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by Marjorie George with Patricia Brooke and Carla Pineda
In A Book of Celtic Wisdom, John O’Donohue explains that in the Celtic tradition, there is an ancient appreciation for the intersection of love and friendship that the Celts call anam cara: anam being the Gaelic word for soul and cara the word for friend. Thus anam cara: soul friend.
Originally the term applied to a teacher, companion, or spiritual guide, someone to whom you confessed and could share your innermost self. “When you had an anam cara,” says O’Donohue, “your friendship cut across all convention, morality, and category.” The Celtic understanding did not set earthly limitations on the soul: your anam cara might have passed from earthly existence centuries before. Or it might be your friend sleeping in the next room.
Between soul friends there is a recognition that what is has always been – it is that someone with whom you were born to be friends. “You know you have found a soul friend when you find someone who is willing to walk by your side, listen to you talk about your life, especially your spiritual life, and whose support helps you move into a greater freedom in Christ,” says Anne Deneen in her online essay “Anam Cara: Soul Friend” (from Lutheran Link, February 2009, found at www.nesynod.org/publications/2009_TheLink/Deneen_AnamCara.pdf).
With a soul friend, there is a feeling of connection from the get-go, a thread drawing one to the other before they meet face to face.
Listening to all of this, Patricia Brooke and Carla Pineda nod and smile. More than a dozen years ago, before they had met, the two women were attending the same retreat. “I was sitting under the trees on a bench,” says Carla. “Patricia was out walking. She sat down and we just started talking – we haven’t stopped since.”
Patricia asked a question she says she would not normally have asked a stranger: “How do you start dating at 50?” She was recently divorced, and she recognized in Carla – although she had no way of knowing – someone of whom she could ask that. Carla had indeed been through divorce.
“But it wasn’t so much the question,” says Carla. “It was the door into the sacred place of being soul friends. I just knew that anything I told her would be OK, validated.”
Their friendship is grounded in a shared view of how they see the world, how they each process the events that shape them. “We share a common language,” says Patricia, “spoken and unspoken, deeper than just words. We love to yak but we also deeply treasure the times we spend together being quiet, working on a retreat we are going to lead, or overlooking the water with a book and a glass of wine.”
Frequently, what begins as aimless conversation between the two of them takes a turn into a soul conversation. “But we don’t do a lot of giving of advice to each other,” says Carla. “It’s more of a ‘this is how I see it,’ ” response. And when I recite to Patricia how God has been faithful to me in a similar situation, it reinforces my faithfulness as well as hers.”
“It’s organic,” adds Patricia. “It’s relational because God is relational in the Trinity. It’s God’s nature to be relational, and every once in a while it has to come out. So our friendship is embodied, not just theoretical.”
“Sometimes,” says Carla, “I just need to see and hear and touch God. Sometimes that is who my soul friend is to me.”
Being more than theoretical, the friendship requires intentional nurturing. “You have to be deliberate about it,” says Patricia. “Even when Carla lived in a different city for a while, we worked at staying in touch.” One of them will frequently phone the other with some trinket to share, and the other will say, upon answering her phone, “I was just going to call you.”
At the same time, soul friendship cannot be forced. Friendship is always an act of recognition, not invention. When we find them, we recognize soul friends as someone with whom we have always been talking, always listening. Anne Deneen, in her essay, likens it to the baby “leaping” in Elizabeth’s womb when he recognized the presence of Jesus in Mary.
Soul friends simply find each other – an act of God, who, remember, calls us all his friends.
Patricia Brooke is a member of St. David’s, San Antonio. Carla Pineda is a member of St. Mark’s, San Antonio. They frequently lead retreats and workshops together. Find Patricia at firstname.lastname@example.org; find Carla at email@example.com.
This article is from the Fall/Winter issue of Reflections magazine. To read the entire issue, click here.
Art provided by Patsy Sasek, a San Antonio artist who uses the distinctive flavors and colors of the Southwest in her work. She works today in her home studio painting in watercolors and acrylic. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
♦ Anam Cara, in Gaelic, means soul friend. Miami Phillips, author of the essay, recommends a book by John O’Donohue, entitled Anam Cara – A Book of Celtic Wisdom. Go to the link for Workplace Spirituality, http://www.workplacespirituality.info/AnamCara.html, to learn more about “Expressing spirituality in the workplace through your career calling, ethics, economic justice, spiritual practices, and spiritual values.”
♦ Soul friends come in all shapes and sizes – and sometimes with four legs. Soul Friends, Inc., in Connecticut, has as its motto, “Healing the hearts of children one wagging tail at a time.” Established in 2003, this organization seeks to work with children in need of comfort through the bond of human and therapeutic animals. Credentialed by their state’s Department of Children and Families, they work to be proactive in healing – to learn more visit their website at http://soul-friends.org/.
♦ From Jim’s Blog, “The practice of soul-friending links twenty-first century believers with a great tradition of Christian mysticism, extending back from Thomas Merton and Simone Weil to the English mystics like Julian of Norwich and the author of The Cloud of Unknowing, and to the desert fathers and mothers and the earliest Celtic Christians. While grounded in history, the tradition speaks to present-day seekers.” Go to http://www.divinenobodies.com/blog/?p=255 to read and share responses to the question, “Do we need soul friends?”
♦ Soul Sisters: Do You Have One? is the question up for discussion on Beliefnet.com. Click on this link: http://www.beliefnet.com/Holistic-Living/2002/07/Soul-Sisters-Do-You-Have-One.aspx to read this essay and discover links to other related topics.