Seven Characteristics of Soul Friendship gleaned from the lives of the Celtic Saints (5-7)5th Soul friendship is centered on God, the soul friend in whom all other friendships are united.
True soul friends do not depend on each other alone, but root their relationship in God. All the stories of the saints refer to this spiritual dimension, but one story in the Life of Findbarr is symbolically the most explicit. In it we find intimations not only of this need for reliance on God, but also of those qualities earlier identified: affirmation, mutuality, and deep love:
After the death of Bishop MacCuirv, Findbarr was much concerned at being without a soul friend. So he went to visit Eolang, and God revealed to Eolang that Findbarr was coming to see him. Eolang immediately knelt before Findbarr, and said the following, "I offer to you my church, my body, and my soul." Findbarr wept openly, and said, "This was not my thought, but that it would be I who would offer my church to you." Eolang said, "Let it be as I have said, for this is the will of God. You are dear to God, and you are greater than myself. One thing only I ask, that our resurrection will be in the same place." Findbarr replied, "Your wish will be fulfilled, but I am still troubled about the soul friendship." Eolang told him, " You shall receive today a soul friend worthy of yourself." This was done as he said, for Eolang in the presence of the angels and archangels placed Findbarr's hand in the hand of the Lord.
6th soul friendship survives geographical separation, the passage of time, and death itself.
In the early stories, even after Columcille moves to Iona to bring Christianity to the Scots, he continues to long for Derry and his friends in Ireland and they for him; Brendan consistently returns to Ita for advice after his journeys to foreign lands; Lasrianus and Maedoc, in response to God, separate and go their own ways but never forget what each has meant to the other. In the latter's Life, in particular, we find reference not only to the lasting ties of friendship with Lasrianus, despite the geographical distance between them, but to the continuity of another soul friendship, despite death:
Sometime later Maedoc was teaching a student by a high cross at the monastery of Ferns. The student saw him mount a golden ladder reaching from earth to heaven. Maedoc climbed the ladder, and when he returned sometime later, the student could not look in his face because of the brilliance that transfused his countenance... "Columcille has died," Maedoc told him, "and I went to meet him with the family of heaven. He was my own soul friend in this world, so I wanted to pay him my respects." The student told this story only after Maedoc's death, when he had become an adult and a holy man himself.
7th Soul friendship facilitates the lifelong process of reconciliation, of making peace with oneself, with others, and with all of creation in preparation for one's death.
As the stories of Kevin and Ciaran, and of Maedoc and Columcille, have already intimated, soul friends help each other make this transition, through death, to God. A story about Saint Declan of Ardmore, a fourth-century Irish missionary-bishop to whom, we are told, "thousands of men and women" came for spiritual guidance, clearly reflects a spirituality that values both friendship and solitude, being active in ministry and having a cell:
When Declan realised that his last days were at hand and that the time remaining to him was very short, he summoned to him his own spiritual son, MacLiag who was residing in the monastery which is on the eastern side of the Decies close to the Leinstermen. MacLiag was summoned in order that, at the hour of death, Declan might receive the Body and Blood of Christ and the sacraments of the church from his hands. Declan then foretold to his disciples the day of his death and he commanded them to bring him to his own city, for it was not there he dwelt at the time but in a small venerable cell that he had ordered to be built for him between the hill called Ardmore Declain and the ocean. That narrow place at the brink of the sea is called Disert Declain, and a small shining stream, surrounded by trees and bushes, flows down from the hill above. From there to the city is only a short mile. The reason Declan used to go there was to avoid turmoil and noise so that he might be able to read and pray and fast. Indeed, it was not easy for him to stay even there because of the multitude of disciples, paupers, pilgrims, and beggars who followed him. Declan, however, was generous and very compassionate, and on that account it is recorded by tradition that a great following of poor people generally accompanied him. The little cell that was his was very dear to him for the reason we have given, and many devout people have made it their practice to dwell within it.
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.