The Spiritual Director as Anam Cara
The Celtic tradition offers us the wonderful notion of anam cara. In Gaelic the word anam means soul and cara is a word for friend. So anam cara means soul friend. This is not a simple or superficial friendship, but a special and deep one in which one person really supports and guides another. They are the person to whom you can reveal the hidden intimacies of your life - your innermost self, heart and mind, without mask or pretension. In early Celtic history, the anam cara was a teacher, companion or spiritual guide. The sort of friend who enters the 'deep within' with us and treats what he or she meets there with the respectful reverence of someone who knows they are in sacred territory. Where the person understands the necessity in this sacred interior to: 'Take your sandals off your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.'(Exodus 3:5). In medieval mystical Christian understanding this sacred inner place was often referred to as the 'hortus conclusus' or enclosed garden, from the beautiful image in the fourth chapter of the Song of Solomon, understood as the feminine, open and receptive place within of soul where the divine dwells.
A cara invites the soul to fruition through listening, encouragement, mutual explorations and moments of loving challenge that carry the message 'you are valued' and 'I am here to help you become more fully who you truly are in your essential nature.' This heart-centred approach invites soul into all its possibilities through compassionate presence and acts of loving-kindness. The kind of friend who extends a welcoming, non-judgmental hand to the multiple parts of that essential nature, conveying the message that all of you can feel at home with me.
As spiritual directors we can be that friend to the souls of those we companion along their way. It is a very helpful notion to describe a relationship that doesn't fit easily into any other category. A Buddhist might use the term kalyana-mitra or 'noble friend' to describe this type of friendship. Or the word agape also describes well this kind of loving presence - this active and intimate engagement with people, using our minds and our hearts to express love and caring in ways that fit with our essential natures and that are always in the best interest of those we accompany. Such friendship is creative and critical; willing to negotiate awkward and uneven territories of contradiction and woundedness, to also gently confront the blind side of your essential nature where you are not able to see. Your anam cara is the truest mirror to reflect your soul.
We often rightly talk about spirit in spiritual direction work, but we do also accompany soul. St. Irenaeus, the second century philosopher and theologian said: 'The glory of God is the human person fully alive. We are sent into the world to live to the full everything that awakens within us and everything that comes towards us. It is lovely to imagine that real divinity is the presence in which all beauty, unity, creativity, darkness and negativity are harmonized. The divine has such passionate creativity and instinct for the fully inhabited life. If you allow your nature to come alive, then everything will come into rhythm. The shape of each soul is different and there is perhaps a secret destiny for each person. And each destiny has its own unique curvature which must find its own spiritual belonging and direction.
In the words of the wonderful John O'Donohue:
'May you recognise in your life the presence,
power and light of your soul.
May you realize that you are never alone,
that your soul in its brightness and belonging
connects you intimately with the rhythm of the
May you have respect for your own individuality
May you realise that the shape of your soul is
that you have a special destiny here,
that behind the façade of your life there is
something beautiful, good and eternal happening.
May you learn to see your self with the same
delight, pride and expectation with which God
sees you in every moment.'