Spiritual Living Previous - Next


Early Celtic Soul Friendship

Part Three

  By looking at the Lives of the early Celtic saints Ed Sellner gives a detailed description of what soul-friendship entailed. Among other things it involved great affection, intimacy, mutuality and challenge.
By Edward Sellner  
  Main sources for an understanding of the anamchara are the Lives of the early Celtic saints. For more than six centuries, from the 600s to well beyond 1200 C.E., monastic hagiographers in the Celtic churches of Ireland, Northern England, Cornwall, Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man, and Brittany composed the Lives of literally hundreds of Celtic saints. As well as the two traditions of spiritual guidance that shaped this form of ministry, hagiographies provide a wealth of information about soul friendship and its immersion in the everyday life and spirituality of Celtic Christianity. These writings reveal how common soul-friend relationships were between men and men, women and women, and women and men and, as the story of Brigit and the young cleric in part one of this series shows, the importance of everyone having a soul friend, including the laity. The symbolic language of these hagiographies also offers, I believe, insights into the meaning of soul-friend relationships that transcend that early history.

According to the hagiographies, in Ireland alone, within a hundred years after the missionary activities of Saint Patrick in the fifth century, saint after saint was involved in soul friendship relationships. Finnian, who established the great monastery Clonard, about 520 C.E., was considered the patriarch of early Irish monasticism, precisely because he tutored and acted as a spiritual guide to so many of the early founders of the other large monasteries, such as Columcille of Iona and Ciaran of Clonmacnoise. Finnian, in turn, had been mentored from boyhood by Foirtchernn of Britain and had, as an adult, a number of other soul friends: Caemon of Tours in Gaul, and David, Gildas, and Cathmael, sages of the Celtic church in Britain. Like Finnian, the holy nun Ita evidently acted in a similar capacity. She taught so many young men who later became leaders in the early Celtic church that she became known as the "Fostermother of the Saints of Erin." One of these saints is Brendan of Clonfert, famous for his voyages, who frequently turned to Ita for advice throughout his life. During one's lifetime, a person might have many mentors and soul friends, sometimes from an early age. Kevin of Glendalough is typical of many saints, for he had not one but, according to an early hagiography, three holy elders to whom he was handed over as a child, so that he might learn about Christ in their cell.
Soul friend relationships are characterised by mutuality: a profound respect for each other's wisdom, despite any age or gender difference, and the awareness that the other person is a sourceyy of many blessings.
As anamcharas, these early saints engaged in a great variety of ministries and roles. Some, like Patrick, Brigit, and Columcille, are clearly portrayed in their Lives as shamans, healers, and spiritual guides to the tribes, as the druids and druidesses had once been before them. A great many, such as Finnian, Ita, and Aidan, functioned as teachers and tutors both to younger students and to adults, gathering people about them and making a significant contribution to the continuity of the Celtic spiritual legacy. Many of them, including Findbarr of Cork, David of Wales, and Hild of Whitby, were powerful founders of monasteries, a role that surely involved good communication and administrative skills. As in the case of Brendan and Columbanus, a large number were missionaries and pilgrims, willing to live extremely harsh lifestyles, far from friends and kin, and bringing the gospel to pagan lands. Many of these soul friends were mystics and visionaries, like Samthann of Clonbroney and Maedoc of Ferns, who prayed intensely and had psychic, intuitive abilities to read the future and, more important, the heart. All of them were pioneers, reconcilers, and confessors who, despite a very active life, valued their times of solitude.

