(Quote by Boris Pasternak)
On the day I met my friends Kate and Victoria, I found myself (somewhat tipsily) telling them that I felt certain we were destined to be friends. They were very kind to me, a strange woman squatting next to them in a bike shop parking lot, pledging friendship after a hot afternoon of alley cat bike racing. They were kind, but I’m also pretty sure they thought I was just drunk.
In the intervening year, as our friendships have grown, we have laughed about that moment. But the truth is, I’m so glad I spoke aloud what my heart had whispered to me.
Writer and philosopher John O’Donohue writes about the “anam cara” or “soul friend”, a person “to whom you could reveal the hidden intimacies of your life.” He also writes that many of us have such friends but we are largely unaware – our lack of awareness and presence in our own lives cloaks that friend’s presence. He says, “Sadly, it is often loss that awakens presence, by then it is too late. It is wise to pray for the grace of recognition.”
It is wise to pray for the grace of recognition.
You would think we would easily recognize our “soul friends”: those who are most emotionally available to us, those whose friendship calls forth what is best in and for us. How could we not recognize those friends who would as willingly walk beside us through difficulty as well as through sunshine?
O’Donohue has an answer for that question, as well. He writes, “Though the human body is born complete in one moment, the birth of the human heart is an ongoing process. It is being birthed in every experience of your life.” In other words, we learn these lessons and skills slowly, through experiencing those moments of grace, as well as through experiencing their opposite. Like a friend who recently lamented to me, “Why do I always chase after the cool people, when I should be focusing on the ones who are always there for me?”, we get distracted by the shiny and showy. We forget, or fear, to delve beneath the surface, to test the depth of intimacy that is possible with these individuals.
In friendships where we plumb those depths, we learn a great deal both about ourselves and about the other. Years ago, a friend confided her deepest life secret to me – I was stunned and humbled by her choice to share it with me. Afterwards, there was no longer any possibility of a surface friendship or acquaintance between us. Which isn’t to say we were no longer able to hurt one another or betray one another. Indeed, hurt and/or betrayal then became open territory for discussions and sharing, too.
I would take the injunction to “pray for the grace of recognition” one step further. It is wise to pray for the grace of recognition and the courage to speak it. For example, my dear friend called the other night just to tell me, “Whatever happens in life, I will always take care of you.” She said she told her husband she was going to call and say that, and he told her I already knew. Which I did. But the gift of having it declared aloud was precious and meaningful to me at a time of uncertainty in my own life. An “anam cara” knows when it is important to speak.
Recognizing and cultivating soul-friends may require us to invest our energies differently than casting a broader net of acquaintanceships does. It also opens our lives up in so many ways, as we experience the generative nature of intimacy. “Love begins,” says O’Donohue, “with paying attention to others, with an act of gracious self-forgetting. This is the condition in which we grow.” In my life, the intimacy with and support of my closest friends has freed me to take risks and to attempt creative work. They are the foundation that underpins my flights of discovery. As I hope I am for them.
Today’s post is a reflection on my reading of Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom by John O’Donohue.