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_01One of the most beautiful expressions of the Celtic spiritual tradition is that of the anamchara, or soul-friend. The need for a spiritual companion or mentor has been recognized and addressed in different ways in many traditions of the world, but in the Irish tradition, it was nurtured by the Celtic spirit and flowered into a mutual practice of intense beauty. The importance of the anamchara to the individual and society led St. Brigid to say that “anyone without an anamchara is like a body without a head.”[1] A better understanding of this tradition can therefore assist us as we transform the ways we view and treat the life changing process of spiritual emergence. This post will explore the historical roots of the anamchara, why it is important, and some of the traits of the dynamic relationship. I will also briefly recount some of my personal experiences with my anamchara, showing (hopefully) that it is a living and meaningful part of our contemporary world and spiritual life. In taking a closer look at some of these things, perhaps we can come a bit closer to a vision for the coming age, and then, within the embrace of an anamchara, be empowered to consciously engage our collective journey.

Not only is the anamchara one of the most beautiful spiritual practices of the Irish tradition, it is also one of the most necessary of any tradition. The spiritual journey is an arduous one of remembering and returning to our true heritage of being fully human in the world. This can often be frightening, bewildering, and lonely. It is, in its essence, a death-rebirth process leading to the discovery of our soul-gifts and our sacred obligation to bring these gifts into the world. Joseph Campbell describes this process as the hero’s journey which he explains in three broad phases: departure, trials, and return. Within this framework, the hero departs from the tribe, undergoes a series of trials in which he or she experiences a transformation of consciousness, and ultimately returns to the tribe with a boon, representing valuable new interpretations of experience.[2] This is the pattern of the universal myth, or monomyth, which Campbell equates to rites of passage rituals and human psychospiritual development.[3] On an individual level, the departure phase is one in which old ways of being in the world or inadequate worldviews are outgrown. This leads to a period of trials in which there are yet no replacements for these outgrown guiding views. Through this process of psychospiritual development, the boon is found – new ways of engaging the act of being in the world. This is a spiritual experience of discovering and inhabiting a new worldview adequate to the new phase of the spiritual life of the individual and can therefore be seen as a spiritual emergence.

_02The hero’s journey is a journey that each of us take in different ways, at different stages of our lives. We do this from within perhaps very different traditions, or perhaps on our own, in the quiet of our own soul, but regardless of how or when the journey is engaged, all of us are confronted with opportunities for spiritual emergence. As reflected in the monomyth, there are certain things that are common to all journeys, and certain attributes that are required of us in order to engage the journey, such as willingness, honesty, courage, and perseverance to name only a few. Embarking on the hero’s journey without an anamchara is like embarking on a long voyage on a dangerous sea in a boat with no rudder. Anamchara provide safety, companionship, guidance, and mentoring. They give us a sense that we are not alone in uncharted waters, but that someone has already been where we find ourselves, that someone knows the way. They are there for us with undying patience, understanding, compassion, and love. They are not afraid to say things that we don’t want but need to hear. They also know when silence is the only response. While they guide us toward our realization of our truth, they do not tell us what we must do but allow us to make our mistakes and give us the right to be wrong. Even when we are wrong, they do not judge. When we make our mistakes, they do not abandon us, but are waiting at the ready when we are able to continue on our journey. They ask for nothing in return, yet this relationship is one of mutuality and we have obligations to be willing to listen to their guidance, to objectively examine what they say and what they do. We need not like them, they need not like us, but we must return the unconditional love that they give to us. The love of an anamchara relationship transcends the need to be liked and accepted – we must be ourselves with the anamchara and not strive to be who we think they would have us be. We meet them on the deep level of soul, fearlessly disclosing to them our secrets.

