The Celtic Connection
For more than six hundred years from 400 to 1200 C.E., monastic biographers in the Celtic churches of Ireland, Northern England, Cornwall, Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man, and Brittany composed the Lives of literally hundreds of Celtic saints. These records leave a wealth of information about soul friendship and its immersion in the everyday life and spirituality of Celtic Christianity. Also revealed is how common soul-friend relationships were between men and men, women and women, and women and men and the importance of everyone having a soul friend even among non clerics.
Records tell us within a hundred years after the missionary activities of Saint Patrick in the fifth century, saint after saint were involved in soul friend relationships.
Finnian, who around 520 established the great monastery of Clonard, is considered the patriarch of early Irish monasticism. He tutored and acted as a spiritual guide to so many of the early founders of the other large monastic communities, Columcille of Iona and Ciaran of Clonmacnoise among that number. Finnian, himself had been mentored from boyhood by Foirtchernn of Britain. As an adult he had a number of soul friends: Caemon of Tours in Gaul, and David, Gildas, and Cathmael.
Ita as Finan evidently acted in a similar capacity. She taught so many young men who later became leaders in the early Celtic church that she became known as the "Fostermother of the Saints of Erin." One of these is Brendan of Clonfert. Famous for his voyages, he frequently turned to Ita for advice throughout his life.
A person may have a number of mentors and soul friends through out their lifetime. Often starting from an early age. Kevin of Glendalough is typical of this model. According to an early hagiography, he had "three elders to whom he was handed over as a child, so that he might learn Christ."
As Anam Caram, these early saints engaged in a great variety of ministries and roles. Some, like Patrick, Brigit, and Columcille, are clearly portrayed in their Lives as healers and spiritual guides to the tribes, as the druids and druidesses had once been before them.
Others such as Finnian, Ita, and Aidan, functioned as teachers and tutors both to younger and older students alike. Many of them, including Findbarr of Cork, David of Wales, and Hild of Whitby, were powerful founders of monasteries, a role that definatley involved good communication and administrative skills.
As in the case of Brendan and Columbanus, a large number were missionaries and pilgrims. They willing to lived extremely harsh lifestyles, far from friends and kin, to bringing the gospel to pagan lands.
Many of these soul friends were mystics and visionaries, like Samthann of Clonbroney and Maedoc of Ferns, who prayed intensely and had seer, intuitive abilities to read the future and, more important, the heart. All of them were pioneers, reconcilers, and confessors who, despite a very active life, valued deep freindships and solitude.
We know from the few hagiographies of female "saints" as well as the stories in the men's Lives that refer to women in the early Celtic church, that some of the greatest and most competent of the soul friends were Irish women. Brigit, Ita, Samthann, Moninna, and in Northumbria. The anglo-saxon Hild of Whitby, who, through Aidan's mentoring, was thoroughly immersed in Celtic spirituality. These woman funtioned as teachers, administrators, guides, preachers, and confessors in the Celtic tradition.
Whether female or male saints, it is interesting to note how often they are pictured, like the desert Christians, sitting, praying, studying, writing, or teaching in their cells. The scholar Charles Plummer says that in addition to the common buildings of each monastic community (that is, the chapel, the oratories, refectory, school, and guest-house), cells were constructed for individuals or small groups of monks.
Older members, ascetics, and anchorites would probably have had their own separate cells. Many of these cells were of the beehive type still visible today in all their terrible beauty on Skellig Michael, off the Ring of Kerry in Ireland. This type of cell definitely had room for more than one inhabitant.
In his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the Venerable Bede tells us that during the early days of the Celtic church large numbers of people from England "left their own country and retired to Ireland either for the sake of religious studies or to live a more ascetic life. In course of time some of these devoted themselves faithfully to the monastic life. Others preferred to travel round to the cells of various teachers and apply themselves to study." Cells were frequently shared between teachers and students, confessors and those seeking forgiveness, and anam caram.
adapted from material by Edward Sneller