Today marks the passing of one of my favorite Celtic saints -- St. Kevin of Glendalough. There are some great stories about Kevin (and, at least one not so great). I’m sure most of you are familiar with the stories of the blackbird, the cow, the otter, the boar, the doe, and the wolf. If not, do yourself a favor and get a copy of Edward Sellner’s Wisdom of the Celtic Saints. They show, along with most of the other stories about the Celtic saints, the connection the saints had with the natural world.
You see, in the Celtic Christian view, there was not a division between the so-called “secular” world and the “spiritual” world. The Celtic peoples were very aware that these worlds overlap and interlock; that there aren’t really two different worlds. We can see this in their artwork -- the intertwining “knots” of nature with biblical images. In the beautifully illustrated “Book of Kells,” one can find images of mice and other animals in between the words of the biblical text.
It is because of this connectedness of sacred and secular, we find something unique to the Christians of the ancient Celtic lands -- anamchara. Anamchara is Gaelic for “soul friend.” It is the idea that one needs to have an intimately close relationship with someone else to help guide them on their journey. Today, we have “professionals” in this regard called “Spiritual Directors.” And while I think Spiritual Directors are good (I’ll be pursuing this in the near future), they are not the same as the stories we read from Celtic saints. There is a closeness with anamcharas that is missing in Spiritual Directors. The anamcharas were, well, just what the translations says, “soul friends.” Someone so close to us that they share life with us on very deep levels. They were seen as the utmost important thing for one’s spiritual growth.
For example, there a great story about a foster-son of St. Brigid of Kildare. He would often be found eating with her in the refectory. One day, halfway through the meal, Brigid asked him, “Do you have a soul-friend?” “I do,” he replied. “Then let’s sing his requiem, for he has died,” she said. “Now go and don’t eat anything until you get a soul-friend. A person without a soul-friend is like a body without a head.”
St. Kevin had many anamcharas but his closest was Ciarán of Clonmacnoise (another one of my favorite Saints). There’s another story that relates this closeness. It’s the story of when Bishop Ciarán died.
The story goes that when Ciarán was very weak and he knew his time in this realm was soon ending, he had a rider sent to fetch Kevin so he could talk with him one last time before he died. When Kevin received word that Ciarán was dying, he immediately left to be with his friend. But not on horseback. He had vowed never to ride a horse; that G-d had given him two feet with which to travel, so he walked everywhere he went. This time, however, he regretted making that vow.
When he arrived at the monastery, Kevin was told that Ciarán had died three days prior. Before his death, Bishop Ciarán asked to be taken to the top of the round tower to view the land and the river one last time. Then, he asked his monks to place him on a cot next to the altar where he would wait for Kevin’s arrival. Kevin never showed up. A heavenly light shown around the altar and Ciarán was escorted to G-d’s realm by an angelic host.
Kevin was led to the body, still by the altar. He gently touches the cheek of his dear friend, sorrowful that he didn’t make it in time for “a short chat.”
The cheek twitched.
Kevin jumped back in surprise.
“Kevin?” Ciarán whispered. “I knew you would come to see me.”
“We thought you had died,” Kevin replied in tears.
“I did,” Ciarán replied. “The angels came to greet me, but...I told you...it’s hard to leave the mortal shell. Besides,” he smiled at Kevin, “I couldn’t leave before enjoying one last talk with my dear companion. So I waited, hovering just below the eaves.”*
What we see in this story is that the closeness between soul friends is such that, not even death can separate them. So, on this 3rd of June, the feast day of St. Kevin, let’s think about our journeys. Let’s think about the necessity of a soul friend. It is one of the most important things we have in this realm. May G-d grant us insight and wisdom in seeking and finding an anamchara.
Saint Kevin, you were privileged to live in the Age of Saints. O Father Kevin being baptized by one saint, taught by another and buried by a third; pray that G-d will raise up saints in our day to help, support, and guide us along The Way. Amen.
In the Love of the Three in One,
Br. Jack+, LC
* My telling of this story comes from Water from an Ancient Well, by Kenneth McIntosh.