“Human presence is a creative and turbulent sacrament, a visible sign of invisible grace”. John O'Donohue

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Anam Cara


“Human presence is a creative and turbulent sacrament, a visible sign of invisible grace”.

John O’Donohue’s “Anam Cara” has been a constant companion over these few years that I have been opening up to the Celtic Path.  For me, he speaks from the heart of truth, from a genuine place of spiritual awareness and expression that cuts across boundaries of faith and denomination.  In it he reveals the heart and essence of presence, solitude, relationship, friendship, embodiment, work, ageing and dying, and of course, of the Anam Cara – literally “soul friend”. 

The book’s various chapters examine a number of  interconnecting themes woven around an exploration of the journey of the human soul through life’s stages, the narrative weaving and flowing  its way unbroken through these subjects. He has a beautiful way with words, and manages to explore themes in depth without ever seeming to repeat himself. It is possible to simply dip into this book and find something short, but so full of depth and meaning that it is enough to read only that one paragraph and allow its essence to distill in the heart and mind over a number of days.

What I love especially, because I relate to it so strongly myself, is his sharing of poetry - his own, and that of others. His prose flows poetically too and perhaps this is why you feel that you are reading something sacred. It seems, to me, to flow from Source, for the poetry is flawless and uncluttered. This, of course, is the poet’s craft.  I have shared many of his poems with friends, in my healing work and in ritual and ceremony. Because poetry is a distillation of thoughts and words, it strikes so close to the heart of feeling that it can be an incredibly powerful medium for contemplation and indeed for transformation.  He speaks of this power himself when he writes about the power of language in the Celtic world.

“Language itself had power to cause events and to divine events yet to happen...”

The concept of the Anam Cara is, of course, the core essence of the book. And in writing, he offers both himself and the divine as an Anam Cara to the reader. He is able to see right to the heart of the human experience of longing for this understanding and acceptance, and provides it in the understanding. The truth and openness of this is almost seductive, because it offers “knowing”.

 “In Everyone’s life, there is great need for an Anam Cara, a soul friend. In this love, you are understood as you are without mask or pretension...”

What was most revealing to me when I first read it, was that I felt both the longing for the Anam Cara AND the fulfilment of it in the same place. I would imagine most people have a sense of intimacy as suggesting physical, perhaps even sexual intimacy and yet there is incredible intimacy to be found in other expressions of relationship. I have found this in my own healing work and in particular in my work with people living, and dying, with cancer. In those relationships I experience profound moments of love and intimacy that were completely about that context.  In Anam Cara we are invited to view intimacy as sacred. Indeed, the most intimate relationship we can have is with the divine.  In The Celtic mind this is connected with the divine in and around us, in nature – the landscape, plants, trees and animals - and in each other.

Various repeated themes stand out for me. The first may seem rather trivial, but it is his use of the word “clay” to describe both the Earth and the matter – including our own bodies – which arises from it.  To me, this is potent symbolism. There is a deep sense of being OF the Earth, certainly not distinct from it and not just a product of it. And this is seen as sacred.
He offers us a view of the human body as a sacred expression of the divine. Not simply a vessel. And the experience of being embodied and having the physical experiences that arise from the senses – including pleasure and passion and sensuality- are all natural expressions of being in this embodied state. They are, therefore, all expressions of the sacred.
“Your senses link you intimately with the divine around you.”

The idea of “Presence” is also something that has profound meaning for me and is a concept that I refer to regularly in my work. It is something that J O’D describes as “the soul texture of a person”, and he comes back to this theme throughout the book. It offers a view of being that is about how we engage with others, with ourselves and with the divine. To be in the presence of your own soul is to be in the presence of the divine. It is in Solitude, he suggests, that we are really able to be with this your own presence.

“The eternal is at home- within you”

I am reminded in this sentiment, of the words attributed to St. Francis of Assisi
” What we are looking for, is what is looking”

Here, in one of my favourite poems (really, they are all favourites) he speaks of presence in solitude.

A blessing of solitude

May you recognize in your life, the presence, power and light of your soul.
May you realize that you are never alone,
that your soul in its brightness and belonging connects you intimately with the rhythm of the universe. 

May you have respect for your own individuality and difference.
May you realize that the shape of your soul is unique,
that you have a special destiny here,
That behind the facade of your life there is something beautiful, good, and eternal happening. 

May you learn to see yourself with the same delight, pride, and expectation with which God sees you in every moment.


“May you learn to see yourself with the same delight, pride, and expectation with which God sees you in every moment.”
I am touched and moved by the intimacy with which he describes the love of God as a father in this poem. Anam Cara encourages this intimacy with the divine as being in genuine relationship with and indeed, not separate from, the individual soul.

In this I see the parallels between this Celtic view of the spiritual existence and my studies in Yoga, especially in Advaita Vedanta – where the individual soul or “Atman” and Universal Consciousness “Brahman” (indeed the Universe itself) are see as inseparable.  I felt powerfully drawn to these teachings when I first received them but over the years I began to feel  that my yogic path wasn’t an entirely authentic expression my own heritage or DNA. There is deep truth in it which resonates clearly, but what I found in Anam Cara , almost at the same time as my awareness of the Celtic Path was developing, was an expression of what I was beginning to understand for myself. Something of the ancient links between these two cultures resonated with me,  to the extent that some years ago, I developed – intuitively and untutored - a “Celtic Yoga”.

There is a Yogic and Buddhist saying “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear...” and it is certainly true for me, of John O’Donohue and “Anam Cara”. At the time when I was beginning to unravel some of these truths for myself, the book made its way to me and was formative in opening up this path of enquiry, spiritual expression and above all, my understanding of the power and possibility of divine love.   

In this video, John describes the Anam Cara. It is beautiful. 

“...Love is the most real and creative form of human presence. Love is the threshold where divine and human presence ebb and flow into each other...” 

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