Soul Friend might seem like a strange name when it first falls upon your ears. It certainly did to me when I first heard the phrase. The Irish from which this anglicized phrase springs draws out it’s beautiful and unique meaning with delicate efficiency. It took some for me to realize the significance of the ancient Gaelic vocation of the ‘Anam Cara’. There are many saints in the Irish tradition who have had a powerful influence on the heart of the little island “at the edge of the world.” St. Brigit of Kildare, an abbess, was no exception. To her is attributed this phrase that illuminates the importance of a soul friend (anam cara) within the mist of Ireland’s past:
“A person without a soul friend is like a body without a head.”
Celtic Christianity is often co-opted to serve the purpose of many who would have nothing to do with Jesus Christ. However, history proves that unbending faith in Him, His Father’s boundless love, and the Holy Spirit’s work is central to the early Irish Church. In that early era, the nascent Church within the island of Ireland held to a clear understanding of the Trinity, they were deeply committed to the Scriptures, they celebrated the echoes of God’s character in His Creation, they extended a generous hospitality, and fervently practiced heartfelt mission – taking the great news of Jesus, literacy and the arts throughout the continent of Europe.
It was within such a vibrant community of faith across Ireland that the practice of ‘soul friendship’ sprang. It was just such a friendship that grew between saints Ciarán of Clonmacnoise and Kevin of Glendalough. Despite their difference in age and a great distance between their monastic communities (it was at least 3-4 days journey on foot), legend says that the sacred bond of friendship between them was strong. As they met, both Ciarán and Kevin would have opened their hearts to one another, welcomed probing questions about life, faith and habits, and expressed a love for one another of both comfort and challenge. When distilled down to its essence, a soul friend desires to see the other become the person that God intended when He created them.
In practice, soul friendship is much more than general friendship. It seeks to draw the other into a greater awareness of God’s activity in their life, helping to attune their heart to the Father’s voice that calls to each one of us. This is the genesis of relationship. The best illustration of the vocation of the anam cara in Scripture is that of the Road to Emmaus. You might be familiar with this story, but it bears highlighting. It’s in this story from the Bible that we see what soul friendship (spiritual direction) is at its best.
It was the first Easter Day, that morning that Jesus affirmed His identity as God’s Son and demonstrated His authority over death and the devil through His resurrection. That day two of those who had likely followed Jesus around Galilee were on a seven mile trek from Jerusalem to the village of Emmaus. While they walked, they talked with one another about all that had happened regarding Jesus’ life and death. While they discussed these things the Scripture says that,
“Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him.”
– Luke 24:15b-16, NIV
Jesus then asks them to share what they had been talking about. Once they have shared their hearts, He then unpacks the meaning behind all the Scriptures concerning Himself. When they arrive at Emmaus, these intrigued travelers invite Jesus to stay with them since it’s getting late in the day. Jesus agrees, and upon arriving at their home, He blesses and breaks the bread then shares it with them. Immediately their eyes were opened and they recognized that Jesus Himself was their unknown guest before He vanished. One of the most moving verses in the Gospels follows Jesus’ vanishing act:
“They said to each other, ‘Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?’”
– Luke 24:32, NIV
Soul Friendship is just like this.. two people walk life’s path together for a time, sharing all that it holds: the mundane, elation, struggle, darkness and hope. Their hope hangs on the promises the God of humanity has made to His people. It hangs on the Almighty One hanging onto every prayer they’ve uttered from their hearts. Their hope grows as they reflect on Our Father’s history of revealing Himself to His children and acting on their behalf. And, as the two travelers hang suspended in time being present to one another, Jesus Himself shows up. He frames their lives, gifts them with context and truth. He hangs with them, intentionally ‘wasting’ time with those He loves.. these who wondered why all the hope they’d placed in Him seemed dead, or at the very least, dying until.. He arrived. In His presence their hearts ignited inside their cavernous homes as He who is ‘Hope Realized’ spoke words that gave life. This is a picture of true soul friendship.
When you invite a soul friend into your story, and open your heart to the eyes of another called to this work, you’re initiating an adventure with eyes wide open, waiting for Jesus to show up at any given moment. The truth is that each one of us was created out of love, to be loved and to love in return. We were born into an estranged relationship with Our Father, so He is always seeking to win our hearts and bring us home. That’s why Jesus, His Son, was born, lived, died and rose again. That’s why the Holy Spirit has come in Jesus’ absence – to reveal Our Father’s heart to His wayward world and draw us back by His “loving kindness”.
When at their best, a soul friend simply listens to your life story, and helps you become more aware of the ways in which Our Father has been actively pursuing you. As you become more acquainted with how God’s been active in your life, you’ll begin to become more confident in discerning His ‘voice’. Listening to His voice, and practicing what He reveals, is the beginning of relationship. This journey requires trust, courage, perseverance and an audacious hope- a hope that God’s heart for you is greater than you could have ever dreamed or dared to imagine! That’s when real life – life to the full – begins! In John 10:10, Jesus Himself makes clear His mission:
“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.
I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”
Are you ready to begin – or continue – life’s greatest adventure?
Contact me to begin exploring this together.