Anam Cara True Friend
By John O’Donohue
We share this essay as an invitation to reflect on the quality of friendships in our lives. While loneliness can often pervade modern times, the Open Center stands as a sanctuary in the city, where new soul friends can be found, old connections renewed and life’s traveling companions rediscovered.
The Celts had a refined and beautiful notion of friendship. A true friend was an anam cara; anam is the Gaelic word for soul and cara is the word for friend. In the Celtic tradition the anam cara was the soul friend. In the early Celtic Church a person who acted as a teacher, companion, or spiritual guide was called an anam cara. The anam cara was originally the person to whom one confessed, revealing confidential aspects of one’s life, one’s mind, and one’s heart. This friendship was a deep act of recognition and belonging.
In his Confessions, John Cassian says that this bond between friends is indissoluble. “This, I say, is what is broken by no chances, what no interval of time or space can sever or destroy, and what even death itself cannot part.” This person had a special intimacy with you and sensed your interiority and eternity. Such friendship was an act of primal recognition. It cut across all barriers of convention, sociality, morality, and religion. This friendship established a unique space where two souls could accompany each other’s journey. The anam cara could see you from an eternal perspective. This ideal avoided the trap of personality. So many modern relationships are experienced and evaluated solely in terms of personality. The Celts did not get bogged down in the magnetism, refraction, or negativity of personality; they pursued friendship deeper towards the soul essence of the person. The anam cara friendship had a deep commitment to truthfulness. The intentionality of the friendship was to call its participants to their deepest possibility. It was a friendship in pilgrimage. The destination was eternal shelter and belonging. You were met and encountered at a deeper level than your natural biography, than your physical appearance, and your psychological luggage.
It is interesting that one of the earliest words for person was the Greek word prosopon, which meant the mask that the person wore in the chorus in Greek drama. In true friendship all masks fall away. You can be there in the presence of your friend as you truly are. You are neither judged nor burdened with expectation. You are encountered in the unique signature of your being, the place where your deepest individuality lives. This is the mystery and beauty of the anam cara.
This art of friendship awakens and calls all that is ancient within you. Your body is your only home in the world. Your body is your clay home. The clay out of which your body is formed is as old as the universe itself. This clay has a biography of its own long before your essence or presence ever dreamed your clay was alive here.
Your clay has a memory which precedes your mind and journey, both of which are relatively recent. But the clay home that you call your body is infinitely ancient, hundreds of millions of years old. Perhaps this is the deeper and mystical meaning of human friendship. It is the coming together and rediscovery by the clay of its lost memory. In friendship two halves of the one ancient circle find each other again. For long years they had wandered, separated clay mourning their lost memory. Friendship is then an act of ancient recognition. Friends are not made. Friends are discovered and recognized. In true friendship an ancient circle closes again. Between the two friends this ancient circle awakens.
Excerpted from “The Celtic Idea of Friendship,” written by the late Irish poet and writer John O’Donohue and published in 1998 in the Open Center’s award-winning magazine, Lapis.