Though not many hagiographies of female saints have survived, we know from those that have, as well as the stories in the men's Lives that refer to women in the early Celtic church, that some of the greatest and most competent of the soul friends were Irish women. Brigit, Ita, Samthann, Moninna, and in Northumbria, the anglo-saxon Hild of Whitby (who, through Aidan's mentoring, was thoroughly immersed in Celtic spirituality) are perhaps the best known. Not only were they teachers, administrators, guides, preachers, and confessors, but at least two of them, according to their early hagiographies, had in their possession religious articles that are traditionally associated with ordained ecclesial leadership. In the earliest Life of Brigit, written by Cogitosus in the seventh century, Brigit receives a pallium (a bishop's mantle) at the time she becomes a nun; Samthann, in her hagiography, has in her possession a marvellous crozier, a bishop's staff, which was able to perform miracles; in another Life, Ita is portrayed as a wise confessor who does not hesitate to give out penances to the laity.

Whether female or male saints, it is interesting to note how often they are pictured, like the desert Christians, sitting, praying, studying, writing, or teaching in their cells. The scholar Charles Plummer says that in addition to the common buildings of each monastic community (that is, the churches and the oratories, refectory, school, and guest-house), cells were constructed for individuals or small groups of monks. Older members, ascetics, and anchorites would probably have had their own separate cells. Many of these cells were of the beehive type still visible today in all their terrible beauty on Skellig Michael, off the Ring of Kerry in Ireland. This type of cell definitely had room for more than one inhabitant. In his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the Venerable Bede states that during the early days of the Celtic church large numbers of people from England "left their own country and retired to Ireland either for the sake of religious studies or to live a more ascetic life. In course of time some of these devoted themselves faithfully to the monastic life, while others preferred to travel round to the cells of various teachers and apply themselves to study." Cells, then, were frequently shared between teachers and students, between confessors and those seeking forgiveness, between anamcharas.

Particular dimensions of soul friendship can be identified in the stories of the early Celtic saints. First, soul friendship is associated with great affection, intimacy and depth. As we learn in a passage from the eighth-century Liber Angeli (Book of the Angel): "Between holy Patrick and Brigit, pillars of the Irish, there existed so great a friendship of charity that they were of one heart and one mind." Soul friends share what the Greeks and Romans, as well as early church Fathers and Mothers, equate with true friendship itself: one soul in two bodies, two hearts united as one. In the hagiographies, this intimacy is manifest in ordinary emotions and simple gestures. Saint Brendan, for example, smiles warmly when he thinks of Ita, his foster-mother, and Ita, in turn, experiences the slow passage of time when Brendan is away; Finnian calls his student Ciaran "O little heart" and "dear one" and blesses him before Ciaran leaves the monastery of Clonard; Brendan and Ruadan build their cells near one another so that they can hear the ringing of each other's bells.
Soul friendships include not only affirmation, but the ability of each to challenge the other when necessary.
Second, soul friend relationships are characterised by mutuality: a profound respect for each other's wisdom, despite any age or gender difference, and the awareness that the other person is a source of many blessings. This quality of mutuality is, fittingly enough, expressed symbolically in the stories by an exchange of gifts. Brigit gives Finnian a ring, Columcille sends the holy virgin Maugina a little pine box that helps cure her, David of Wales gives Findbarr his horse. Mutuality is also manifest in Brigit's and Brendan's confession to each other and, perhaps most vividly, in a story from the Life of Saint Ciaran as Ciaran prepares for death:

When the time of his death at the age of thirty-three drew near to the holy Ciaran in his little church, he said: "Let me be carried to a small height." When he looked up at the sky and the vast open air above his head, he said, "Terrible is the way of dying." Then angels went to meet his soul, filling as they did all the space between heaven and earth. He was carried back into the little church, and raising his hands, he blessed his people. Then he told the brethren to shut him up in the church until Kevin should come from Glendalough. After three days, Kevin arrived... At once Ciaran's spirit returned from heaven and reentered his body so that he could commune with Kevin and welcome him. The two friends stayed together from the one watch to another, engaged in mutual conversation, and strengthened their friendship. Then Ciaran blessed Kevin, and Kevin blessed water and administered the Eucharist to Ciaran. Ciaran gave his bell to Kevin as a sign of their lasting unity, which today is called Coimgen's Boban [Kevin's Bell].

