This month we're reading Anam Ċara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom by John O'Donohue. For me this book is like a deep cleansing breath. O’Donohue’s lyrical prose is something to be sensed and felt as much as understood—after all, he was also a poet. There is a lovely discussion of these themes with the author at On Being with Krista Tippett which was my first introduction to O'Donohue's work.
Anam ċara is a Gaelic phrase that literally means “soul-friend.” In the Celtic church, a soul friend was a teacher, spiritual guide, and a friend with whom no mask or facade was needed. O'Donohue speaks of the deep and accepting love of the anam ċara:
"In this love, you are understood as you are without mask or pretension... [and] you can be as you really are…. Love is the only light that can truly read the secret signature of the other person's individuality and soul... Love alone is literate in the world of origin...”
This work is not limited to a simple discussion of why we need friendship. O'Donohue's focus seems to rest on a return to the "origin" he speaks of above. The soul-friend is a path toward the embodiment of our truest self—not perfection, but rather an ever-transfiguring conversation with the Divine.
Rather than charting the history of Celtic spirituality, O'Donohue embodies these Celtic sensibilities in his rhetoric, taking us on a journey through our inner landscape as seen through a Celtic lens. So sometimes when I find myself a little lost in O'Donohue's exploration, I find it helpful to simply let the words wash over me like poetry and see what emerges. Fortunately, he will often return to the essential themes of his work.
On several occasions in the book he notes the Celt's love of the circle, and this circular pattern is present throughout the six chapters of this reflective work. As O'Donohue explores different facets of life, from friendship and work to solitude and aging, he returns to explore his central themes anew. In his understanding of Celtic spirituality, humans are beautiful creations intrinsically connected to the Divine. Though mortal failings may dull this primary connection through fear, shame, or maladaptive habits, we are never far from this essential ground of being.
O'Donohue explores how in different settings of our lives we can rediscover our truest self where we know we are loved and accepted. There, even our negativity and our less-than-skillful habits can be transfigured, not by hard work and determination, but through attention to the rhythms of our soul.
If you choose to read along with us, I'd invite you to note some of these recurring themes throughout the book:
There are many other themes that O'Donohue explores. What other themes do you find in your reading?
Whether or not you have time to finish (or even start) the book, you're welcome to join us for a Zoom discussion on March 29. We'll talk about what resonated with us, what we disagreed with, and what we can carry on from this experience. I hope you'll join us as we read together.
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