One of their beliefs was that everybody had an anam cara or ‘anamchara’. While you may have read that it means ‘soul mate’; it actually means ‘soul friend’ and carried a deep spiritual meaning. It is also explained in great detail in Irish writer John O’Donohue’s bestseller A Book of Celtic Wisdom in 1997.
According to the former priest (he left the priesthood in 2000), the term originated in Irish Monasticism and referred to a monk’s spiritual advisor. The phrase 'anam cara' became popular upon the release of the book and in this article, I will take a look at what the phrase means to different people.
Anam Cara in the Celtic Tradition
O’Donohue wrote about what anam cara meant in the Celtic tradition. The Celts had a fantastic understanding of what love and friendship meant. According to O’Donohue, the Celts believed your anam cara was your teacher and/or spiritual advisor.
In its original guise, the term related to the person who heard your confession which of course meant you had revealed your hidden secrets to them. It was possible to share the innermost workings of your heart, mind and self with this person in what was the deepest possible meaning of the word ‘friendship’.
This bond between friends was said to be unbreakable as your anam cara knew the person you really were without any mask. In the Celtic tradition, you were only at home when you were truly understood. The term related to a friendship laden with affection and it wasn’t simply a metaphor. O’Donohue suggests that in order to have an anam cara, you need to have complete integrity of intention which is what sets this soul friend apart from ‘casual’ friends or acquaintances.
In the Celtic spiritual tradition, it was believed that the soul radiated around the body like an aura. By connecting with someone and being completely open with them, both of your souls would begin to flow together. Once this deep bond was formed; that person became your anam cara. This individual would always accept the ‘real’ you and could see your inner beauty and light. However, you wouldn’t receive the true benefits of this friendship until you could see this beauty and light within yourself. According to the Celts, finding an anam cara enabled you to discover your own true nature and also experience other peoples’ joy.
Your Special Friend
In his book, O’Donohue takes Aristotle’s meaning of friendship and expands upon it by saying your anam cara: “is the truest mirror to reflect your soul. The honesty and clarity of true friendship also brings out the real contour of your spirit.”
Interestingly, O’Donohue acknowledges that you may have an anam cara and be completely unaware of their effect on you. While this special friend is someone capable of helping you find light and peace, you may not meet them particularly often. It is only when that person’s presence is lost do you understand their role in your life. When they are out of your life for an extended period (or permanently), you are likely to have feelings of absence and distance.
According to a spiritual teacher called Colm McColman, anam cara refers to a unique form of spiritual guidance that was at the very centre of Celtic spirituality. As well as repeating what O’Donohue said about providing spiritual support, McColman also suggests that this type of relationship is possible in a more formal way. An example would be a coach who shares his knowledge with others in a structured manner; this type of person could be referred to as a spiritual counselor.
This individual doesn’t necessarily need to be a religious professional although they tend to make good candidates. If you are fortunate enough to have a close friend you can discuss spiritual topics, he or she could be classified as your anam cara.
Anam Cara & Christianity
St. Patrick is usually accredited with bringing Christianity to Ireland in the 5th century but the notion of anam cara goes back to the Celtic Church which of course predates Christianity. While the Celts viewed such a soul friend as someone who acted as a spiritual guide, St. Patrick is said to have used the idea of anam cara in confession thus changing the entire process. It should also be noted that ‘anam’ is the operative word in the phrase; not ‘cara’ as is often incorrectly stated.
During confession you share your innermost self, mind and heart which of course means you have totally revealed yourself. This was a huge change to the workings of the early church which exposed your sins to the whole village! You would be excommunicated if you committed sins twice but St. Patrick was determined to ensure that the friendship of the soul went “across all convention, morality and category.”
He said that people shouldn’t necessarily choose a ‘qualified’ priest to hear their confession. Instead, it was better to confide in your anam cara who would listen and understand. This friend would then encourage you to always confess this sin to them for the reminder of your life. This was a realistic outlook; while Christ said that you should “go and sin no more” after confession, the Irish Christian Church knew that people would always continue sinning.
If you have found your anam cara and are graced by their presence on a regular basis, you’re extremely fortunate. Hopefully, you allow that person to know just how much they mean to you. It takes a lot of courage to be so open with any individual but when you find someone with whom you can trust implicitly with affairs of the heart, mind and soul, you must take a leap of faith. Do this and you’ll receive a greater reward than any you can imagine; you will understand yourself and feel at home.