The ancient Celtic Christian practice of Anam Cara, Gaelic for or soul-friendship, extols the value of deeply personal, spiritual and loving friendships in which brothers and sisters in Christ can reveal their hearts to one another.
Soul friendship reflect the kind of friendships experienced by the likes of David and Jonathan; Paul and Barnabus, and indeed Jesus and John, his beloved disciple. Soul friends have hearts which are knit together; finding sons of encouragement in one another and leaning upon the love expressed one for the other, as they strive to live out their lives for God.
Having a soul friend aids our spiritual development as we seek to grow in Christ and such soul friendships are crafted within the community of the Christian church. James chapter 5:13-20 advises:
“Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise. Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops. My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins”.
We are being taught here that we need one another. That we cannot walk the Christian pathway alone. Christ meets us in community – through His Body, the Church to which the care of our souls is entrusted.
So, within the community of the Church, where souls are cared for, we must all engage in what Douglas Webster calls “the work of spiritual direction”." This is, he says "a ministry of cutting through the deceptive complexities of a relativistic culture and setting before others a clear path of obedience. It is a ministry that simplifies and clarifies life by defining godly commitments and directing people toward maturity. It is a ministry of mutual discipling in the church, and it is based on one of the most crucial principles for effective church discipline: that the whole church is called to exercise discipline, not just pastors or elders. “For while God has given different gifts, the most basic training he gives is meant to come from fellow Christians in everyday encounters. Church discipline is the training of the church by the church. Trained professionals have their place, but they cannot and never were meant to be a substitute for the whole body...There is truth to be followed. There is death to be avoided. There is ministry to give to each other. James has called us to serve both God and sinners.” (1)
The soul-friend takes up his or her responsibility of caring for a brother or sister entrusted to them by Christ the Lord. It is a relationship of mutual trust and accountability. A friendship that is tried and tested through troubles, meeting the mandate of Proverbs 17:17, "A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity." As Ian Bradley in Colonies of Heaven suggests: “In its availability and vulnerability friendship of any really meaningful kind is a costly rather than an easy option. The absence of close friends pushes many towards the brink of depression or sends them into the arms of counsellors and doctors…It would...be good to recover the role of the anamchara in the care of the terminally ill and dying….Too often..people face their final illnesses with no soul friend to prepare them for the coming pilgrimage…..As Penelope Wilcock has rightly observed “To accompany other people, along with their loved ones, up to the gate of death is to enter Holy Ground. To stand in an awesome place where the wind of the Spirit blows; to encounter peace and grief; insight, intimacy and pain on a level not found in ordinary living. By the side of the dying we learn stillness, waiting, simply being; the arts of quietness and keeping watch, prayer beyond words” (2)
All of us need at least one soul friend, but when forming such a friendship we need to be “cautious”. We need to consider whether our friend is a good listener? Can they be trusted with our most intimate secrets? Will they be able to minister to us from the word of God and through prayer? Does that person understand my heart for Christ and share my world view? Will they be honest with us even if that means having to lovingly upset us? Will they then bind up our wounds and patiently persevere with us in the friendship? All of us ought also to be a soul friend to someone else. And in contemplating the qualities and character involved, outlined in the preceding paragraph let us also add the words of the Apostle Paul in Philippians 2:1-5 from the Message:
“If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care— then do me a favour: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand. Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself”.
Note the phrase, “Be deep-spirited friends” – Let us love and care for others in the way that Christ Himself loves and cares for us! Churches that contain Christians who produce friendships of this sort, are much happier and healthier communities of grace!
So, as we look around and see so many Christians struggling in the way of Christ, let us learn from the ancient practice of anamchara. Let us become soul friends and encourage one another to walk together in spiritual union with each other and with Christ Himself.
Lord, graciously provide me with a soul-friend. Graciously help me to be a soul-friend!
(1). Douglas J. Moo; IVP New Testament Commentary on James. IVP Academic; 2nd Revised ed. edition (6 Mar. 2015).
(2). Ian Bradley: Colonies of Heaven: Celtic Models for Today's Church. p.110-112. Darton,Longman & Todd Ltd; UK ed. edition (19 Sept. 2000)