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Soul Friendship
in Early Celtic Monasticism- part I

  The term anamchara is a familiar one to Irish people. It is an ancient concept of a soul friend who will listen to you, guide and love you. In this article Ed Sellner speaks about the historical origins of the anamchara relationships. He brings us back to the desert Christians who were the pioneers of monasticism. True to form, the Celts put their own stamp on the idea. In part 2 we hear of the druids and druidesses who made their own unique and lasting contribution to the development of the anamchara relationship. Part 3 deals specifically with Early Celtic Soul Friendship.
By Edward C. Sellner  
  There is one kind of love that is indissoluble, what no interval of time or space can sever or destroy, and what even death itself cannot part For with God the union of character, not of place, joins friends together in a common dwelling.

John Cassian, Conferences

One of Christianity's most ancient and creative churches, the early Celtic Church, grew to prominence centuries before theological and political conflicts tragically divided Christian people. This early Celtic Church, existing quite independently of Rome from the fifth through the twelfth centuries, was made up of a great variety of churches in such places as Ireland, Northern England, Cornwall, Wales, Scotland, Brittany, and the Isle of Man. Although these churches were never administratively united, they experienced a large measure of unity among themselves through their monastic life-style, familial and friendship ties, respect for women's leadership, and common spirituality. In this early Celtic Church, a person who acted as a teacher, confessor, or spiritual guide was called by the Welsh a periglour or beriglour, and by the Irish and the Scots an anamchara , meaning "friend of the soul" or simply "soul friend". This type of ministry was eventually associated by the western church primarily with the ordained male priest in the sacrament of reconciliation, but, in the earliest days of Celtic Christianity, such relationships were open to lay people and ordained, women and men alike. A story about Saint Brigit of Kildare, found in the early ninth-century Martyrology of Oengus the Culdee, attests to the importance of the anamchara:

A young cleric of the community of Ferns, a foster-son of Brigit's, used to come to her with dainties. He was often with her in the refectory to partake of food. Once after going to communion she strikes a clapper. "Well, young cleric there", says Brigit, "do you have a soul friend?". "I have", replied the young man. "Let us sing his requiem", says Brigit. "Why so?" asks the young cleric. "For he has died", says Brigit. "When you had finished half your ration I saw that he was dead". "How did you know that?" "Easy to say, (Brigit replies) from the time that your soul friend was dead, I saw that your food was put (directly) in the trunk of your body, since you were without any head. Go forth and eat nothing until you get a soul friend, for anyone without a soul friend is like a body without a head: is like the water of a polluted lake, neither good for drinking nor for washing. That is the person without a soul friend".

This story, set in the context of a meal with references to death and water, has symbolic, sacramental connotations that most Christians would recognise. It suggests that Christian Celts believed that soul friends were crucial to human sustenance and spiritual growth, and that such mentoring relationships were ultimately related to friendship with God.

To better understand the concept of soul friendship and its significance in the history of Christian spirituality, this article will trace two ancient traditions of spiritual guidance that had the greatest influence on the emergence of the anamchara as a distinct form of spiritual mentoring: the abbas and ammas of the early desert Christians and the druids and druidesses of the pagan Celts. This article explores soul friendship in the early Celtic Church as it is reflected in selected stories of the saints found in certain Celtic hagiographies, many of which, though compiled in the mediaeval period, contain earlier, sometimes primitive materials. As will become apparent, both desert and Celtic Christians, as well as the stories they wrote, affirm the value of friendly teachers, confessors, and guides for personal holiness and the acquisition of wisdom.

Historical Origins: Desert Elders and Guides

hile no one knows precisely how or where anamchara relationships began, scholars are in agreement that the early desert Christians had a major influence on their development. These desert Christians, pioneers of monasticism in both the western and eastern churches, were mostly laypeople who left their homes and travelled into the desert regions of Egypt, Syria, and Palestine in the third, fourth, and fifth centuries, C.E. Many of them, inspired by the examples of desert elders such as Antony (251-356) and Pachomius (292-346), desired a more heroic life-style where "the air was purer, the heavens more open, and God nearer". They began to live alone as hermits or together in communities and eventually became valued as teachers of prayer and as therapists healing spiritual diseases that they called "sins". These "Desert Fathers" and "Desert Mothers", as they came to be respectfully and lovingly called, instructed those who came to them not only with words of advice, but more importantly through the spirituality they lived. A maxim of theirs was "Be an example, not a lawgiver".

