience of God, a sharp awareness of God’s reality and loving presence, a genuine conversion experience” (Cooke, 1994, p.25).
When I reflect on my life, one event is firmly etched in my consciousness. It happened when I was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s T-Cell Lymphoma in March of 1992. The diagnosis was like a death sentence. I had so many questions, fears and anxious moments after that diagnosis, and the subsequent treatment I would receive. I dreaded the thought of chemotherapy. After three months of chemo my cancer reoccurred. I was devastated.
After returning home with the bad news, I sat alone contemplating my survival prospects amid a barrage of information and intended helpful suggestions from friends. “You should take shark cartilage, multi-vitamins, drink Essiac tea, cut out this, add this, take this…etc.” Everyone did their best to be supportive and helpful, and I appreciated their intentions, but felt even more anxious and confused. I asked myself, “What am I going to do about this?” After thinking about all the should and ought to do’s, a flash of insight came upon me, and I realized in a deep way that I am alone. I said to myself, “It’s now between me and God.” Deep inside I felt a warm comfort, a feeling of serenity, and calmness. I trusted in my God. My fear dissipated, and I felt energized to carry on and face whatever the future held. That was 23 years ago, and I will never forget that moment. I am convinced that Abba God appeared to me, and I received and was transformed by the Holy Spirit. Without question, it was a conversion experience, and especially a healing intervention that I am convinced aided in my very survival. From this deep source and root of friendship unseen, I experienced the essence of friendship that is also something I can experience with a human friend in the form of love.
Cooke (1994) offers a summary of the aspects of friendship that give meaning to us. He says, “A true friendship tells me that I am important, at least to my friend (Cooke, 1994, p.25). My well being, ideas, interests, concerns and anxieties all count and are important to my friend. In addition, “a real friendship can let me know that I am good, and therefore that I can and should love myself (Cooke, 1994, p.26).” This aspect of friendship resonates with me because early years with my family of origin reinforced within me the notion that I am not lovable. I experienced a conditional love or acceptance only if I obeyed, and met their every expectation. If I did not, and often that was the case, rejection ensued. As a result, I have come to understand that “conditional love” is not love at all, by virtue of it being conditional! Dog children know this, and in turn I experience their unconditional love, regardless of how I behave towards them. In addition to my dogs, I am blessed to have human friends who constantly remind me that I am lovable, and they encourage me to love myself as I love them. I don’t have many friends, but that is of no matter because I am blessed to have more that one good friend. I take solace in this quote, “If you have two friends in your lifetime, you're lucky. If you have one good friend, you're more than lucky” (S.E.Hinton, 2015, n.a.).
Another aspect of friendship that Cooke (1994) articulates is the mutuality of friendship as an accomplishment in one’s life. He states,
[F]riendships let us know that we are not alone in our human adventure…for those in faith accept as a reality the love of God for them as individuals, this divine love can and does have a major effect on the meaning they see in their lives. No person can be considered other than ultimately important if he or she is the object of God’s interest, concern, and person love. To the extent that this divine love can be accepted into one’s life and appreciated for what it is, it has a transforming (that is, saving) effect. This means that God’s love for humans is the ultimate humanizing influence in their experience (1994, p.27).
Thinking back to my health crisis, I received reassurance that I was not alone and my struggle was a matter “between me and God.” What a gift, and I think now, what a wondrous possibility we can experience while cultivating a soul friend relationship ripe with all the best that friendship entails. Carl Jung speaks of that potential when two personalities come together. He said, “The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed” (2015,n.a).
Indeed, transformation is possible, and I agree with John O’Donohue (1997) who said, “In everyone’s life, there is a great need for an anam cara, a soul friend, and he adds, “the anam cara is God’s gift. Friendship is the nature of God” (p. 14-15).
As a celebrant over the past twelve years, ninety five percent of the funerals and memorial services I officiate are non-religious by request. I consider this is a sign of our times. People are not finding what they are looking for in our mainstream churches. Yet with all the pressures and demands of our secular society, and the constant quest for something meaningful, many are lost in the sea of materialism and the promise of a better life blatantly advertised by corporations. Yet in this regard, Albert Nolan (2007) points out that in today’s society, “the widespread hunger for spirituality, the search for spirituality, the felt need for spirituality… [and] some experience the hunger for spirituality quite simply as a longing for God” (p. 7-8).
I believe this deep longing for meaning and transformation can occur in the precious and intimate expression of love found in a soul friend relationship wherein the longing and search for the presence and experience of God can manifest and be shared. I contend, soul friendship is a promising path for humankind to experience liberation and freedom from the repression of tenets of our modern society that are spiritless.
Fortunately for centuries, Jesus pointed the “way, the truth, and the light,” and we need only to look at his example and learn from him. The friendship Jesus modeled is a great start. His awareness of God was one in which Jesus felt God’s unconditional love and “John’s gospel describes Jesus at the last supper as extending this to his disciples. “I will not now call you servants, but friends” (Cooke, 1994, p.85).
