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.
Now, Pelagius was a dude.
I came across a monk from Wales who was the first historically recorded writer in the Celtic world, as the Celts were an oral culture until the second century. They worshipped without temples in the wild, and saw forests and mountains as their “church”. Pelagius had quite a history so strap yourself in – this well-meaning monk was criticised for being stupid, excommunicated from the church for his teachings, had an imperial ban from the Roman empire (and then wrote under the pseudonym of his theological opponent!) AND THEN had an imperial edict put on him that banned anyone who followed his teachings from coming within one hundred miles of Rome and then anywhere in Italy, all for simply ‘preaching’ that — sacredness is our birthright, and that we cannot contain the sacred. In short, we are sacred because we are nature. The Church did not like this.
Pelagius is also the earliest recorded history I can find of the term ‘anamchara’, and back then it was seen as an advisor, someone you went to for guidance on spiritual matters. As my tea teacher, Wu De often says, “someone who has walked further along than you”.
John O’Donohue also picks up on this that in early Celtic church, the anam cara was a person who acted as a teacher, companion and spiritual guide. And so it was originally someone to whom you confessed to, revealing the hidden intimacies of your life.
It has evolved from a spiritual advisor to a soul friend with whom you share all of your ‘hidden intimacies’ as an equal. Fast forward to now, many things have come and gone (Flat lays. The poke button. Wonderwall covers) but friendship as a core human need has not.
I always think, ‘No matter what happens, we have friends.’
I have come to learn that not everyone has an anam cara.
This shocked me with a great sadness. Despite my vagabond ways, friendship is my anchor and how I travel through the world and weather the storms. I have known deep aloneness, but I feel my friends are always guarding me with their presence and love, even from afar.
Fully-fledged soul friends never let you down.
I arrived in Dublin recently feeling particularly melancholy because of a spectacular rejection I’d just experienced and my Irish anam cara Geraldine had booked us into a comedy show with her group of friends. Afterwards, we’re at a bar and someone somehow manifested a pint of ice cream and four spoons, and there we were talking over all the nitty gritty details so I could get it straight in my head how this person didn’t want to be with me all while there was a chorus of lightning-clear advice being offered that I needed to hear with hugs and lots of laughs. It was a much-needed salve to soothe a harsh sting. I would have gone crazy if I had to process it alone (there are only so many tarot spreads and Quora question threads you can do). Friends help in ways they don’t even know they are, and often it’s just by being there.
I felt it shelter to speak to you. — Emily Dickinson
Your anam cara can also be non-human.
Nan Shephard had a lifelong anam cara relationship with the Cairngorm Mountains that she walked every day. I visited them in Scotland for my birthday this year. In her book The Living Mountain, she speaks of this intimacy, “Often the mountain gives itself most completely when I have no destination,” she wrote, “but have gone out merely to be with the mountain as one visits a friend, with no intention but to be with him.”
I’ve experienced this kind of unexpected love that seizes you completely in Irish nature: for the hawthorn tree, the oak leaf, and gorse — a yellow shrub that people say is not meant to arrive until spring but I like to think is flowering in November just for me. My fondness for sheep does not wain and neither does my friendship with tea. For you, it could be a musician who speaks to your soul (hello Justin Vernon, I really have to write this man’s biography), a pet, or a poet. It could be a sibling or a grandparent.
I was reading in The Surrender Experiment that, “To be there when a person is soaring high is an easy relationship. To be there during hard times requires deep friendship.”
I know this to be true when recently I went through a truly awful 24 hours of my life and had to flee the Isle of Skye. I was still shaken for a few days after, and I could only think of speaking to one friend back in Australia in a different time zone. So I reached out, and the next minute, Dallas was calling, saying she sent her friend away who was having dinner at her house because she could tell I was distressed. I told her what happened and she cried with me. It really filled up my soul to be understood — and acknowledged for the harrowing experience that it was. She told me to go soak my feet in a bucket and make a grounding dinner of sweet potatoes and “chicken thighs, not breasts, as it’s better for your Vata”. To be heard, from the other side of the world, is a true gift of an anam cara. The next day I hiked Ben Nevis – the biggest mountain in the UK – feeling stronger and more capable knowing that there are always invisible but very present friends behind me.
You need those people on those days.
