Soul Friends: A Beautiful Gift for the Journey
Father Basil Pennington suggests that the church community seeks to help one another “grow in love and responsiveness to God… in every detail of daily living.”i In the Celtic tradition, this role is assumed in part by an Anam Cara or Soul Friend. St. Brigid of Kildare is famous for her statement that a “person without a Soul Friend is like a body without a head.”ii A soul friend is one who stands alongside, “combining the roles of mentor, confessor, spiritual guide, buddy, and companion in adversity.”iii In today’s professional terms we might call this person a spiritual director, a counselor, or even a coach, but relatively few are able to afford or willing to risk such relationships, even among members of the church. In our highly individualized society, we tend to be uncomfortable with the idea of accountability. We answer to no authority but ourselves. Our prayers and confessions, if we choose to offer them, are between us and a God who remains invisible and often silent. The Celtic Saints understood the danger and arrogance in such a position. Recognizing that, in many ways, the spiritual journey can and does lead us along wandering, solitary, and perilous roads in the wilderness, Irish priest Hugh Connolly reminds us that people are “also morally weak, fragile, and incomplete… [we need] support and sustenance.”iv When an Anam Cara received confessions from weary pilgrims, it was not out of preoccupation with sin or judgment, but as a “life-giving, curative and healing” means of hospitality.v Sin and brokenness were understood “primarily as a disease” and penance as the “medicine.”vi
My own childhood experiences in Roman Catholic confessional booths left me scarred by fear and drove me deeper into spiritual isolation. A Jesuit Priest on a silent retreat helped me see firsthand what these early Irish Saints knew so instinctively. I went to confession partly because it was offered as a segment of the retreat and partly because I knew I had much of my own baggage with the idea of accountability and confession to deal with. I admitted my struggle with the whole concept of confession and my questions about whether I should even be there as a lapsed Catholic, fully expecting that the priest would have nothing to offer, or at the very least would gently refer me to my own denominational tradition. I was surprised, however, to find more grace in this confessional room than I had experienced in years of church attendance across several denominations. “Confession,” he said, “is never about punishment. It is always about a way forward.”
Neither in the Methodist church where confession tends to be liturgical and corporate in the context of Holy Communion, nor in the Baptist church where I spent my teenage years learning that confession was a once and for all prayer at the moment of salvation, nor even in my childhood Catholic experience where I felt nothing but the weight of guilt and punishment in the tiny confessional booth, had I ever heard such a beautiful and compelling explanation of this challenging and often controversial Christian practice. In the context of trusting and loving relationships, confession and vulnerability is always about a way forward. It is always intended as a life-giving and healing practice.
Those who seek out such vulnerable and honest spiritual friendships are often already in the church, or even in vocational ministry, but have repeatedly found safe places hard to come by. Many people seeking spiritual guides or soul friends are exhausted from hiding their fears, doubts and struggles at church. They need a place to be real, to be honest, to be vulnerable, even if they must pay or file a claim on their insurance for mental health services. They need to know the rest that only Jesus offers.
This is truly the invitation of a Soul Friend. Religion should not be the source of our burnout, but a place of hospitality, grace, and rest. When we do not know how to pray, the church prays on our behalf. When doubt and anxiety overtake us, the faith of the church holds us before God’s throne. When we are too tired, hungry, or weak to come to the table, the church extends the Holy Sacrament to us wherever we are. Lauren Winner suggests that even when we cannot pray, our Christian life is sustained by other people praying for us and on our behalf.vii As Von Balthazaar observes, it is not our individual prayers and contemplation alone which fill us with divine power. Rather, God’s power and mercy are mediated through the millions of isolated cries and prayers throughout all time and space gathered up into “the one all-inclusive prayer of the Church.” viii
As we enter this Lenten Season, both in our church communities and alongside our fellow WCO band members, may we open ourselves to the healing power of honesty, trust, vulnerability, accountability and confession among true Soul Friends, our beloved companions in Christ.
i M. Basil Pennington, ed., Contemplative Community: An Interdisciplinary Symposium, Cistercian Studies Series, no. 21 (Washington: Cistercian Publications, 1972), 10.
ii Ian C Bradley, The Celtic Way (London: Darton Longman & Todd, 2003), 74.
iii Ian C Bradley, Following the Celtic Way: A New Assessment of Celtic Christianity (Minneapolis: Augsburg Books, 2020), 99.
iv Hugh Connolly, Irish Penitentials and Their Significance for the Sacrament of Penance Today (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1995), 178.
v Bradley, Following the Celtic Way, 101.
vi Ibid., 102.
vii Lauren F Winner, Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis (New York: Harper One, 2013), 68.
viii Hans Urs von Balthasar, Prayer (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), 82.