Recognizing the communitarian power of connectivity,
Jesus did not confine himself to private conversions and individualistic spiritual achievements. He gathered people together in family-like communities as seeds of the emerging [kindom]. It was in such communities that his followers discovered their oneness and solidarity with one another. They healed one another by learning from one another, loving one another, and sharing with one another (Nolan, 2006, p.167).
No doubt deep friendships among Jesus’ followers resulted by gathering in this way. They also forged their ability to stay the course in light of persecution in their time. Cooke (2006) also notes, “All genuine friendship, and in a particular way the friendship between people who share faith in the God Jesus revealed, is sacramental” (p. 91).
As well, in our awareness and belief in the Trinity, we as Christians experience such fulfillment of God’s gifts and the “eternal interflow of friendship” (O’Donohue, 1997, p. 15). “Jesus, as the Son of God, is the first Other in the universe… he is the secret anam cara of every individual. In friendship with him, we enter the tender beauty and affection of the Trinity” (Ibid). Within Celtic spirituality there is a beautiful invocation that reads;
“The Sacred Three
My fortress be
Come and be round
My hearth and my home.” (Ibid)
When I think of an intimate and trusted friendship, I believe my friend and I are in the presence of the Sacred Three. The fortress built on rocks of trust encircles us, protects us and forms a bond of confidentiality. This dearest friend is always available to us whether we meet at my hearth and home, in a nearby coffee shop, walk in the forest or anywhere that comes to mind.
In the preceding pages, I described my conversion and healing experience in the presence of God. This was a reassuring moment of calmness in the face of death. The healing I experienced, was no doubt representative of the experience many of those who witnessed Jesus’ healing activity. “The holistic character of Jesus’ healing activity can best be seen in the story of the paralytic who is let down through the roof (Mark 2.2-12 parr.)” (Nolan, 2006, p. 78). This man perhaps paralyzed by guilt, received Jesus’ assurance that he need not feel guilty because his sins were forgiven, and in response the man is able to walk. Jesus’ powerful preaching of equality and a loving Abba God accessible to all, had a profound effect on those who heard his message. This news “must have been received with enormous gratitude and hopefulness--healing centuries of hurt, resentment, insecurity, and anxiety” (Nolan, 2006, p. 79).
In the context of an anam cara relationship, I envision the same potential for healing hurts, extinguishing resentments, insecurity and anxieties. I believe these are the effects of the power of love and acceptance. How wondrous we can treasure the example and guidance found in scripture about the life of Jesus’ teaching and healing ministry.
In the preceding pages, I shared my inspiration for the direction of this paper, my thoughts about the fundamental origin of Spiritual Direction, and the essence of friendship that is at the heart of anam cara the core of Spiritual Direction.
In addition, I outlined the key aspects of Jesus’ character as a figure that exemplified what it means to be a soul friend. His teachings and healing ministry offer us great guidance and direction for our lives.
Without question, the source of anam cara is our Creator God. The origin of friendship is at the core and heart of what it means to be a soul friend. Mathew Fox’s dog as his spiritual director inspired the idea that spiritual direction is surely a process not merely confined to an office setting, nor necessarily person to person. The Divine can be found in all of creation; we need only to open our eyes and truly see. The theme of unconditional love manifested in my Border Collie, but ultimately by God, reminded me of my family of origin, and my grappling with the their form of supposed love. Conditional love I concluded was not love at all. The essence of spiritual companioning is surely a relationship of trust, and the expression of unconditional love.
Exploring the aspects of friendship elaborated by Cooke (1994) provides a further description of what constitutes a genuine anam cara that has the potential to fulfill a modern societies’ hunger for spirituality and pave the way towards humankind liberation from the grip of materialism and all things spiritless. Everyone can benefit from having a soul friend. This is a relationship that has the potential for transformation on a micro and macro level. My assertion begs the question, how can we make this happen? Like all major changes, I contend it starts at the grass roots, friend by friend until a critical mass forms and significant change happens.
And finally, it is Jesus who we can look to for guidance, direction and inspiration of what is possible when we endeavor seek God in our midst. For centuries millions have followed him, and my hope is that it will continue to be the case.
So concludes this writing journey that reminded me of how blessed I am to have soul friends, true anam cara’s in my life. For certain, I cannot envision a life without my soul friends. It is by the grace and compassion of God that we have the gift of friendship. It is a wondrous gift and an extravagant affection from the bounty of riotous plenty that is God. Thanks be to our Compassionate Presence. Amen.
Cooke, B. (1994). Sacraments & Sacramentality. Mystic, CT: Twenty-Third Publications.
Fox, M. (1996). Confessions: The Making of a Post-Denominational Priest. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers Inc.
Hinton, S. E. (2015) Good Reads: Quotes. Retrieved from http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/66148-if-you-have-two-friends-in-your-lifetime-you-re-lucky
Jung, C.G. (2015) Good Reads: Quotes. Retrieved from
Nolan, A.,(2006). Jesus Today: A Spirituality of Radical Freedom. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
O’Donohue, J. (1997). Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers Inc.
Ross, S., (1998). Extravagant Affections: A Feminist Sacramental Theology. New York, NY: The Continuum Publishing Company.