John O’Donohue’s Anam Cara and the Mystery of Friendship

children of lir
Children of Lir, by John Duncan. The Children of Lir spent 900 years cursed as swans, healing and consoling the people of Ireland with their song. Image from The Athenaeum.

This year I was fortunate to come across the written works of the Irish poet and theologian, John O’Donohue. O’Dononhue’s first book Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom expounds on the Irish concept of an anam cara, or “soul friend,” a spiritual mentor of the early Irish church. In his analysis, O’Donohue examines how  the theory of an anam cara might be applied to contemporary life for spiritual development. Additionally, O’Donohue draws upon the syncretism of paganism and Christianity within Ireland to tell parables about the anam cara, which appealed to me as an Irish-American deepening her work with ancestral magic. I find Anam Cara to be among the more thoughtful treatises within the self-help genre. Its framework allows for compassionate healing, without falling into the trap of hyper-individualism often represented in New Age literature. Anam Cara is a guide for how to be a good friend, and its central theme is worth exploring as a model for living in this world.

The Mystery of Friendship

Anam Cara begins with the exploration of the mystery of friendship. Humans are social creatures and a central part of the human experience is fulfilling a sense of belonging. Who am I? What am I here to do?  How do I fit in the larger scheme of the universe? These are philosophical questions central to many religious traditions. An anam cara is a companion with which an individual can reveal the most hidden intimacies of their life. Half-truths serve no purpose when we enter a relationship with an anam cara. This “soul friend” recognizes the human desire to belong, and there’s no need to mask anything when in the company of an anam cara. But to become an anam cara, we first need to learn how to be fully present.

For John O’Donohue a depth of self-awareness and reverence for the present moment are the greatest gifts someone can bring to a friendship. This requires someone to be open and tender to both the light and dark aspects of their inner most being. “All creativity,” he writes “awakens at [the] primal threshold where light and darkness test and bless each other.” We need to honor and tend to the complexity of our interior and exterior lives. By doing so, we fully embody the creative and destructive forces of the natural world. The fifth century poem, The Deer’s Cry, by St Patrick opens with the following lines:

I arise today
Through the strength of heaven;
Light of the sun, Splendor of fire,
Speed of lightning, Swiftness of the wind,
Depth of the sea, Stability of the earth,
Firmness of the rock

Here, an affirmation reveals the immediacy of personhood in union with the natural world. In today’s metaphysical landscape this is called “mindfulness”. But the profundity required of an anam cara goes much deeper than the contemporary New Age gospel of love and light. It provides a shelter from which true empathy can blossom. And the first step to this is to befriend our bodies.

coming of bride
The Coming of Bride, by John Duncan. Bride (or Brigid) is both a Celtic goddess and saint of spring, children, and hearth fire. Image from The Athenaeum.


Anam Cara of the Body

In Ireland, the Otherworld and the physical world move in and out of each other. The Boyne is both a river and Boann, the bovine goddess of abundance. The Ceann na Caillí is both the southernmost point of the limestone Cliffs of Moher and the embodiment of the divine hag and ancestor goddess, Cailleach. The spirit world and the physical world are intimately interconnected, and for John O’Donohue this extends to human form. He believes the body exists within an energetic field we call the soul. Our souls and our bodies are the interfaces with which we communicate with the spiritual and physicals worlds. If we befriend our bodies and hone our five senses in prayer or mediation, we can tune into the quietness of the subtle realm. When we reconnect to our senses, our awareness of the space we inhabit expands. We physically experience nuance and are able to perceive the spaces between what is physically seen, heard, tasted, smelled, or felt.

This year I’ve learned of how little I’ve spent my life fully present within my own body. Due to health issues stemming from early childhood, I’ve spent much of my life in physical pain. Years ago, I learned to disconnect from a constant dull ache in the right side of my body, and thus spent 25 years in a state of semi-disassociation. It was only when I chose to tenderly explore the aches through yin yoga that they became manageable. I took pleasure in stretching for elongated periods of time, amazed that I could feel parts of my body that previously I wasn’t aware existed. I listened to my body, taking time to stand still and feel the micro-adjustments of placing my weight equally in both my right and left feet. I also researched Irish folk remedies for healing aches, employing folklore as a means for spiritual healing between me and my ancestors.

A month ago, the aches disappeared entirely. This isn’t to say that what worked for me will work for every ailment. All bodies are different, and I do believe that the individual has the final say about their own pain management. This also doesn’t mean I’m cured of my ailments. I still have a responsibility to tend to my well-being as needed, day-to-day. But as someone who spent much of her life avoiding being present in her body, I appreciate the wisdom of John O’Donohue’s perspective. Tuning into the senses and fully feeling the environment around me is empowering. And as I’ve learned (and what John O’Donohue explains in Anam Cara), befriending our bodies makes it easier to befriend our emotions which can be equally wounded.

cliffs of moher
The Cliffs of Moher in County Clare. The southernmost point is the embodiment of Cailleach, the Celtic ancestor goddess. Image taken by author.


Anam Cara of Emotions

What I appreciate most about Anam Cara is that it does not shy away from addressing the emotional suffering every human will experience during their lifetime. In fact, John O’Donohue is critical of those people who insist on positivity alone, who don’t acknowledge sorrow, grief, and anger as emotions deserving of our attention. Without naming specific religious movements, he compares this line of reasoning to a fluorescent light of a hospital room. Yes, the light is bright in a space intended for healing. But the light is too direct and harsh to provide any sense of comfort.

Instead, he urges readers to treat their interior selves like a stranger they’d like to befriend. If we imagine ourselves sitting by a hearth fire with this stranger, the dynamics and conditions change from that of the hospital room. Fire is transformative. It invites and warms the senses. Its soft glow enchants as it illuminates and dances with shadows. There might be aspects of this stranger that surprise us. And rather than conform them to our will, perhaps we can learn to enter into conversation with them. We need to honor the complexity of our emotions and recognize that it’s okay to have conflicted feelings that may never reach full resolution. We need to recognize both the dark and light aspects of our being in order to be fully present in this world. “Each tree,” O’Donohue writes, “grows in two directions at once, into the darkness and out to the light with as many branches and roots as it needs to embody its wild desires.” O’Donohue urges readers to be mindful of where they are wounded, and to invite healing and renewal through kindness and hospitality. If we befriend ourselves, we can be better friends to others. Then, together, we can acknowledge and affirm the belonging that we all crave.

brigid well 1

brigid well 2
Dark interior and light exterior of Brigid’s holy well in Country Clare. Wells are sacred thresholds in Ireland, balancing the unknown and known. Images taken by author.


Beannacht (Blessing)

Anam Cara continues with how this foundation for deep friendship can be applied to interpersonal relationships, memory, and mortality. But to avoid revealing all of this book’s teachings, I’ll refrain from summarizing those chapters. Instead, I’d like to end this essay the same way John O’Donohue begins Anam Cara, with his poetic blessing of friendship:


On the day when
The weight deadens
On your shoulders
And you stumble,
May the clay dance
To balance you.

And when your eyes
Freeze behind
The grey window
And the ghost of loss
Gets into you,
May a flock of colours,
Indigo, red, green
And azure blue,
Come to awaken in you
A meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
In the currach of thought
And a stain of ocean
Blackens beneath you,
May there come across the waters
A path of yellow moonlight
To bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
May the clarity of light be yours,
May the fluency of the ocean be yours,
May the protection of the ancestors be yours.

And so may a slow
Wind work these words
Of love around you,
An invisible cloak
To mind your life.


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