Thoughts on A Book of Celtic Wisdom

I recently read a little book called Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom by John O’Donohue. A blog reader mentioned the idea of an anam cara, or “soul friend,” in a message, and I simply had to look it up. You can usually tell how interesting I found a non-fiction book by the number of sticky notes poking out by the time I’m done reading. Case in point:

Soul Friends |

It’s not that I agreed with everything in the book, but rather that I found its musings on the nature of life and connection between people fascinating. The first quote I placed a note next to was also one that I’d read in the article that initially pointed me toward this book.

Anam is the Gaelic word for soul and cara is the word for friend. So anam cara in the Celtic world 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. It originally referred to someone to whom you confessed, revealing the hidden intimacies of your life. With the anam cara you could share your inner-most self, your mind and your heart. (p.13)

I love this idea, which comes from Chapter 1: The Mystery of Friendship. I’ve been toying with the idea of incorporating it into a new title for this blog. Perhaps “Soul Teacher”? I’m not sure yet.

A couple pages after this quote, the writer takes this discussion in a direction dear to my heart. He describes Jesus as “the secret anam cara of every individual” (p. 15). Isn’t that a beautiful picture? Jesus is our “soul friend,” our most intimate companion, teacher and spiritual guide, the One to whom you can reveal your most hidden self.

Consequently, love is anything but sentimental. In fact, it is the most real and creative form of human presence. Love is the threshold where divine and human presence ebb and flow into each other. (p.15)

Can We Heal Ourselves?

I loved the first chapter of this book. It was in later chapters that I became frustrated with aspects of O’Donahue’s ideology. In Chapter 3: Solitude Is Luminous, he talks about healing wounds in a way that really resonates with me, but I feel his solutions don’t go deep enough.

It’s true we often seem “destructively addicted to the negative” because confronting it seems to difficult. “If we maintain our misery at this surface level,”O’Donohue writes, “we hold off the initially threatening but ultimately redemptive and healing transfiguration that come through engaging with our inner contradiction.” I’d agree with this — we have to get to know ourselves before we can learn, grow and change ourselves. But O’Donohue isn’t advocating change so much as self-acceptance though befriending “the negative” and recognizing “that it is not destructive. It often seems that morality is the enemy of growth” (p. 115).

There are simply some things in our lives that shouldn’t be accepted. It’s not healthy or safe to befriend the dark side, and we can’t always turn negatives into something benign just by being nice to them. I have to believe it’s possible to grow and remain moral at the same time.

And yet, O’Donohue has a point that we must beware going to the other extreme of spending too much time analyzing and dragging up our pasts. Searching for your problems over and over again won’t help you overcome them, and self-knowledge is only useful if you can act on it in some way to heal and grow. He compares people who go through endless cycles of self-analysis to gardeners who dig up their potatoes every day and replant them a different way.

People in our hungry modern world are always scraping at the clay of their hearts. They have a new thought, a new plan, a new syndrome, that now explains why they are the way they are. …. Negative introspection damages the soul. It holds many people trapped for years and years, and ironically, it never allows them to change (p. 122).

The very next line is where he lost me: “It is wise to allow the soul to carry on its secret work in the night side of your life” (p. 122). Much like he suggests befriending our negativity is the best way of dealing with it, he believes our wounds can heal themselves if we give our souls space and approach our ” hurt indirectly and kindly” (123). But our souls aren’t designed to heal themselves. They’re healed by God.

I feel this idea of self-healing is connected to the writer’s idea of the divine residing inside our souls. Though he references Christianity heavily, that’s not the only theology O’Donohue draws on — the theology of this book is a mishmash of Irish Catholicism, Celtic paganism, and mysticism. He’s not comfortable with the idea of a “faraway divinity,” and so adopts the idea that the divine is within us. He’s missing a third option, though.

Biblicaly, the divine is outside us, but He’s not far away. “The word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart,” and the living Word wants to dwell inside us (Deut. 30:14; Rom. 10:8). I suppose you could say the divine resides inside us after we submit ourselves to Christ, but we have to ask Him in — not start out looking inside our own souls for the answers.

You Have A Purpose

I want to share with you a passage in this book that I found hugely encouraging. It’s also from Chapter Three.

