Seven Characteristics of Soul Friendship gleaned from the lives of the Celtic Saints (1-5)
1st. soul friendship is associated with great affection, intimacy and depth
As we learn in a passage from the eighth-century Liber Angeli (Book of the Angel): "Between holy Patrick and Brigit, pillars of the Irish, there existed so great a friendship of charity that they were of one heart and one mind." Soul friends share what the Greeks and Romans, as well as early church Fathers and Mothers, equate with true friendship itself: one soul in two bodies, two hearts united as one. In the hagiographies, this intimacy is manifest in ordinary emotions and simple gestures. Saint Brendan, for example, smiles warmly when he thinks of Ita, his foster-mother, and Ita, in turn, experiences the slow passage of time when Brendan is away; Finnian calls his student Ciaran "O little heart" and "dear one" and blesses him before Ciaran leaves the monastery of Clonard; Brendan and Ruadan build their cells near one another so that they can hear the ringing of each other's bells.
2nd. Soul friend relationships are characterized by mutuality:
A profound respect for each others wisdom, despite any age or gender difference, and the awareness that the other person is a source of many blessingstipify these relationships. This quality of mutuality is expressed symbolically in the stories by an exchange of gifts. Brigit gives Finnian a ring. Columcille sends the holy virgin Maugina a little pine box that helps cure her. David of Wales gives Findbarr his horse. Mutuality is also manifest in Brigit's and Brendan's confession to each other. In a story from the Life of Saint Ciaran as he prepares for death we see this quality vividly displayed:
When the time of his death at the age of thirty-three drew near to the holy Ciaran in his little church, he said: "Let me be carried to a small height." When he looked up at the sky and the vast open air above his head, he said, "Terrible is the way of dying." Then angels went to meet his soul, filling as they did all the space between heaven and earth. He was carried back into the little church, and raising his hands, he blessed his people. Then he told the brethren to shut him up in the church until Kevin should come from Glendalough. After three days, Kevin arrived... At once Ciaran's spirit returned from heaven and reentered his body so that he could commune with Kevin and welcome him. The two friends stayed together from the one watch to another, engaged in mutual conversation, and strengthened their friendship. Then Ciaran blessed Kevin, and Kevin blessed water and administered the Eucharist to Ciaran. Ciaran gave his bell to Kevin as a sign of their lasting unity, which today is called Coimgen's Boban [Kevin's Bell].
3rd Soul friends share common values, A common vision of reality and a common intuition
Both vision and intuition are referred to in the story of Ciaran and his spiritual mentor, Enda:
After that Ciaran went to the island of Aran to commune with Enda. Both of them saw the same vision of a great fruitful tree growing beside a stream in the middle of Ireland. This tree protected the entire island, and its fruit crossed the sea that surrounded Ireland, and the birds of the world came to carry off some of that fruit. Ciaran turned to Enda and told him what he had seen, and Enda, in turn, said to him: "The great tree that you saw is you, Ciaran, for you are great in the eyes of God and of men. All of Ireland will be sheltered by the grace that is in you, and many people will be fed by your fasting and prayers. So, go in the name of the God to the centre of Ireland, and found your church on the banks of a stream."
4th Soul friendships include not only affirmation, but the ability of each to challenge the other when necessary.
This facility is sometimes the most difficult aspect of any intimate relationship, but without it the friendship can soon become superficial, stunted, and eventually lost. The story of a holy woman's courage in confronting someone whom she admires provides a good example of this aspect of soul friendship as does the willingness of Senan, an older man, to change:
Canair the Pious, a holy woman living in the south of Ireland, set up a hermitage in her own territory. One night, while she was praying, all the churches of Ireland appeared to her in a vision. It seemed as if a tower of fire rose up to heaven from each of the churches. The highest of the towers of fire, and the straightest towards heaven was that which rose from Inis Cathaig [Scattery Island]. "Fair is Senan's cell," Canair said. "I will go there, that my resurrection may be near it."... Senan knew that she was coming, and he went to the harbour to meet and welcome her. "Yes, I have come," Canair told him. "Go," said Senan, "to your sister who lives on the island to the east of this one, so that you may be her guest."
"That is not why I came," said Canair, "but that I may find hospitality with you on this island. "Women cannot enter on this island," Senan replied. "How can you say that?" asked Canair. "Christ is no worse than you. Christ came to redeem women no less than to redeem men. He suffered for the sake of women as much as for the sake of men. Women as well as men can enter the heavenly kingdom. Why, then, should you not allow women to live on this island?"
"You are persistent," said Senan."Well then," Canair replied, "will I get what I ask for? Will you give me a place to live on this island and the holy sacrament of Eucharist?"
"Yes, Canair, a place of resurrection will be given you here," said Senan. She came on shore then, and received the Sacrament from Senan, and immediately went to heaven.
adapted from material by Edward Snellar
Ed Sellner is a professor of pastoral theology and spirituality. He is director of the Master of Arts in Theology at the College of St. Catherine, St. Paul, Minnesota. He has written numerous articles on Celtic Spirituality, and is the author of Mentoring: the Ministry of Spiritual Kinship; Soul-Making, Wisdom of the Celtic Saints , and most recently, Father and Son.