by Hugh Farquhar
Among the Readings for next Sunday in the Lectionary is Acts 8:26-40.
So, in this story, an Ethiopian Official of the court of Queen Candace was returning in his chariot from a visit to Jerusalem., and he was reading words by the prophet Isaiah. He met Jesus’ disciple, Philip, on the road and engaged in conversation with him. It was no trivial chat but rather what we might call “soul talk.” Philip said, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I unless someone guides me?” He invited Philip to get in and sit beside him (not in front of him, beside him!) At the Ethiopian’s invitation, they embarked on a sacred dialogue.
I had never heard the words “anam cara” until I read a book years ago entitled “Mentoring: The Ministry of Spiritual Friendship” by Edward Sellner.
Anam cara, translated from Irish, means “soul friend.” While the existence of such relationships can be traced back to the origins of Christianity, Sellner claims that “soul friendships (relationships of self-disclosure and guidance) became refined in the Emerald Isle.”
He outlines seven characteristics of a contemporary soul friend. Maturity, born of working through one’s own questions and suffering in the context of faith. Compassion, the capacity to understand without judging and to feel where the other person is coming from. Genuine respect for others, their stories and their times of anguish and joy. The ability to keep things confidential. Commitment to reflection on the meaning of one’s own life experiences and one’s own relationship with God. The sensitivity to discern the movement of the Spirit in the heart and be comfortable discussing deep and spiritual matters.
No one person will embody all these qualities in full measure, but they provide some criteria we can use to identify potential soul friends and to guide us on our way to becoming a soul friend. For we play the parts of both the Ethiopian and Philip in our lives.
There are times when we need to reach out and find an anam cara, when we can’t get the gist of God’s dealings with us on our own. So, we invite someone to come and sit beside us. This is not someone who takes control of our journey, tells us what to do, or declares God’s will for us. This is someone who listens well and whose dialogue with us helps us to do the work of becoming and to respond appropriately to the Spirit’s leading in our lives.
Henri Nouwen described such a person as “one who offers that space where we can listen to our own inner voice and find our own personal way of being human.” We are wise to recognize and welcome any such person into our lives.
But sometimes we are called upon to play the role of Philip – to be the soul friend. Philip sensed God saying to him, “Get up and go toward the south . . . so he got up and went.” His journey took him to a place where his life intersected with the life of the Ethiopian and he was invited to become his anam cara.
There are times when our lives intersect with others’ lives and people invite us to sit beside them on the way. We may feel uncomfortable. We may feel inadequate. We may feel unqualified. We may need to make an honest response. But we need to recognize that, regardless of how we feel about it, we are being invited into an experience of spiritual kinship. I presuppose that being an anam cara is a form of love to which all of us as Christians are called in one way or another.
This is a beautiful verse from the Apocryphal Book of Ecclesiasticus: “Happy is the person who finds a friend. one who speaks with attentive ears.” It could equally be said, “Happy is the person who IS a friend, one who listens with attentive lips.” Both are happy because they know that the soul friend relationship is a precious thing.
Hugh Farquhar is Minister Emeritus at St. Paul’s United Church, Riverview, Nb. And teaches Biblical Studies at Atlantic School of Theology, Halifax, NS.