One of my favorite films is 84 Charing Cross Road, the story of the twenty year correspondence of an American woman and a British bookseller. Completely chaste, a type of love emerges over books, shared events, and letters. Although the two correspondents never meet, there is intimacy about their relationship that exceeds that of many who live side by side and under the same roof.
Antoine Saint-Exupery gives one definition of love as looking together in the same direction. This could equally apply to sharing the same books or corresponding day after day with a beloved friend. Because of my love of 84 Charing Cross Road, I was eager to read Love and Salt: A Spiritual Friendship Shared in Letters (written by Amy Andrews and Jessica Mesman Griffith). I was not disappointed as I eavesdropped on their evolving friendship — dare we call it love — shared in letters about faith and life.
Now, letter writing is a lost art, at least in terms of pen and page.I seldom write letters anymore because I can barely make out my own writing and I’ve been living with it for six decades! Still, for some of us, e-mail spans the miles, joins spirits, and creates a bond over shared interests. Even Facebook companions can grow together as they laugh at postings or pray in crisis.
Amy and Jessica had, as the dustcover indicates, a deep spiritual friendship. They were, as the Celts say, anam cara or friends of the soul. They didn’t need physical proximity to be intimate; love is non-local, immediate, and, as the apostle Paul proclaims, never ending. And as the title of the book indicates, dear spiritual friendships add zest and seasoning to life, making ordinary days something to savor.
Both pagan and Christian Celts would have appreciated the spiritual friendship of Amy and Jessica. According to Celtic spiritual teacher St. Brigid, “a person without an anam cara is like body without a soul.” The Celts believed that spiritual relationships awaken us to our fullest potential. Originating from the image of “one who shares a cell,” the Celtic vision of the anam cara evolved to become “one who shares a soul.” Our anam cara is our soul friend, the person who shows us the mirror of God in our own lives. With such a person, we can be our whole selves without fear of judgment or reprisal. Our very finitude and imperfection are transfigured and become beautiful in the light of anam cara.
In my book, The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age (Parson’s Post), I describe the uniqueness of soul friendships: “Passionate without possessiveness, anam cara frees us to be fully ourselves in a holy relationship, which serves as the catalyst for the healing and transformation of all our relationships. In its greenness and fecundity, delight and aliveness, anam cara restores our spirits and gives us new life.”
Spiritual friendship is neither narcissistic nor exclusive. In fact, it expands the spiritual stature of each member to bring healing and joy to the world. The “other” in a spiritual friendship not only mirrors us but reflects God’s love for the world. Again from The Center is Everywhere, “In seeing the Eternal Beauty in another, our eyes are opened to beauty in all things. From that personal vision of beauty, we are inspired to be seek shalom and wholeness in our relationships and corporate lives.”
Such relationships cannot be forced, but come as an unexpected grace. Perhaps, we can open ourselves to the gentle providence, working beneath the surface of life, and thus discover a soul-friend. But, that first spark comes from light within and beyond us. We can only treat anam cara relationships as sacred and tend them as we would a shrine or garden. There is often Eros in such relationships, and the fire of love that emerges is typically intended to warm and illumine, and not burn. Anam cara requires the same integrity, intentionality, and fidelity as marital partnerships if it is to fulfill its vocation to grow our spirits.
I rejoice at spiritual friendships that take us beyond the superficial and awake us to the presence of God in ourselves and others. Thanks be to God for holy friendships and the character to honor them with love and integrity!