I once watched a little tugboat help a giant ship out to sea. When it was clear out of the harbour, it turned around and I proudly looked on. I love this concept. That’s what soul friends are. Tugging each other along.
Friendship is a form of love.
It is not said enough.
We may not always have a romantic partner in our lives, but we do have friends.
Someone you can have endless conversations with and never run out of topics.
Someone who gets your quirky obsession with baskets and sticks.
Someone who brings you an almond chai from your favourite cafe when you are sick just to sit outside your doorstep in the cold for hours so you can talk.
To believe in them. That is all we need. — Rainer Maria Rilke
John O’Donohue wrote of the sacrament of friendship as ‘a special space that you share in the same way with no one else’.
I remember living in New York in my mid-twenties and being so desperately lonely, longing for a friend. Oh, what I would have given to have a casual coffee with someone who knew me. I used to walk the streets of Manhattan inappropriately attired in a too-thin jacket that was doing nothing to block the wind chill and looking into restaurants and bars at friends chatting and laughing. It was a painful time, and the memory is still sore. I was making friends slowly – and I really can be friends with a tree – but New York didn’t have any and this absence of nature was also a part of the lack of friendship.
The opposite of this feeling is warmth — a great energy and vitality that an anam cara brings into your life. Friends are our evidence of being alive and our archive. And I had no historians of my life during this time. I did have books though, another form of companionship, and I read Patti Smith’s M Train on the actual M train.
For me to call you a ‘friend’ is a high honour.
It is one of my top values and permeates my life. The caring part of me gets free reign in friendship, and I will love ALL OF YOU. And it doesn’t feel weird or OTT like it does in romance when we can so easily trigger the other person’s attachment style and get nowhere fast. In friendship, my attachment style is 100% secure which is a huge achievement of my adulthood that I don’t think I’ve acknowledged until just now. As my friend Wil said, “You see the best in everyone” which is not as helpful as you would think for dating. But it is for my anam caras.
My friend Simon once told me after he had been through a hellish few months in a breakup, ‘You could not pay a friend enough to hold all your anger. A therapist, yes one hour. But your friend who stays up with you for 8 hours while you cycle through the same story again and again, and for free.’ His anam cara even cancelled his holiday after seeing him in his very low state, just to keep him company and help put him back together. A true friend is truly priceless.
How do you get this level of anam cara?
You must really let people know who you really are.
Intimacy invites intimacy.
I was once on a solo road trip in the south of Western Australia and came across a record store in a tiny town called Witchcliffe. I start chatting to the owner Paul about music, a guy with a ripper sense of humour and the best Manchester accent going around. Then I make a point to visit him every time I am down there. He gave me a Kelly Clarkson CD as a gift (she has a lot of hits, okay guys) and a few cassette tapes as the place I was staying at only had an old player. I bring him brownies and hypothetical music questions and we listen to records together.
It’s as simple as that. Show up. Act as a friend would and you might become one.
I honestly believe that you can be friends with anyone.
When you don’t want something from someone but their company, it’s really liberating. Then you can just be their friend.
It’s great to remind yourself you can and will make new friends, of all different generations and that is a wonderful thing to be excited for.
Friendship is the most underrated relationship in our lives. It remains the one relation not bound by law, blood, or money – but an unspoken agreement of love. — Hanya Yanagihara
I’m writing my first book at the moment, and I’ve been thinking that a love affair could get in the way, but a friend wouldn’t. See what I’m saying? A friend is a non-threat to your dreams, a romantic interest could be.
You could meet your anam cara tomorrow, or you could have grown up with them.
I have friendships longer than most people have been married.
My longest is 28 years with Kylie. Only she knows about the dramatic video we made dressed as Russian oligarchs and the perils of trying to stuff a full-size piece of luggage in the overhead of a busy commuter train in Italy. She’s also the person who was there when I received the most confusing text message at the tail end of what was becoming an emotionally abusive relationship (in hindsight, I didn’t realise it at the time), and her presence is like a sheltering tree to my soul.
Like I keep saying, just being there as a friend is enough. So just be there.
