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The Irish Soul Friend

For Irish people (and many who are not Irish!), March is the month to celebrate the feast day of St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, on March 17. The Irish whom he converted to Christianity back in the early fifth century were a people who valued their families and tribes and especially appreciated the bonds of friendship. One particular type of friendship that these early people had a great deal of respect for was what they called an “anamchara”, Gaelic for “friend of the soul” or “soul friend”, someone with whom you could share your most intimate secrets and struggles without fear of being judged or condemned. A saying common among the Irish was, “Anyone without a soul friend is like a body without a head,” thus affirming the importance of having such a person in one’s life. This soul friend was associated with a great deal of compassion and wisdom, someone who in many ways acted as a spiritual mentor or guide. To find such a person was highly beneficial to one’s own process of self-understanding and soul-making.

Because the Irish were matriarchal in their origins, they had a profound appreciation of women’s gifts and leadership. Not only were women significant spiritual leaders called “druidesses” but warriors and heads of tribes. When Christianity came along, some of the greatest and most well-known of the spiritual leaders were women, including Brigid, Ita, Samthann and Hild, all soul friends to their communities. Besides human soul friends, female and male, many of the saints had angelic ones as well. Christian Irish believed in the existence of these invisible guides as guardian angels and soul friends. Manifestations of God’s care, these angels seemed to appear at crucial turning points in the lives of the saints, often offering guidance in their dreams, helping them discern their callings or the paths they should take in life. St. Patrick had such a guide who appeared in his dreams and advised him to return to Ireland as a missionary after he had escaped from there as a slave.

What all the stories and sayings of the Irish saints reveal is that mentoring and spiritual guidance were considered an important if not essential part of one’s spirituality; if one was seeking to deepen that spirituality, it was very helpful to find a soul friend. All the saints seem to have been changed profoundly by these relationships—whether human, angelic or dream figures—or whether they offered a compassionate ear or a challenging word. They were keenly aware, as are many today, that inner healing happens when we openly and honestly acknowledge to another person our concerns, grief and spiritual diseases, and that God is very close to those who speak as friends do—heart-to-heart.

If a person today is looking for a spiritual mentor, director or guide, this Irish soul friend tradition offers insights into the qualities such a person should have (realizing, of course, that no one is perfect).

  1. A soul friend should possess the important characteristic of maturity. She or he can have all the talents and book knowledge while still a young person, but there is a wisdom that only comes with age, with facing one’s own questions, crises and suffering. Age definitely does not guarantee maturity or wisdom but it can help a great deal.
  1. Often arising from the first, and certainly one of utmost importance, is that of compassion: the ability to hear what another is attempting to put into words; to understand without judging; to be with another in pain.
  1. Genuine respect for others, their stories, their times of anguish and feeling lost as well as times of joy and celebration. This respect begins with reflection upon one’s own story so that reasons for gratitude and praise can be discovered there. If a person has no sense of his or her own life as a sacred journey, it is difficult to imagine how that person can hope to help others discern the holiness of theirs.
  1. The ability to keep things confidential, a form of respect for what has been disclosed and for the very real need we all have for privacy. Confidentiality builds trust and is expected of any professional counselor or guide in our society today. It certainly can be expected of the spiritual guide.
  1. Self-disclosure, the willingness to share parts of one’s own journey when and where appropriate. If one presupposes that the soul friend speaks of a relationship characterized by mutuality, reciprocity, equality and rapport, it necessarily follows that encounters with this soul friend are not monologues. To be a soul friend includes the willingness to be honest and not hide behind what Carl Jung would call a smokescreen of professional, fatherly (or motherly) authority. This willingness to share also helps the other feel more comfortable in disclosing personal aspects of his or her own life. Any sacred journey is a journey shared.
  1. Her or his need to be something of a scholar, one who is continually reflecting on personal questions and experiences in regard to meaning and wholeness. Knowledge of psychology, of course, can help a great deal in understanding the many-faceted dimensions of the human personality and this mystery we call life.
  1. The ability to discern the movements of the heart. This gift is an attribute that has been equated with the image of “physician of souls”, someone with the ability and training to diagnose spiritual disease or addictions as well as to make recommendations for spiritual wholeness and health. In many ways, the soul friend is also a midwife—a person intimately involved in the process of helping another bring something to birth—what Jung would call “the greater Self within”. But whether doctor or midwife, the soul friend who acts in a professional capacity needs to have some form of training as well as intuition in learning to listen to and identify the movements of the heart.

All of these characteristics are rooted ultimately in the individual soul friend’s or spiritual guide’s spirituality—the awareness and appreciation of the mystery of one’s own story and of the inherent goodness of one’s own life. It can be helped, as St. Patrick’s life was, by paying attention to our dreams.

Ed Sellner received his doctorate in pastoral theology and spirituality from the University of Notre Dame. He did his clinical work at Hazelden in chemical dependency where he was an outpatient counselor and consultant. A professor at St. Catherine University, in St. Paul, he taught and administered programs for 35 years. He has been a spiritual guide for some time, and continues to teach graduate courses at St. Catherine’s in Jungian psychology and spiritual direction. He is the author of numerous books in mentoring, Celtic spirituality and spiritual traditions East and West. Many of his books can be found at Amazon.com.

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