In the Lives (or Hagiographies) of these spiritual leaders and in the wisdom Sayings, the Apophthegmata Patrum et Matrum, which have survived, two seemingly contradictory characteristics consistently appear: their great appreciation of friendship and an equally strong love of solitude. There is much evidence in these written works of the warmth, love, respect, and genuine affection the early desert Christians felt for each other. They embrace each other warmly on meeting and before they depart. They engage in friendly banter and yet also seriously discuss the spiritual progress that each is attempting to make. They share their daily work and, at least once a week, celebrate Eucharist together. Most of all, they call each other friends and root that friendship in Jesus' name and memory. As one of them, Abba Theodore, says so poignantly, "Let us each give his heart to the other, carrying the Cross of Christ". It is this capacity for deep friendships that attracted others to them, giving them the courage to open their hearts and confess their most secret sins. This capacity for friendship and ability to read other people's hearts became the basis of the desert elders' effectiveness as spiritual guides. Abba Helle is typical. Staying with his brothers for three days, he was so loved and trusted by them, we are told, that when he "revealed the secret counsels of each of them, saying that one was troubled by fornication, another by vanity, another by self-indulgence, and another by anger", they could only respond, "Yes, it is just as you say".

What the stories about the desert Christians reveal is that, despite their love of solitude, or perhaps precisely because of that love, friendship had a special meaning for them. At the same time, it is clear that these desert guides, revered for their friendship, hospitality and compassion, also valued silence and solitude, even when they lived within monasteries. Such values were reflected in their deep love for their cells, those very primitive constructions (by our standards) of stone, brick, or wood which they frequently built with their own hands. These cells contained one or sometimes two rooms: an outer chamber for daily living and an inner one for sleeping. Some of them were built in a day; others, more elaborately constructed, took longer. Some were located in isolation; others had companion cells nearby. Judging from the information we have, many were without windows, for according to Palladius (c. 365-425) in his Lausiac History, Abba Macarius of Alexandria lived in some cells that were "windowless, and he is said to have sat in them in darkness during Lent; another was too narrow for to stretch out his feet in it; another was more commodious, and in this one he met those who visited him". Some cells, like that of John of Lycopolis, had a window through which others could receive advice. So much of the spiritual wisdom associated with the Desert Fathers and Mothers was gained in their cells. Abba Moses tells a younger brother: "Go, sit in your cell, and your cells will teach you everything". Again, Abba Antony warns those who stray too far and too often from their cells: "Just as fish die if they stay too long out of water, so monks who loiter outside their cells lose the intensity of inner peace. So like a fish going toward the sea, we must hurry to reach our cell, for in case staying outside, we forget to care for what is inside".

What the stories about the desert Christians reveal is that, despite their love of solitude, or perhaps precisely because of that love, friendship had a special meaning for them. In cultivating silence and some degree of solitude, they also evidently had a greater capacity for and appreciation of friendship itself. What is also apparent from the stories is that their willingness to open their hearts to one another included a willingness to share their cells. Numerous examples are given that their cells were shared with companions, occasionally for only short visits, and sometimes for a lifetime.