This is challenging. Our society does not typically encourage this form of bond. In this and in many other ways, our current historical context is one of dismay. With few cultural mechanisms to encourage a meaningful spiritual development (but many that outright discourage it), it seems that all of humanity’s past mistakes and inadequate philosophical theories are coming to a head in a myriad of social and environmental problems that often seem insurmountable. The challenge lies in the fact that even though more and more people are realizing that we have strayed from our humanness and wish to engage the hero’s journey, there are no structures in our culture to guide them, and many abandon the journey before they have even begun. In our mass consumerist culture, it is all too easy to sink back into the fear, loneliness, desperation, and addiction all too common in our day and age. Instead of nurturing spiritual emergence, our society pathologizes and medicates these stirrings of the soul, and causes instead a spiritual emergency. It is here that we begin to see just how imperative it is to have and to be anamchara. We must remember though, that we also live in a time of unprecedented opportunity to correct the mistakes of our collective history. There are many signs that the modern world is beginning to realize how far we have strayed, how much we have forgotten, how lonely we have become. We are beginning not only to realize that we must return to our humanness, many are actually beginning the journey toward what we envision as a better world. Therefore, and most importantly, when the time comes for us to be anamchara to someone, we must readily extend our embrace and continue the tradition of a mutual soul-friendship which nurtures an authentic spiritual emergence.

On a psychological level, there are two main forms of spiritual emergence. The first is a gradual opening of the consciousness to the spiritual experience, and the second is a sudden eruption with such a force as to disrupt the psyche of the person, resulting in fear, anxiety, and frantic attempts to control the situation. Most religions have but a semblance of a framework to support these experiences, though many do warn of the dangers of the significant spiritual energies at work.[4] One of two possible circumstances commonly arise in dealing with the emergence – either the support system of the person (doctors, friends, family) cannot provide the container to support the emergence and it turns into emergency, or the person does not have the inner resilience to deal with the emergence and a breakdown and fragmentation of the psychic structures occur.[5] With few exceptions, these experiences are marginalized by religion and the medical professions alike. Individuals displaying symptoms of spiritual emergency typically are pathologized and medicated or hospitalized in an attempt to arrest the symptoms, and thus unknowingly cheated out of the ability to fully integrate the experience.[6] From the perspective of transpersonal psychology, some forms of therapy can be provided such as teaching, creating a safe container for the emergence to unfold, or ensuring the presence and availability of a qualified therapist.[7] Although transpersonal psychology better supports the emergence with these kinds of treatment than does religion or medication, it nonetheless remains clinical and reactive.

While a new awareness is leading to a more comprehensive support structure to recognize and guide spiritual emergence into a transformative personal spiritual experience, which contributes to a larger pattern on a societal level,[8] facilitating spiritual emergence in our contemporary culture is still largely reactive, or even neglected. In contrast, within the Celtic tradition, the framework existed to proactively facilitate and support spiritual emergence. Within the Irish tradition, pagan and Christian alike, spiritual emergency and emergence was supported on a proactive basis by the anamchara. In this, the spiritual lives of individuals were supported and looked after in much the same way as proposed by transpersonal psychology, but the anamchara was present from a very young age[9] and was an integral part of society, not a reactive ‘therapist’ sought only in times of critical need. This is a special form of relationship between spiritual seekers and beings; an essential one of reciprocal guidance and support for spiritual growth.

_02aWe find the beauty of anamchara evidenced throughout the history of Celtic spirituality, for example, in the scant information on the Druids, in the hagiographies of Irish saints,[10] and in the wealth of Irish mythological texts. Although much of the history of the anamchara is found in Christian sources, early Irish Christianity was, at least initially, informed more by its pagan roots than by the Christian tradition from continental Europe. Thankfully, many of these pagan influences and practices have persisted. We find the primary roots of anamchara in the practices of the Druids – the ancient pagan priests, natural philosophers, and spiritual guides of the Celtic tribes.[11] There is considerable evidence of the functions of the anamchara being carried out by the filid, the class of Irish poets often associated with the Druids and believed to have preserved druidic wisdom upon the coming of Christianity. The filid were not only poets as we would understand today, but also “an organized priestly class,” responsible for conveying matters of spirituality, prophecy, and poetry in the “language of the poets.” Their wisdom was taught to fellow filid and to the “uninitiated” layperson alike.[12] The filid were ranked according to the level of their training, the highest level being that of ollam, or “doctor,” who was said to be “great at explaining, that is, that he explains and resolves questions,”[13] The candidate filid were expected to learn the druidic teachings by heart, which became “more comprehensible to them as the master (ollam) explained and commented upon its terms.”[14] This teaching often took the form of a colloquy, in which teacher and student would engage in a conversation posing riddles to each other in a prescribed form of question and answer.[15] In their capacities as an organized spiritual and priestly class, the druids are thus the earliest historical indications of the anamchara.

