Befriending in Christ
“A person without a soul friend is like a body without a head.”
(attributed to St. Brigid of Kildare)
In 1994, I found myself on pilgrimage in south Wales just after Easter. Though it was April, and as a Texan I am used to April being warm; the time in Wales was chilly and wet. Daffodils did dot the countryside, fields of yellow shining through the rain. I kept wishing for a little warmth, a little sun. The warmth came from friends made in Wales, from open hearts and kind faces.
We visited ancient sacred wells and churches where the faithful have been baptized since the 5th and 6th centuries. We worshiped together and we reflected on the life of faith as a pilgrimage, a daily walking with one another and with Jesus. In the two weeks together, we pilgrims became friends. One day, during a lecture, the Welsh Anglican priest and scholar Patrick Thomas told us about soul friends.
Quoting St. Brigid, a sixth century saint of Ireland, Patrick said to us, “A person without a soul friend is like a body without a head.” We pilgrims weren’t clear about the subject. Patrick began to tell us of the value of a particular kind of friendship among the Celtic Christians. The Irish word anamchara or the Welsh word periglour both mean “soul friend,” a particular way of befriending that intentionally honors and nurtures the life of the soul. In Celtic Christian tradition, a soul friend is so essential that not having one is like not having a head! In other words, without a soul friend, I cannot rightly see, hear, perceive, discern, discover, or know. Without a soul friend I cannot tell if a context “smells” awry. I cannot “taste” goodness.
The Celtic Christian practice discovered that walking a path of faith is well nigh impossible without a true friend and companion. In the 15th chapter of the Gospel according to John, Jesus tells the disciples, “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” (Jn. 15:14) He has just commanded them to love one another as he has loved them. Following this stunning invitation from Jesus in the Gospel of John, the Celtic Church encouraged this relationship formed in Christ.
Soul friendship is distinctive because it is marked by this kind of love—a love that is centered in prayer and joy, in sharing the bread of life in its various forms and in mutual disclosure. In the early church in Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Brittany, Cornwall and the Isle of Man, the practice of soul friendship was a practice of mutual encouragement, of confession and of penance. Each person was called to tell the truth in love. A soul friend is a person who will allow me to tell the whole truth of myself, and to encourage me to seek healing and restoration. A soul friend also has the fine gift of being able to share in joy, a gift that our highly competitive culture does not call forth. (I am remembering the utter delight of a soul friend of mine upon hearing that I’d had a poem published. Herself a writer, she both knew what that meant to me, and she allowed herself to be a conduit of joy in poem’s wider acceptance.)
John O’Donohue, Irish author and poet, has noted that the Celtic Christians were distinctive in recognizing that “Friendship is a creative and subversive force.” (Anamchara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom, p. xvii) A soul friend will be a hearth where we may sit in silence and be warmed. A soul friend will be a place of belonging and rest. And a soul friend will help to kindle the divine fire within the soul.
Soul friendship is a way of kindness, of mercy, of mutual vulnerability. A soul friendship is marked by a kind of deeply respectful intimacy and familiarity that our society has all but forgotten. I have been gifted with several soul friends over the years, and I am always struck by a soul friend’s ability to say gently what my soul may know, but I’ve not brought to speech. I am struck by a soul friend’s intuitive awareness and attention to my own inner tides of sadness and joy, grief and hope. I know that having a soul friend makes me more fully human, allows me to become the person God calls me to be.
Imagine this: imagine what our culture and society would look like if we undertook the practice of soul friendship. Imagine what we might become if friendship were the foundation of all of our relationships, encounters and policies. Imagine that we might become the humanity we are intended to be—befriended by God through Jesus, and befriending one another in all times and all circumstances.
Copyright © 2011 Mary Earle.