"A person with out a soul friend is like a body with out a head" : St. Brigid
The Month having begun with Brigid i thought it would be fitting to address the topic of Anam Caram. Today we use terms such as spiritual councilor, spiritual director and sometimes mentor. Before this role became primarily the exclusive domain of a predominately male clergy and more recently professionals this type of relationship called periglour or beriglour by the Welsh and Anam Caram by the Irish and the Scots meaning "friend of the soul" or simply "soul friend" was open to lay people and ordained, women and men alike to receive and give.
The following is a story from the life of St. Brigid which sheds light on the importance the Celts placed on this kind of relationship.
A young cleric of the community of Ferns, a foster-son of Brigit's, used to come to her with dainties. He was often with her in the refectory to partake of food. Once after going to communion she struck a conversation. "Well, young cleric there", says Brigit, "do you have a soul friend?". "I have", replied the young man. "Let us sing his requiem", says Brigit. "Why so?" asks the young cleric. "For he has died", says Brigit. "When you had finished half your ration I saw that he was dead". "How did you know that?" "Easy to say, (Brigit replies) from the time that your soul friend was dead, I saw that your food was put (directly) in the trunk of your body, since you were without any head. Go forth and eat nothing until you get a soul friend, for anyone without a soul friend is like a body without a head: is like the water of a polluted lake, neither good for drinking nor for washing. That is the person without a soul friend".
Set in the context of a meal with references to death and water, this story has symbolic, sacramental connotations that most Christians would recognize. It a loods to the fact Christian Celts believed that soul friends were crucial to the nourishment and spiritual growth of the individual. It presumes that such mentoring relationships were ultimately related to friendship with God.
To fully grasp the concept of soul friendship and its significance in the history of Christian spirituality it is important to understand that it emerged as a distinct form of spiritual mentoring. The lives and teachings of the Abbas and Ammas of the early desert, stories of the saints found in certain early Celtic hagiographies (In The Lives) and their writings affirm the value of friendly teachers, confessors, and guides for personal holiness and the sharing of wisdom grounded in deep friendships.
Scholars are in agreement that the early desert Christians had a major influence on the development of the Celtic approach to mentoring friendship. Pioneers of monasticism in both the western and eastern churches, these desert Christians were mostly laypeople who left their homes and traveled into the desert regions of Egypt, Syria, and Palestine in the 3rd 4th and 5th centuries.
Desert elders such as Antony (251-356) and Pachomius (292-346) desired a simpler life-style where "the air was purer, the heavens more open, and God nearer". They began living alone as hermits or together in communities, eventually becoming valued as teachers of prayer and councilors of the spirit. These "Desert Fathers and Mothers", as they came to be lovingly called, instructed those who came to them not only with words of advice, but more importantly example. "Be an example, not a lawgiver" was one of their favorite sayings.
Two seemingly contradictory characteristics consistently appear: their great appreciation of friendship and an equally strong love of solitude. There is much evidence in the written works of the warmth, love, respect, and genuine affection the early desert Christians felt for each other. They warmly embraced on meeting and departing. They engage in friendly chit chat, yet also seriously discussed the spiritual progress each was attempting to make. They shared daily work and, at least once a week, celebrated Communion together. Most importantly, they called each other friend and rooted that friendship in Jesus' name and example.
Abba Theodore, taught "Let us each give his heart to the other, carrying the Cross of Christ". It is this capacity for deep friendships that attracted others to them. In their presence people felt safe opening their hearts sharing their struggles, confessing sins and seeking direction. This capacity for friendship and ability to read other people's hearts became the basis of the desert elders' effectiveness as spiritual guides.
Abba Helle is typical. Staying with his brothers for three days, he was so loved and trusted by them, we are told, that when he "revealed the secret counsels of each of them, saying that one was troubled by fornication, another by vanity, another by self-indulgence, and another by anger", they could only respond, "Yes, it is just as you say".