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The Anam Cara – another way Celtic Christianity has lots to teach us!

28 September 2012

God has never been lonely! From all eternity Father, Son and Holy Spirit have enjoyed perfect friendship. Since we are made in their image (Genesis 1) it is no surprise that each of us has a great desire and need for companionship, community and friendship, it is a godlike desire. Vital to our flourishing and well-being is the place of good friends in our lives – people who know us, who we can trust, who we can be vulnerable with, who can support us and who can challenge us. The Book of Proverbs talks about prioritising a few close friends rather than having lots of acquaintances, for example in Proverbs 18.24 the writer says

A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.

So we were made for deep friendship with a few people and this comes across when we read about the covenant of Jonathan and David, Jesus’ inner circle of 3 friends and Paul’s father-son relationship with Timothy. I know in my own life having 1-2 people that I regularly meet with who keep me accountable, pray with and for me, challenge me and support me has been as valuable as personal bible-reading and prayer in my own walk with the Lord.

Anyway this is all by way of pre-amble to say that what many churches now encourage (accountability groups, prayer-triplets, life-groups etc) the Irish Celtic Christians have been encouraging for centuries. They called it the Anam Cara, a soul friend and I recently read about it in this article, which I quote below.

Celtic Christianity emerged as a powerful spiritual force in in Ireland and in parts of Britain and its surrounding islands and thriving for centuries, from the early medieval period. They were people of pilgrimage and radical mission risking their lives as they shared the gospel with clans who had never heard it before. They were committed to social justice, hospitality and prayer. Their devotion to Scripture was expressed in art and hymns and poetry and extended to intensive Bible study and commentary. The Celts were activists, strong individuals, out changing the world.

Yet for the Celtic Christians, community also played a significant role in their faith. In the light of Jesus, community (structured by clans) was not just about human interaction; it was part of their spiritual experience. One of the ways community played a role was in the form of the anmchara, or the SOUL FRIEND. This friendship was based on mutual love and trust. They respected one another’s wisdom; it was even a place for challenge or confrontation if needed. The friendship provided a context for spiritual direction and mentoring, but still actively pointed each another to Jesus.

These relationships were not taken lightly. Celtic saints would travel great distances in order to spend time with a soul friend, their place of refuge and accountability. Bridget, one of the Celtic leaders thought that anyone without a soul friend was like a body without a head. Alongside pilgrimage, mission and leadership, these Celtic leaders found support and depth, stability and accountability; they found an anchor in this relationship.

I believe that chapters from our spiritual heritage can help us navigate the world we exist in today. The paths others have walked, the battles they’ve faced can function as signposts, guidelines, even warnings for our own journeys as leaders. The adventurous ancient paths the Celtic Christians walk have lots to teach us as we seek to minister in an increasingly post Christian culture, including their resolute commitment to the “soul friend”….we need a soul friend to keep us anchored.

Jo Saxton, who wrote the article, goes on to talk about the busyness of the Autumn term and how we must not get too busy to push out these important life-giving friendships in our lives.

The Article then goes on to talk about why some of us never form these deep vulnerable and accountable relationships.

Some of us are ready to be a soul friend to many, yet lack a soul friend of our own. This happens for a variety of reasons: Some of us have been trained to be wary of cultivating friendships and advised to protect ourselves and your time instead. Other have been bruised by controlling relationships which posed as accountability, but instead of leading you closer to the ultimate Friend, left you with accused and condemned. For others our bruising came in the blows of betrayal when our secrets were shared and our trust was broken. It seemed safer to stand alone.

Perhaps the main lack of the article is it never talks about how Jesus can be our ultimate friend (John 15) who, as Tim Keller nicely puts it, “always lets us in and never lets us down” – he is totally vulnerable with and committed to us. Once we know deep friendship with him we can be good friends to others even when we have been hurt in the past. But maybe that is for another post. Saxton ends with some helpful advice

No matter where we’re at, no matter how far along we are in ministry, we need our anmchara. We need a godly soul friend to stand with us, pray for us, listen to us and talk with us. Really talk. People who we remind us of God’s call on our lives and cheer us on as we respond to Him. We need a relationship where we can agree to ask one another the challenging difficult questions, and be willing to give the raw and honest answer.

Perhaps we can prayerfully consider these next steps and see where the Lord might lead us…

  • Is it time to be open to an anmchara type relationship in your life?
  • Do you need to carve out some time in God given key relationships, arrange a regular time to meet and pray? And then prioritize it?
  • Do you need to risk vulnerability by being more open in your key relationships? Say what’s really happening, bad or good?

As we dive into the demands of work and life and ministry, my prayer is that we don’t default to going it alone. I pray that we’d find strength and encouragement in our walk with God and in our journey with those key friends God places in our lives as catalysts to our growth and maturity. The anmchara.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. RJB permalink
    1 October 2012 9:56 am

    Perhaps it’s more apt to say that we have a lot to learn!!

    How many of this level of friendships do you think it is realistic to have? And do you think they work on a seasonal basis? (i.e. different anmchara for different chapters of life or do you ideally have these over a lifetime wherever you move to?).

  2. 1 October 2012 10:21 am

    Hello RJB,

    Yes lots to learn indeed. My Cousin Aine informed me that the correct spelling is Anam Cara (and she gave me a book with that title) so I have changed my parts in the blog post to reflect that.

    Jesus had a very close relationship with his father, then the 3 (Peter, James & John), then the 12, then the 16-17 which included the women, then the 72 and then the crowds. It is interesting that he always seems to want to get away from the crowds to get with the 16-17 and then the 12 and then the 3 and then to be alone with his father. I am not sure we have to ‘copy’ this model of sizes and numbers but it is helpful to think about the need for a few very close friends, a number of good friends and then a larger number of acquaintances (and of course the need to shut the door and be alone with our father in prayer – Matthew 6vs5).

    In terms of seasons, I think that too is very important. I once heard someone say “friends are for a reason, for a season or for life.” Again, I am not sure whether this always applies but I wonder there is wisdom in that we should not fight against losing close contact with some people. In the end if we try to stay in contact with everyone on a close level we’ll not stay in close contact with anyone. On a personal note as we have now left Leeds and arrived in Dublin we are wondering which people will stay particularly close and which people we’ll lose contact with.

    So my my gut reaction to your question is ‘both/and’ – we need some a few close friends who we stay in contact with for the whole of our lives and provide real ‘objectivity’ for us. But that we also develop a close friend or two who live nearer to us and who we connect with more regularly.

    Anyone else got any more thoughts or wisdom?


    • 14 November 2012 7:05 pm

      Hi, Steve:

      Just wondering if the book to which you refer was John O’Donohue’s and if your cousin Aine is the singer and harpist Aine Minogue. Aine Minogue recommended John’s Anam Cara to me.

      I am a retired pastor and lover of Celtic music. I have written an essay entitled “Celtic Inspiration” in which I refer to both Aine Minogue and John O’Donohue. I’d love to e-mail it to you.

      Peace and blessings.

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