_03A later source of inspiration for the anamchara is found in the early Christian monasticism of the desert fathers and mothers of Egypt, Syria, and Palestine.[16] The early Irish Christians drew on both of these sources and carried the anamchara tradition into the Christian era. As the Christian faith spread in Ireland, the anamchara function came to be filled by nuns and monks who served, in a large degree, the transpersonal function of providing a safe container for spiritual emergence. This is clearly evidenced in the hagiography of St. Ita, which tells of her great compassion that created a container for the confession and spiritual emergence of a convicted murderer.[17] To a lesser degree the nuns and monks, as anamchara, also filled the functions of grounding and experiential nurturing of spiritual emergence, but in a different tone than of the contemporary practices we would expect today. Instead of clinical or transpersonal therapy, the anamchara typically would strongly encourage prayer or penance as grounding, and experiential practices concerned with spiritual relationships to others.[18]

Spiritual relationships were of course well known to the anamchara, and the compassionate and deep friendship that existed between St. Patrick and St. Brigid is often recounted. It is believed that they “were of one heart and one mind.”[19] This spiritual intimacy indicates the positive effect of dissolving the distinction between facilitator and emergent, which is also urged by the archetypal psychologist James Hillman in his theories of psychopathology.[20] This mutuality is also encouraged of the anamchara in the Tripartite St. Gall Penitential, which implores the anamchara to be compassionate and non-judgmental as both parties are considered to be one body.[21] This mutuality of respectful attentiveness given to the psyche[22] is another important aspect of the anamchara creating of a safe container for the emergence of the hero’s journey, within which the person experiences a very powerful transformative experience of all relationships, human and non-human alike. Stanislav Grof explains that individuals who engage the process of emergence gain an understanding of the unity of all life, and this knowledge leads to a shift of consciousness and behavior from one centered on self, to one more encompassing. This results in a change in the attitudes toward the earth, and heralds the beginnings of a new relationship with nature; a new ecological consciousness of being a part of unity and not irreverent exploitation.[23]

This unity with nature was deeply understood by the Celts, and while the presence of an anamchara often is in the form of a human, this is not always the case. In the Irish philosopher John Moriarty’s retelling of the myth The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel for example, the anamchara takes the form of a wounded crow. The hero, Conaire Mór, takes the hurt of the crow on himself and is instructed through visions and shamanic journeys and dismemberment, to “walk naked to Tara” and be declared king.[24] This walk is a metaphor for the hero’s journey of spiritual emergence, with the hill of Tara symbolizing sovereignty, or wholeness of soul.[25] The anamchara also takes the form of nature in The Voyage of Bran, in which the warrior Bran was called into and accompanied through a spiritual emergence of enormous transformation by music emanating from a silver branch.[26] The initial call led to a journey with the God of the sea, Manaan Mac Lir, in which Bran acquired what Moriarty called “silver branch perception of things in their silver branch being,”[27] representing emergence into a new level of spiritual and ecological consciousness of unity.

In nurturing and accompanying the hero’s journey, the anamchara is first and foremost, as the term implies, a friend to the soul, not necessarily to the ego. My experience with my own anamchara has confirmed this. This is an enormous responsibility, for they must hear the “committee” in my head, but not allow themselves to be distracted by it. They must attempt to hear the voice of my soul, even when I can’t. And more – they must be able to speak to me of what they heard, regardless of my reaction. I remember the first time one of my (what I now know him to be) anamchara told me a hard truth that I did not want to hear; a truth that I had been running from for quite a long time. Even though he had told me gently, and had tempered it with love, I was furious…the nerve of him! Just who does he think he is anyway? After the anger died down though, I was able to look objectively at what he had told me and I heard the small voice within that told me he had spoken the truth. Only then was I able to begin the journey of transformation of that aspect of myself. My respect and love for him grew immeasurably. I thanked him and apologized for my anger. He just smiled and shrugged and told me that when the time came, I must do the same for someone else. This experience taught me many things, among them is that I don’t have to always love or even like an anamchara, but that for me to be an anamchara, I still have to love the other regardless of what their feelings are for me.