From what the hagiographies imply, a third characteristic of soul friends is that they share common values, a common vision of reality, and, sometimes, an intuitive sense of the potential leadership of younger proteges. Both vision and intuition are referred to in the story of Ciaran and his spiritual mentor, Enda:

After that Ciaran went to the island of Aran to commune with Enda. Both of them saw the same vision of a great fruitful tree growing beside a stream in the middle of Ireland. This tree protected the entire island, and its fruit crossed the sea that surrounded Ireland, and the birds of the world came to carry off some of that fruit. Ciaran turned to Enda and told him what he had seen, and Enda, in turn, said to him: "The great tree that you saw is you, Ciaran, for you are great in the eyes of God and of men. All of Ireland will be sheltered by the grace that is in you, and many people will be fed by your fasting and prayers. So, go in the name of the God to the centre of Ireland, and found your church on the banks of a stream."

Fourth, soul friendships include not only affirmation, but the ability of each to challenge the other when necessary. This facility is sometimes the most difficult aspect of any intimate relationship, but without it the friendship can soon become superficial, stunted, and eventually lost. The story of a holy woman's courage in confronting someone whom she admires provides a good example of this aspect of soul friendship as does the willingness of Senan, an older man, to change:
True soul friends do not depend on each other alone, but root their relationship in God.
Canair the Pious, a holy woman living in the south of Ireland, set up a hermitage in her own territory. One night, while she was praying, all the churches of Ireland appeared to her in a vision. It seemed as if a tower of fire rose up to heaven from each of the churches. The highest of the towers of fire, and the straightest towards heaven was that which rose from Inis Cathaig [Scattery Island]. "Fair is Senan's cell," Canair said. "I will go there, that my resurrection may be near it."... Senan knew that she was coming, and he went to the harbour to meet and welcome her. "Yes, I have come," Canair told him. "Go," said Senan, "to your sister who lives on the island to the east of this one, so that you may be her guest."

"That is not why I came," said Canair, "but that I may find hospitality with you on this island. "Women cannot enter on this island," Senan replied. "How can you say that?" asked Canair. "Christ is no worse than you. Christ came to redeem women no less than to redeem men. He suffered for the sake of women as much as for the sake of men. Women as well as men can enter the heavenly kingdom. Why, then, should you not allow women to live on this island?"

"You are persistent," said Senan.

"Well then," Canair replied, "will I get what I ask for? Will you give me a place to live on this island and the holy sacrament of Eucharist?"

"Yes, Canair, a place of resurrection will be given you here," said Senan. She came on shore then, and received the Sacrament from Senan, and immediately went to heaven.

A fifth aspect of anamchara relationships that can be learned from the Irish hagiographies is that they are centred on God, the soul friend in whom all other friendships are united. True soul friends do not depend on each other alone, but root their relationship in God. All the stories of the saints refer to this spiritual dimension, but one story in the Life of Findbarr is symbolically the most explicit. In it we find intimations not only of this need for reliance on God, but also of those qualities earlier identified: affirmation, mutuality, and deep love:

After the death of Bishop MacCuirv, Findbarr was much concerned at being without a soul friend. So he went to visit Eolang, and God revealed to Eolang that Findbarr was coming to see him. Eolang immediately knelt before Findbarr, and said the following, "I offer to you my church, my body, and my soul." Findbarr wept openly, and said, "This was not my thought, but that it would be I who would offer my church to you." Eolang said, "Let it be as I have said, for this is the will of God. You are dear to God, and you are greater than myself. One thing only I ask, that our resurrection will be in the same place." Findbarr replied, "Your wish will be fulfilled, but I am still troubled about the soul friendship." Eolang told him, " You shall receive today a soul friend worthy of yourself." This was done as he said, for Eolang in the presence of the angels and archangels placed Findbarr's hand in the hand of the Lord.
...both friendship and solitude (are) resources ultimately for "soulmaking"...

