24 November 2023 | BY ANDJELKA JANKOVIC | Life
It was love that broke my sorrow, like a day breaks a long light
If you know me, you know I talk about one person a lot.
He is a constant companion in my life and the reason I came to explore the wilds of Ireland.
That person is John O’Donohue.
I was introduced to the late Irish philosopher and poet when I working for a man, and later would have a life-altering moment of ending a ten-year relationship pattern of mine (should have taken the alarming sign that he eats his nachos poured WITH MILK), told me about the book Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom. I promptly tried to find it all over Japan and then I found a copy in my favourite secondhand bookstore in Fremantle when I arrived home.
Anam cara is an old Irish Gaelic term, ‘anam’ means soul and ‘cara’ means friend. When I started reading John’s eloquent words on the topic of friendship and spiritual wisdom, I was immediately gripped. How could this person I have never met know me so well?
I highly recommend listening to John O’Donohue’s conversation on The Inner Landscape of Beauty recorded with Krista Tippett of On Being just before his untimely death in 2008. I have listened to it upwards of ten times. His stirring words and magical Clare lilt never fail to move me. This is also a rare recorded video interview with him. You will hear the brilliance of John O’Donohue for yourself.
John O’Donohue was also an ex-Catholic priest, a scholar of 14th-century mystic Meister Eckhart (and fluent in German) as well as best friends with David Whyte. We all know how I feel about David. John sadly passed away at age 52, and his loss is still felt by many, as I’ve experienced travelling around Ireland.
I’ve always loved Irish culture — starting with the portal of music in my twenties. I did my final Honours degree essay on a Damien Rice song, and Glen Hansard saved me at a low point in my life living in New York (have you seen Once?). I only realised Van Morrison was alive in 2020 when I Googled his grave. Now, I would say a favourite place in the world of mine is a cozy Irish pub during a traditional music session.
I have been on a pilgrimage to moss-covered forests and holy sites in my favourite poetry to John O’Donohue’s beloved Burren in County Clare in the west of Ireland. I came here primarily to get closer to his words.
So, what is an anam cara?
I have been living with this question for some time now.
A soul friend is a frequency match.
A solid friend.
You can tell them anything. Even the things you don’t want to tell yourself.
They know your sorrows and elations and insecurities and hold them tenderly.
The person you get excited with, cry to and belly laugh about ridiculous things (I’m talking bellows and howls).
A soul friend that makes you feel safe and seen in the world.
They are also a whole lot of fun. Joy is important.
The hallmark of an anam cara is someone you can be fully yourself around — and at different times in your life, this may be different people. The common thread is that a soul friend is someone who has weathered life with you and is still there, either in your heart or physically, or both.
It is in the shelter of each other that the people live. — Irish proverb
A soul friend either is or isn’t, but there can be a little bit of a grey area in my experience. Someone can be an ‘anam cara’ for a period of your life, but my understanding is that a soul friend is timeless (like your soul).
I am blessed to have several friends that I call my anam cara.
I have also seen that people I have previously thought to be an anam cara, are not. We are still friends — but not soul friends, and the deciding factor (which I believe to be very important) is that an anam cara is someone that you can:
Speak without censoring yourself and having no fear of saying the wrong thing.
This has been a pivotal realisation in my life.
I have one such anam cara, my precious friend Tiff who speaks my soul’s language. I feel utter ease in my bones when I am around her and we truly delight in each other’s lives. A sanctuary for my spirit and kindness like you wouldn’t believe. She is an absolute treasure and I would gift a “Tiff” to everyone I know if I could.
In friendship, John O’Donohue writes: “With the anam cara, you could share your innermost self, your mind and your heart. You are joined in an ancient and eternal way. This belonging awakened and fostered a deep and special companionship. You are understood as you are without mask or pretension. The superficial and functional lies and half-truths of acquaintance fall away. You can be as you really are.”
The superficial and functional lies and half-truths of acquaintance fall away.
Wow, what a line.
Put simply, an anam cara is your soul’s friend and someone that you feel truly yourself around.
When you really feel understood, you feel free. — John O’Donohue
Can you think of such a person in your own life?
There’s a stanza I love in a Ben Howard song which hits this point perfectly:
I saw a friend of mine the other day
And he told me that my eyes were gleaming
I said I had been away
And he knew, oh, he knew the depths I was meaning
It felt so good to see his face
The comfort invested in my soul
To feel the warmth of his smile
When he said ‘I’m happy to have you home’
That friend that just knows you.
That nourishes your soul.
That fills your cup with belonging.
That person you want to tell your exciting news and crushing disappointments to first.
I often ask myself:
Where would we actually be without our friends?
Who would we be?
When I was broken, my friends put me back together.
Loyal and devoted friends, who will be with you through the highs and the lows. And there will be plenty.
The thing about friendship is that you don’t have to be friends with anyone.
Really, you don’t. I know no one likes talking about it, but a lot of friendships do have their season or end for a reason. It is such a privilege to have true friends in this lifetime, don’t waste yours with people who are not.
Sometimes I might mentally reply to their message but don’t actually get back to them, or forget their birthday by a day, or cancel dinner plans because I really just need a good rest, and my friends will get it. My poor friends also had to listen to me saying: “I’m tired, I’m exhausted” almost continuously for 8 months before I left for Ireland. I was working all the time and bored of hearing myself. (Side note: know when you are becoming a bore).
I always think about David Whyte’s sage advice that: ‘All friendships of any length are based on continued, mutual forgiveness. Without tolerance and mercy, all friendships die.’ This is a valuable lesson I keep learning. Whether you are aware of it or not, one person is usually offering up emotional labour at different points in the friendship, like tending to your house plants, and then it is returned.
Through the lens of anam cara friendships, anything can be forgivable if you actually want to stay friends with this person. In non-anam cara friends, low-level indiscretions or mistakes are a way for people to get out of friendships the first chance they get. This has happened to me and friends of mine, and sometimes whatever was between you has run its course.
Whatever comes, the great sacrament of life will remain faithful to us, blessing us always with visible signs of invisible grace. We merely need to trust. — John O’Donohue
Anam cara is defined by the ease and exuberance with which you relate to each other.
An anam cara always bounces back.
Because an anam cara is beyond friendship, it’s soul recognition.