Anam Cara: The Soul Friend

A custom unique to Celtic Christianity is the tradition of the anam cara. Anam cara is Gaelic for “soul friend,” referring to a tradition that arose in the convents and monasteries of Ireland and Scotland. The anam cara was a lifelong platonic friend and spiritual guide who acted as a counselor and confessor and usually read the last rites of the deceased. As time went on, the idea became popular with the laity, who would have such a relationship with a member of the clergy.

The anam cara became indispensable to Celtic Christians; the anam cara was not simply a friend, but a soulmate who was one's connection to God. A ninth century story of St. Brigid of Kildare, recounted in the Martyrology of Oengus, illustrates the importance of the soul friend:

A young cleric of the community of Ferns, a foster son of Brigid's, used to come to her with wishes. He was with her in the refectory, to partake of food. Once after coming to communion she struck a clapper. “Well, young cleric there,” said Brigid, “hast thou a soul friend?” “I have,” replied the young cleric. “Let us sing his requiem,” said Brigid, “for he has died. I saw when half thy portion had gone, that thy quota was put into thy trunk, and thou without any head on thee, for thy soul-friend died, and anyone without a soul friend is a body without a head; and eat no more till thou gettest a soul friend.”

This story shows that the spirit companion is so vital, one is considered imperiled without one. The anam cara's function wasn't just as a close friend, but as someone entrusted with the well-being of one's soul. The anam cara was vital to a healthy soul.

Nobody is quite certain where the concept of the soul friend originated. There is some speculation that the practice developed from traditions of the monasteries of the Eastern Church, where monks typically paired up to support one another's spiritual progress. Still others suggest the concept is a carryover from earlier pagan tradition, an adaptation of druid mentorship to fit the Christian demand for confession. Though this idea would have been unfamiliar to the Celts, it would have naturally been likened to the druid traditions of spiritual mentorship.

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