A sixth characteristic of soul friendship is that it survives geographical separation, the passage of time, and death itself. In the early stories, even after Columcille moves to Iona to bring Christianity to the Scots, he continues to long for Derry and his friends in Ireland and they for him; Brendan consistently returns to Ita for advice after his journeys to foreign lands; Lasrianus and Maedoc, in response to God, separate and go their own ways but never forget what each has meant to the other. In the latter's Life, in particular, we find reference not only to the lasting ties of friendship with Lasrianus, despite the geographical distance between them, but to the continuity of another soul friendship, despite death:

Sometime later Maedoc was teaching a student by a high cross at the monastery of Ferns. The student saw him mount a golden ladder reaching from earth to heaven. Maedoc climbed the ladder, and when he returned sometime later, the student could not look in his face because of the brilliance that transfused his countenance... "Columcille has died," Maedoc told him, "and I went to meet him with the family of heaven. He was my own soul friend in this world, so I wanted to pay him my respects." The student told this story only after Maedoc's death, when he had become an adult and a holy man himself.

Finally, according to hagiographies, anamcharas,like the desert Christians, appreciate both friendship and solitude as resources ultimately for "soulmaking": the lifelong process of reconciliation, of making peace with oneself, with others, and with all of creation in preparation for one's own death. As the stories of Kevin and Ciaran, and of Maedoc and Columcille, have already intimated, soul friends help each other make this transition, through death, to God. A story about Saint Declan of Ardmore, a fourth-century Irish missionary-bishop to whom, we are told, "thousands of men and women" came for spiritual guidance, clearly reflects a spirituality that values both friendship and solitude, being active in ministry and having a cell:

When Declan realised that his last days were at hand and that the time remaining to him was very short, he summoned to him his own spiritual son, MacLiag who was residing in the monastery which is on the eastern side of the Decies close to the Leinstermen. MacLiag was summoned in order that, at the hour of death, Declan might receive the Body and Blood of Christ and the sacraments of the church from his hands. Declan then foretold to his disciples the day of his death and he commanded them to bring him to his own city, for it was not there he dwelt at the time but in a small venerable cell that he had ordered to be built for him between the hill called Ardmore Declain and the ocean. That narrow place at the brink of the sea is called Disert Declain, and a small shining stream, surrounded by trees and bushes, flows down from the hill above. From there to the city is only a short mile. The reason Declan used to go there was to avoid turmoil and noise so that he might be able to read and pray and fast. Indeed, it was not easy for him to stay even there because of the multitude of disciples, paupers, pilgrims, and beggars who followed him. Declan, however, was generous and very compassionate, and on that account it is recorded by tradition that a great following of poor people generally accompanied him. The little cell that was his was very dear to him for the reason we have given, and many devout people have made it their practice to dwell within it.


For the Christian Celts, influenced by the desert Christians and their own pagan spiritual mentors, the druids and druidesses, mentoring and spiritual guidance were considered an important, if not essential, part of spirituality. All the saints seem to have been changed profoundly by these relationships whether the soul friends themselves were female or male, human or angelic, or whether they offered a compassionate ear or a challenging word. They were keenly aware that God is close to those who speak as friends do: heart to heart. This ministry of the anamchara, with its one-to-one focus, contributed greatly to western culture's increased emphasis on the integrity and worth of the individual and on his or her spiritual and psychological development. It also affected the entire history of Christian spirituality, affirming as it did the conviction that a person's relationship with God can take the form of effective dialogue and that when sins or faults, grief or human vulnerability is openly and honestly acknowledged, healing begins and God's presence is experienced, sometimes unforgettably. As the desert writer Cassian suggests and the stories of the Celtic saints confirm, soul friendship joins friends together in a common dwelling that neither time nor space nor death itself can separate: the dwelling of the soul and of the heart.

Ed Sellner is a professor of pastoral theology and spirituality. He is 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.
Previous - Next