I have been pondering all the kinds of relationships that we are part of and need. We are relational by nature, even those of us who are more introverted. I need relationships with communities of people who have similar interests or background and stories. I need people to confide in and people who will hold me accountable to growth. In recent weeks we have been reminded of our need to be in relationship with people who are not like us. My compassion for all people grows when I put names and faces to the people who are different from me. I also need people to do things with—hiking, reading, discussing, re-creating. And I need people who share my faith, who are companions on this journey of discipleship.
It is those last relationships that I have been especially mindful of since the pandemic began and since the protests against racism started. About a year ago, I was getting ready to travel to Ireland to go learn and hike with a dear friend. While hiking through Connemara and County Mayo, I read John O’Donahue’s book Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom. Anam is the Gaelic word for soul; cara is the word for friend. So anam cara means soul friend. The anam cara was a person to whom you could reveal the hidden intimacies of your life. This friendship was an act of recognition and belonging and was important to spiritual development.
I usually think of two scripture passages when reflecting on the soul friends in my life. First are these words spoken by daughter-in-law Ruth to her mother-in-law Naomi, “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” (Ruth 1:16). This verse is often used to illustrate the Hebrew word hesed, meaning loving-loyalty, but I think Ruth and Naomi’s relationship also illustrates an anam cara.
The second verse I think of is from Jesus’ first resurrection appearance in Luke. One of the disciples, whom Jesus just broke bread with, exclaims, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32)
Right now, as I long for hope, as I try to figure out how best to lead my congregation, as I grieve and lament all that our country has not yet become, as I make decisions about what kind of citizen to be, I feel myself leaning on my soul friends. I want to share with them the bursts of clarity I actually have. I want to talk on the phone late into the night about the Good News of Jesus Christ and how it could best be proclaimed in 21st century Idaho. Perhaps most importantly, I want to check out my assumptions and learnings with people who I know will love me no matter what. We are all going to continue to mess up in small and large ways. We are going to stumble. But so much of the hope I bear is due to the fact that I am not on this journey alone. The Holy Spirit is with us, often through our soul friends.
Not every relationship in our lives needs to be a soul friend. It would be exhausting and unsustainable to be that vulnerable with so many people. I also firmly believe that we need to be in relationships with people who are not part of our faith traditions (a topic for another devotion). But if we are going to continue transforming into the disciples God call us to be, we will certainly need a few soul friends. We need to be seen and loved for who we are. We need to see our friends for who they are. We need to see the divine in our friends and know that they see the divine in us. And although there is intrinsic value in soul friends, there are other gifts these friendships offer the world. Anam caras affect all of our other relationships. They have the potential to transform how we see the rest of creation—friends, family, strangers, and even the natural world.
Thank you, God, for soul friends. Open our hearts to recognize you in one another. Bind us to you. Give us strength to share your abundant love. Fill us always with hope. Amen.