Our Soul Friends

Sermon June 13, 2021

                               Our Soul Friends

          It is such a gift to see so many of you in person this morning…and to know others are with us from a distance as well.  To see your shining eyes, to be together in prayer in this sacred space is a real joy.  We have formed special relationships with one another over the years, and I imagine that many of you have done your best to keep in touch with a few special friends from our church over this time.  I know that so many of us have been in touch with old friends during this past year, friends we may not have spoken to in quite a long time.  It has been a great opportunity to pause and reflect on the people who have been a part of our journeys, some who may be lifelong friends or others, who shared some part of our journey.  In John’s Gospel, we hear Jesus telling his friends, “I do not call you servants any longer, but I have called you friends.”  I have called you friends; that was a truly significant moment for these followers of Jesus, because friendship implies mutuality; it implies a level of trust and love that is very deep.  I have called you friends.  Let us pray, O Holy One who is near to us at each moment of our days, fill our hearts with joy and hope this special morning.  Open us to new life and to new possibilities as we seek to deepen our friendship with you and with others in our lives.  For all that is, we give you thanks.  Amen.

It’s nearly impossible to grasp that two Easters have passed since we have been together at this sacred place…and so a quick story,  “It was Palm Sunday but because of a sore throat, 5-year-old Annie stayed home from church with her mother. When the rest of the family returned home, they were carrying palm fronds. Annie asked them what they were for.  “People held them over Jesus’ head as he rode by on a colt,” her father explained.  “Wouldn’t you know it,” Annie fussed, “the one Sunday I’m sick and Jesus shows up and offers pony rides!”

          Many years ago, I was living in the Boston area and needed to find a new place to live.  I was really excited to move to this triple decker home which I thought would be a great opportunity to connect with others who had done service work after college and build a sense of community.  Well, when I moved in, I was paired in an apartment with one particular young woman, and it soon became very clear that this was not going to be a healthy living arrangement for me.  I will spare you the details, but I had to get out of there and fast.  I remember picking up the phone and calling three very close friends of mine and that following Saturday, they showed up with a truck and helped me move out of there asap.  Thankfully, an old friend from high school who lived nearby had an opening as her roommate had moved back to Ireland.  I was never more grateful to get out of a place and my dear friend Janice and I turned out to be great roommates and really got along so well. I never felt more grateful.

I am happy to say that I am still great friends with the folks I called at the time to help me move and I am still close friends with the person I moved in with.  One of the great gifts of my life is that I have an incredible circle of friends, including a select few  who I know would do anything for me, if I asked. 

Often, young children are taught from an early age that Jesus is their friend.  I think that concept may be hard for them to grasp in the abstract; they understand friendship in simple ways, but not being able to actually see the person of Jesus is probably a bit of a challenge.  I think we all know that deep and true friendship is something that develops over time. As much as it is great to have friends to spend time with or play with as we do in childhood, we come to value the real value of our friends when times are hard.

          I’m not sure exactly how friendship was viewed in the time of Jesus, but we can imagine that the closest followers of Jesus, the 12 Apostles as well as a few trusted others in that group, became very close as they traveled with him.   And Jesus in the passages in John, known as the farewell discourses, says many things to his friends, but these words “I have called you friends” were perhaps among those that they would remember over time.  What an honor, what a relationship.  The fact that Jesus makes a point to tell them that he considers them  friends is central to this passage. “I have called you friends.” He is letting them know that the relationships that they have shared are deeply personal and heartfelt. 

          Even as adults, the concept that we have a friend in Jesus may at times feel very distant, or perhaps you have been blessed with feeling that deeper sense of connection with God throughout your life. I hope so; like any friendship, it takes time, it takes showing up and trusting, it takes an openness of heart and spirit.  We may discover that we most need God’s grace when we are in pain or suffering or filled with worry for those we love. 

“Teresa of Avila, a great saint and mystic of the church once shared this story about a time when she was traveling around Spain, trying to mediate disputes of different Carmelite monasteries. One day her horse threw her off into a ditch.  She found herself by the side of the road, sore and dirty. She is reported to have said, “God, if this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few of them.”

It is normal, in the face of difficulties, ditches and disasters to feel impatience, exasperation, even despair and anger in our lives and with God. But this does not have to be an obstacle to a deeper relationship with God; it might even be a sign that we feel free enough to relate to God as one would to a good friend.  A deep and abiding friendship with the One who loves us fully and unconditionally can bring peace and hope, real liberation and promise to our days. It doesn’t mean we won’t have hard days, but it can remind us that we are never alone.

In the Celtic tradition, there is a beautiful understanding of love and friendship. One of the beautiful ideas is the concept of soul-love; the old Gaelic term for this is anam cara. Anam is the Gaelic word for soul and cara is the word for friend. So anam cara in the Celtic world was the “soul friend.” In the early Celtic church, a person who acted as a teacher, companion, or spiritual guide was called an anam cara. It originally referred to someone to whom you confessed, revealing the hidden intimacies of your life. In John ODonohue’s book titled Anam Cara, he writes, “With the anam cara you could share your inner-most self, your mind and your heart. This friendship was an act of recognition and belonging. When you had an anam cara, your friendship cut across all barriers. You were joined in an ancient and eternal way with the “friend of your soul.” The Celtic understanding did not set limitations of space or time on the soul. There is no cage for the soul. The soul is a divine light that flows into you and into your Other. This art of belonging awakened and fostered a deep and special companionship.

The kind of friendship one discovers through an anam cara, O’Donohue explains, is a very special form of love, something transcendent: “In this love, you are understood as you are without mask or pretension. The superficial and functional lies and half-truths of social acquaintance fall away, you can be as you really are. Love allows understanding to dawn, and understanding is precious. Where you are understood, you are at home. Understanding nourishes belonging. When you really feel understood, you feel free to release yourself into the trust and shelter of the other person’s soul… This art of love discloses the special and sacred identity of the other person. Love is the only light that can truly read the secret signature of the other person’s individuality and soul.  According to O’Donohue, being a true soul friend requires intentional presence — it asks that we show up with absolute integrity and openness.” 

And so this morning, an invitation awaits us all.  We are invited to deepen our friendships.  After this very long and difficult chapter in our lives, each of us is invited to reach out to our dearest friends and to spend time nurturing that special bond.  And, most importantly, we are invited this very day to nurture the special friendship that God awaits with us.  God is truly our anam cara who knows us in the depths of our souls and longs to know us deeply and intimately. The one you love, your anam cara, your soul friend, is the truest mirror to reflect your soul.  As Aristotle once wrote, “A friend is a loved one who awakens your life in order to free the wild possibilities within you.”  What wild possibilities need to be awakened in your soul, my friends? 


Anam Cara by John O’Donohue