To be born is to be chosen. No one is here by accident. … Your identity was not offered for your choosing. In other words, a special destiny was prepared for you. But you were also given freedom and creativity to go beyond the given, to make a new set of relationships and to forge an ever new identity, inclusive of the old but not limited to it. … Destiny sets the outer frame of experience and life; freedom finds and fills its inner form. …

You were sent to a shape of destiny in which you would be able to express the special gift you bring to the world. Sometimes this gift may involve suffering and pain that can neither be accounted for nor explained. There is a unique destiny for each person. Each one of us has something to do here that can be done by no one else. If someone else could fulfill your destiny, then they would be in your place and you would not be here. … When you begin to decipher this, your gift and giftedness come alive. Your heart quickens and the urgency of living rekindles your creativity. (83-84)

This past Shabbat, the speaker at my Messianic congregation talked about Leah. She was not as pretty as her younger sister Rachel and she was unloved by her husband. She probably thought she didn’t make much of an impact on the world. And yet, her example of faith is recorded in the Bible for everyone to read, and her children founded the priestly lineage of Levi and the royal lineage of Judah, among other nations. She’s a direct ancestor of notable personages like Moses, David and Jesus Christ Himself. Her life matters more than she ever knew.

You also have a purpose in this world, even if you can’t see it. This isn’t to perpetuate an idea that you’re a “special unicorn” who is better than other people. Rather, it’s to say that of us has a unique gift that’s of real value, and you have a hand in shaping how it impacts the world.

2 thoughts on “Thoughts on A Book of Celtic Wisdom

  • I could totally have a big conversation about this with you…so interesting! I always called “anam cara” a “kindred spirit” – one who loves with a deep love and can and will shoulder the good and bad parts of life with you. I love, love, love that and deeply miss having a relationship like that in my life. I think that is how it is supposed to be in the body of Christ, but I haven’t seen that it exists now.

    Maybe part of the problem of people “digging up their potatoes everyday to replant them in a different spot, has to do with the solitary ways we live. And becaue we do not have kindred spirits to encourage and validate the steps we make to move forward, we end up second guessing our strategies to find that result that says, “good job” this isn’t perfect and that’s actually OK!!! We are never led to believe that less than perfect is OK, and yet everyone knows that is impossible. What a beautiful, precious thought to think of Yeshua as our anam cara!! I just love that too and it makes Him feel so much more for me when I frame it that way.

    Thank you for talking about having a purpose and a destiny. After so many painful parts in my life, I have been heavily pondering this very thing. Did G-d mean for me to be here for other reasons that might not include suffering?

    So much good in this post. That book sounds so interesting, but I wouldn’t dare read it without having someone to set me straight if he was speaking out of turn with how G-d calls us to be. I would not want to be confused. I struggle enough with faith.

    You have been a teacher that gives food for the soul….thank you for being a light for me in my walk with Yeshua!!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I like the “kindred spirits” analogy. I’m blessed to have some really close friends right now, but that hasn’t always been the case. I know the loneliness of lacking that connection. It’s really sad we don’t see the sort of anam cara relationship more within the church. I wonder why that is?

      I hadn’t thought about the drive to “dig up our potatoes” having to do with solitude, but I think you’re right. When we don’t have close friends and brethren around to encourage us, it’s so tempting to just keep going back and trying to find out what we’ve been doing “wrong.” Even after beginning to know Yeshua as a close friend, there are still times I’ve just sat and cried because I feel so disconnected. Relationship with Him is most important, yet I think He also designed us to crave relationship with other people and it’s sad when that doesn’t happen.

      One of the reasons I took so many notes while reading this book was trying to sort out truth from error. There were several passages that sounded good, but when I examined them more closely I realized they didn’t really line up with scripture. It was a challenging read in that sense. It reminded me of the film “Life Of Pi” where the main character identifies as Christian, Hindu and Muslim (there’s a book, too, but I haven’t read it). Those belief systems are incompatible, but he found a sort of “middle ground” that he was comfortable with. I think that’s a pretty dangerous place to be – picking and choosing from different religions to craft one that feels right to you.

      I am, however, glad I read the book, because of the ideas it gave me about how to think of soul friends and kindred spirits, and because of the encouraging passages about having a purpose and a destiny. I really needed to hear that, and I’m glad it spoke to you as well 🙂


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