According to Nora Chadwick in her classic The Age of the Saints in the Early Celtic Church, the anamchara was originally someone who, as a companion, shared another's cell and to whom one confessed, revealing confidential aspects of one's life. Thus, Chadwick says that the Celtic tradition of spiritual guidance was strongly influenced by the Desert Christians and that the rise of the anamchara in the Celtic Churches was a natural development that may be related to the syncellus, "the one who shares a cell" in the Greek Orthodox Church. Considering the cell's importance in Desert Spirituality as a place where one encounters God and learns "everything", to share one's cell with a soul friend then, is to share one's inmost self, ones life, one's mind and heart. John Cassian (c. 360-435), an early visitor to the desert and one of those whose writings were most responsible for the great popularity of the Desert Spirituality among the Christian Celts, shared his cell at Bethlehem with his friend Germanus, a practice common in the east during the fourth century until condemned by monastic lawgivers, perhaps out of fear that such intimacy might lead to homosexual behaviour. In his Conferences, however, Cassian compares friendship to those who by the union of character, "not of place", are joined together "in common dwelling". This bond between friends, he says, is indissoluble: "This, I say, is what is broken by no chances, what no interval of time or space can sever or destroy, and what even death itself cannot part".
This bond between friends ... is indissoluble: "This, I say, is what is broken by no chances, what no interval of time or space can sever or destroy, and what even death itself cannot part". The wisdom of the Desert Christians, expressed in Cassian's writings, had a significant impact on the development of spirituality among the Celtic Christians and on the evolution of soul-friend ministry itself. This influence primarily came through what was written about these desert guides, which eventually reached the Celtic Churches when monasticism spread from the East to the West. Knowledge of this type of spiritual mentoring may also have been brought in person by desert monks or hermits who, while fleeing the persecutions against them early in the fifth century, travelled to Ireland and Britain years before the missionary Patrick arrived. (According to recent findings by archaeologists, there was an extensive trade between the East and the coasts of Ireland, Wales, Scotland, and England at that time, and mention is made in a litany from the Book of Leinster of seven monks from Egypt, all of whom died while visiting Ireland and were buried there). The values of the Desert Christians, including their attentiveness to spiritual diseases and the confession of sin, may also have been brought back by the numerous Celtic pilgrims in the early mediaeval period who visited the holy places where Jesus had lived and the nearby cells of the monks.

In whatever way the Celtic Christians learned about the Desert Elders, the spirituality and their practice of offering support and guidance to others can be easily discerned in the later hagiographies of the Celtic saints. It is also reflected artistically on numerous stone high crosses scattered throughout Ireland and Britain, especially the scene of the desert hermits, Paul and Antony, breaking bread together in the Egyptian desert. The early Celtic soul friends also embrace an ascetic life-style, frequently wearing the skins of animals rather than woollen clothing and eating the simplest of diets. Like the desert elders, they value solitude and, in the midst of many communal and familial responsibilities, seek out isolated places where they can find "soul-space": room for developing in silence and in one's depths greater intimacy with God. They too appreciate the type of friendship in which what the desert guides called exagoreusis the opening of one's heart to another leads to hesychia serenity and peace of heart.
...they (the Celts) value solitude and, in the midst of many communal and familial responsibilities, seek out isolated places where they can find "soul-space"... There are, however, important differences. Unlike the abbas and ammas who ministered in the barren wilderness of desert lands, the Celtic saints appreciated the beauty of nature and the powerful pull of the sea. They settled near bodies of water or on land surrounded by the ocean's tides. Unlike the desert guides who tended to settle in one place for the rest of their lives, the Celtic saints frequently embraced a life of pilgrimage and missionary outreach, with the wanderlust of their Celtic forebears in their blood. Unlike the early desert guides, many of whom were suspicious of classical education and sought to maintain the primacy of Holy Scripture in meditation and prayer, the Celtic saints loved learning and the life of study, preserving both the pagan stories of their native lands, as well as the spiritual heritage of Greece, Rome, and the other Christian churches. The most remarkable thing about the learning found in the Celtic churches, especially the Irish Church, is its catholicity, in the widest sense of that term. While absorbing Christianity and Latin learning, the early Celtic Christians never completely abandoned their own pagan cultural and spiritual heritage. The Celtic saints maintained their traditions precisely because they were, first of all, Celts Celts who had been educated by their teachers and mentors, the druids and druidesses. It was this class of shamans in pagan Celtic society, the second major historical influence upon the development of the anamchara ministry, which made its own unique and lasting contribution. ________________________________

Ed Sellner is professor of pastoral theology and spirituality and director of the Master of Arts in Theology at the College of St. Catherine, St Paul, Minnesota. He has written numerous articles on Celtic spirituality, and is the author of Mentoring: the Ministry of Spiritual Kinship, Soul-Making, Wisdom of the Celtic Saints and, most recently, Father and Son (cf. Bookshelf p.78).
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