Everyone Needs an Anam Cara—or Soul Friend—to Feel Understood and Loved: A Celebration of One of Maria's Favorite Books On Its 25th Anniversary
In the Celtic tradition, there is a beautiful understanding of love and friendship. One of the fascinating ideas here is the idea of soul-love; the old Gaelic term for this is anam cara. Anam is the Gaelic word for soul and cara is the word for friend. So anam cara in the Celtic world was the “soul friend.”
In the early Celtic church, a person who acted as a teacher, companion, or spiritual guide was called an anam cara. It originally referred to someone to whom you confessed, revealing the hidden intimacies of your life. With the anam cara you could share your innermost self, your mind and your heart. This friendship was an act of recognition and belonging.
When you had an anam cara, your friendship cut across all convention, morality, and category. You were joined in an ancient and eternal way with the “friend of your soul.” The Celtic understanding did not set limitations of space or time on the soul. There is no cage for the soul. The soul is a divine light that flows into you and into your Other. This art of belonging awakened and fostered a deep and special companionship.
In his Conferences, John Cassian says this bond between friends is indissoluble: “This, I say, is what is broken by no chances, what no interval of time or space can sever or destroy, and what even death itself cannot part.”
In everyone’s life, there is a great need for an anam cara, a soul friend. In this love, you are understood as you are without mask or pretension. The superficial and functional lies and half-truths of social acquaintance fall away, you can be as you really are. Love allows understanding to dawn, and understanding is precious. Where you are understood, you are at home. Understanding nourishes belonging. When you really feel understood, you feel free to release yourself into the trust and shelter of the other person’s soul. This recognition is described in a beautiful line from Pablo Neruda: “You are like nobody since I love you.” This art of love discloses the special and sacred identity of the other person. Love is the only light that can truly read the secret signature of the other person’s individuality and soul. Love alone is literate in the world of origin; it can decipher identity and destiny.
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. In the embrace of this eternal friendship, we dare to be free. There is a beautiful Trinitarian motif running through Celtic spirituality. This little invocation captures this:
The Sacred Three
My fortress be
Come and be round
My hearth and my home.
Consequently, love is anything but sentimental. In fact, it is the most real and creative form of human presence. Love is the threshold where divine and human presence ebb and flow into each other.
All presence depends on consciousness. Where there is a depth of awareness, there is a reverence for presence. Where consciousness is dulled, distant, or blind, the presence grows faint and vanishes. Consequently, awareness is one of the greatest gifts you can bring to your friendship. Many people have an anam cara of whom they are not truly aware. Their lack of awareness cloaks the friend’s presence and causes feelings of distance and absence. Sadly, it is often loss that awakens presence, by then it is too late. It is wise to pray for the grace of recognition. Inspired by awareness, you may then discover beside you the anam cara of whom your longing has always dreamed.
The Celtic tradition recognized that an anam-cara friendship was graced with affection. Friendship awakens affection. The heart learns a new art of feeling. Such friendship is neither cerebral nor abstract. In Celtic tradition, the anam cara was not merely a metaphor or ideal. It was a soul-bond that existed as a recognized and admired social construct. It altered the meaning of identity and perception. When your affection is kindled, the world of your intellect takes on a new tenderness and compassion. The anam cara brings epistemological integration and healing. You look and see and understand differently.
Initially, this can be disruptive and awkward, but it gradually refines your sensibility and transforms your way of being in the world. Most fundamentalism, greed, violence, and oppression can be traced back to the separation of idea and affection. For too long we have been blind to the cognitive riches of feeling and the affective depth of ideas. Aristotle said in De Anima, “Perception is ex hypothesi a form of affection and being moved; and the same goes for thinking and knowing. … Thinking particularly is like a peculiar affection of the soul.”
The anam-cara perspective is sublime because it permits us to enter this unity of ancient belonging.
A Friendship Blessing
May you be blessed with good friends.
May you learn to be a good friend to yourself.
May you be able to journey to that place in your soul where there is
great love, warmth, feeling, and forgiveness.
May this change you.
May it transfigure that which is negative, distant, or cold in you.
May you be brought in to the real passion, kinship, and affinity of
May you treasure your friends.
May you be good to them and may you be there for them; may they
bring you all the blessings, challenges, truth, and light that you
need for your journey.
May you never be isolated.
May you always be in the gentle nest of belonging with your
Excerpted from Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom by John O’Donohue, Copyright © 1997 by John O’Donohue. Courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers.
JOHN O'DONOHUE (1956-2008) was a poet, philosopher and scholar, a native Gaelic speaker from County Clare, Ireland. He was awarded a PhD in Philosophical Theology from the University of Tübingen, with post-doctoral study of Meister Eckhart. John's numerous international best-selling books include: Anam Cara, Beauty, Eternal Echoes, and the beloved To Bless the Space Between Us, among many others, guide readers through the landscape of the Irish imagination. To learn more, visit johnodonohue.com
Question from the Editor: Do you have a soul friend? What are the qualities that person has that makes you especially grateful?