As John O’Donohue writes:
When someone encourages you, that person helps you over a threshold you might otherwise never have crossed on your own. There are times of great uncertainty in every life. Left alone at such a time, you feel dishevelment and confusion like gravity. When a friend comes with words of encouragement, a light and lightness visit you and you begin to find the stairs and the door out of the dark. The sense of encouragement you feel from the friend is not simply her words or gestures; it is rather her whole presence enfolding you and helping you find the concealed door. The encouraging presence manages to understand you and put herself in your shoes. There is no judgment but words of relief and release.
True friendship is natural and easy.
But you also have to be self-aware and sensitive to the needs of others.
Some thoughts on friendship I’m having at the moment:
- If someone isn’t replying to your text, they’re likely overwhelmed. It’s not personal.
- On that note, don’t be vague with hang-out requests. People like parameters. The more open-ended your invitation, the easier it is to forget or ignore. Be specific.
- Suggesting a trip to the farmers markets, a gig, or a hike is a great place to start a friendship.
- Friendship is a frequency. You know the friends that feel like home, and the ones that feel like a hostel.
- Nurture connection but don’t force it. Spending time together is the best way to know if you have chemistry, but a one-sided vibe isn’t a jive.
- Back to the plant analogy, you must tend to your friends. When travelling I have ‘Friendship Days’ where I get back to everyone, and send messages and postcards and songs or poems that have dropped into my head about certain people.
- You know you’re being a shit friend when you feel like you’re being a shit friend (this should be the headline).
- For some people, constant casual contact is not needed. You can be friends with someone and barely speak until you see them and then voila – the friendship chemistry is back on. I have a few of these and they really are magic!
- When someone makes you feel small, or constricted, or you have the need to mute your true self. It is time for reflection. Not all friendships have to die at this point, but you can change their significance in your life.
- Some friendships do end though and it’s really a hard truth.
Also, is the term ‘best’ friend now reductive? I know it’s thrown around a lot, and has lost meaning, especially when more than one person can mean a lot to you.
I loved reading how musicians Conor Oberst and Phoebe Bridges became friends. “Right when I heard her start to sing, I felt like I was reuniting with an old friend,” Oberst said, of their first encounter.
It’s hard to explain an anam cara in a way because it’s an embodied feeling.
A breath you take all the way out to the end.
When something just ‘clicks’ between you.
The huge smile that comes over your face when you think of them.
It’s an indefinable chemistry.
As John O’Donohue writes, “A friend is a loved one who awakens your life in order to free the wild possibilities within you.”
“According to Celtic spiritual tradition, the soul shines all around your body like a luminous cloud. When you are very open appreciating and trusting with another person your two souls begin to flow together. It could be a meeting on the street, or a party or a lecture, or just a simple, banal introduction, then suddenly there is a flash of recognition and the embers of kinship glow. There is an awakening between you, a sense of ancient knowing.
This deeply felt bond with another person means you have found your anam cara. Your anam cara beholds your light and beauty, and accepts you for who truly are. When you are blessed with an anam cara, the Irish believe, you have arrived at that most sacred place – home.”
Please join me in tearing up.
As John O’Donohue says, the term is greatly misconstrued to mean ‘soul mate’.
If your soul mate is also an anam cara, then you have won the relationship jackpot (more on that soon!).
I heard David Whyte speak that when you meet a soul friend you have an intuition that you have met someone you will know for the rest of your life. Someone always inviting you outside yourself – to give more, to risk more, to love more – and also they feel like coming home after a long absence.
The ultimate touchstone of friendship is witness. To have walked with them and to have believed in them, and accompanied them however long or short. – David Whyte
Our souls are ancient friends is another way of saying ‘you are my anam cara’.
Your anam cara feels like home.
I remember when a friend of mine’s mum died and I wanted to send flowers, but I didn’t because I was scared I would “do it wrong.” I really regret not sending those flowers. SEND THE FLOWERS.
Drop off the jar of dhal. Offer to go for a walk. Check-in with them. Hug them and don’t let go until they do.
Friendship is in the simple acts.
Do them over and over again.
If you have ever gone to the woods with me, I must love you very much. – Mary Oliver
That’s it really.
May you be blessed with an anam cara.
May you be an anam cara.
One of the deepest longings of the human soul is to be seen… You can never be fully visually present to yourself. The one you love, your anam cara, your soul friend, is the truest mirror to reflect your soul. The honesty and clarity of true friendship also brings out the real contour of your spirit. It is beautiful to have such a presence in your life. – John O’Donohue