Sometimes words simply fall short, so I think another very important quality of an anamchara is silence. At times, no one can tell me what I need to hear. They can speak the words, but sometimes my ears are shut way too tight to hear. Some lessons I need to learn on my own, even if that means going through a dark night of the soul where no one can accompany me. An anamchara can practice sacred silence even when I am going through a painful time…pain truly is often the touchstone of growth. The sacred silence of the anamchara does not mean absence, but sometimes I just have to sort things out on my own. As we engage the hero’s journey, we slowly cut away such layers of self that are not truly self. In doing this, we return to right relations with our Self, with others, and with the sacred. Out of this painful process of pruning grows a natural and organic authenticity – a being true to ourselves that allows us to engage the world in a more meaningful way. This is a difficult process, with many obstacles, and anamchara guide us through these difficult times by being a mirror of our soul and a “safe harbor” of unconditional love. They see through our fronts, and allow us to discern if our motives are ego driven or soul driven. In the resulting transformation and growth from right relations to authenticity, our anamchara are soul-friends through us to society, for each of us that develop authenticity is good for the entire world.

By having and being an anamchara, we become a hollow bone allowing authenticity to come ashore to ourselves, both as individuals and as a species. I believe that it is our sacred task to be anamchara, first to ourselves, then to another, and ultimately to all beings. Whether human, animal, or nature, whether Christian or pagan, the anamchara provides safety, guidance, and mentoring for spiritual emergence. The beneficial results of spiritual emergence are experienced on an individual level, but considering the transformative power of the experience and how the emergent begins to approach life, others, and the earth in a more whole and reverent way, we can begin to see how the individual emergence can be a part of a societal one.[28] Considering the magnitude of this event in the human spiritual life, it becomes clear just how important the functions of the anamchara are within the framework of our awakening contemporary society.


[1] Sellner, Edward Cletus. The Celtic Soul Friend: a Trusted Guide for Today. Notre Dame, IN:  Ave Maria, 2002. Print. p. 181

[2] Campbell, Joseph, and Bill D. Moyers. The Power of Myth. Ed. Betty S. Flowers. New York: Anchor, 1991. Print. p.49

[3] Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Mythos : Princeton/Bollingen Series in World Mythology, Vol. 17). Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1990. Print. pp. 3, 30

[4] Cortright, Brant. Psychotherapy and Spirit: Theory and Practice in Transpersonal Psychotherapy. Albany: State University of New York, 1997. Print. pp. 156 – 159

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid. pp. 173-177

[8] Grof, Stanislav, and Christina Grof. “Spiritual Emergence and the Global Crisis.” Spiritual Emergency: When Personal Transformation Becomes a Crisis. Los Angeles: Tarcher, 1989. Print. P. 235

[9] Sellner, Edward Cletus. The Celtic Soul Friend: a Trusted Guide for Today. Notre Dame, IN:  Ave Maria, 2002. Print. p. 181

[10] Ibid. p. 195

[11] Ibid. p. 23

[12] Guyonvarc’h, Christian J. The Making of a Druid: Hidden Teachings from The Colloquy of Two Sages. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2002. Print. pp. 9-21

[13] Ibid. p. 121

[14] Ibid. p. 9

[15] Ibid. p. 19

[16] Ibid

[17] Sellner, Edward Cletus. The Celtic Soul Friend: a Trusted Guide for Today. Notre Dame, IN:  Ave Maria, 2002. Print. p. 203-204

[18] Sellner, Edward Cletus. The Celtic Soul Friend: a Trusted Guide for Today. Notre Dame, IN:  Ave Maria, 2002. Print. pp. 198; 207

[19] Ibid. p.205

[20] Hillman, James. Re-visioning Psychology. New York: HarperPerennial, 1992. Print. pp. 77-78

[21] Sellner, Edward Cletus. The Celtic Soul Friend: a Trusted Guide for Today. Notre Dame, IN:  Ave Maria, 2002. Print. p. 192

[22] Ibid. p, 184

[23] Grof, Stanislav, and Christina Grof. “Spiritual Emergence and the Global Crisis.” Spiritual Emergency: When Personal Transformation Becomes a Crisis. Los Angeles: Tarcher, 1989. Print. P. 235

[24] Moriarty, John. Invoking Ireland = Ailiu Iath N-hErend. Dublin, Ireland: Lilliput, 2006. Print. p. 57

[25] Jung, C. G., and Anthony Storr. The Essential Jung: Selected Writings. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1983. Print. p. 234

[26] Moriarty, John. Invoking Ireland = Ailiu Iath N-hErend. Dublin, Ireland: Lilliput, 2006. Print. pp. 135-136

[27] Ibid. p.140

[28] Ibid.