Reflection: April 29 – Anam Cara

Published on Apr 30th, 2018 by Rev. David Boyd | 0
Listening to As It Happens on CBC radio last week, I caught an interview with a bystander who had helped in the aftermath of the young man’s rampage with a van in Toronto.  He talked about his own actions and the observation of another man who was with a woman who had been hit and was dying.  The guest talked about hearing the man tell the woman over and over: “You aren’t alone.  I’m here with you.  I won’t leave you.”  He held her hand and gently moved strands of hair from her face.  He was a complete stranger who stayed with this woman in her final few moments.  It was quite moving.
The actions of those who intervened are what the Celts call “anam cara,” — soul friend.  That’s the deep caring of which Jesus spoke.  That’s the kind of love that both John the Gospel-writer spoke and the letter-writer.  We all wonder what we would do in those kinds of circumstances.  Do we have it in us to sit with a dying person and hold a stranger’s hand with blood and horror all around?  I would like to think that most of us DO have it in us, for we are grounded in love.
Without detracting from the seriousness of what happened in Toronto, I want to mention a common pun that asks what God’s common name is.  Not Yahweh, or Adonai, or El Shaddai, or even Abba.  Does anyone know?  … It is, of course, “Andy.” —  “Andy” walks with me, “Andy” talks with me…  That’s, of course, from the popular hymn, In the Garden. I mention this because,

  in one of the recent daily devotionals that I receive from The United Church of Christ, Anthony Robinson wrote a piece advocating that God’s name should be “with.”  He cited many instances in the Bible where it is said that God was with the people or with someone in times of need.  When Moses had reservations about going back to Egypt to free his people, he was assured by God, “I will be with you.”  When Elijah was out in the desert alone and frightened because he had fended off the prophets of Ahab and Jezebel, he was assured that God was with him.  When Hagar—the mother of Muslims—was banished to the desert with her son, Ishmael—and Abraham’s, I might add—she found the divine presence with her.  At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, we hear the words from the risen Christ, “I am with you always.”  And earlier in the Gospel, “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there…. with you.”  In Psalm 22 read today, while not said explicitly, it is certainly implicit that God is with us.
There are lots of references to God with us.  In fact, at Christmas—and I don’t know why we emphasize this only at Christmas—we proclaim Jesus as Emmanuel, which means “God-with-us.”  I suppose it is the references in Isaiah and Matthew to the Messiah as Emmanuel that we read every Christmas.
In Anthony Robinson’s devotional, he suggests that the best examples of love and of God are those examples of being with others, as those strangers being with the victims in Toronto, showing love and care.  We see God in action when we see people rising above their own fears and uncertainties and making extraordinary things seem ordinary.  It is a heroic thing to hold the hand of someone who is dying, and yet the power of love makes this look like the right and normal thing to do.
Robinson goes on to suggest that God doesn’t “take all the obstacles from our path, or keep us from peril and pain.  God promises ‘with,’ as in ‘I will be with you.’”  It’s not that we look to God to fix our problems or tell us exactly what to do.  We don’t look to others to fix our problems—although many people have lots of advice they want to share with us and think we should have whether we want it or not.  Robinson suggests that this kind of over-functioning is not what God is about.  God is with us.  God will be with us.
Anam cara is all about this kind of companionship, being with.  Being a soul friend is what we are all called to be.  That’s what love calls from us: to sit with a dying friend; to enter into someone else’s pain and discomfort; to stand firm with others against injustice; to uncover and own up to our own biases and prejudices; to seek the help of someone when faced with a dilemma or problem.  Again from Robinson, “We may think we need a God [or a friend] who will do it all, who will protect us from every peril or pain. [But] do we? If my human analogies are any indication, that is not our deepest need. We do not need others to lead our lives for us or deal with our challenges on our behalf. But we do need a God who is “with.” With us. Fully present. Engaged.”
Some years ago, Tilden Edwards, an Episcopalian priest, and Gerald May, a psychotherapist, started an institute in Washington, DC, called The Shalem Institute.  As far as I know, the institute is still running; its purpose is to offer support and education for contemplative living and leadership.  How do live with our heart and our spirit in our everyday lives?  Edwards wrote a book, now a classic, called Spiritual Friend and was instrumental introducing the concept of anam cara—soul friend—to the North American Church.
Of course, the concept was well known in Ireland and Scotland; John O’Donohue, the late Irish theologian and spiritual writer, wrote a book called Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom.  O’Donohue’s writings are beautiful and deep.  Anam Cara for Celts, O’Donohue would say, is about belonging.   We belong to each and each belongs to us.  And this “each” is all of life.  The clouds, the moon, the sun, the water, the mountains, the animals, the plants, and our kin, human beings, are all part of the circle of belonging.  And this includes God.  That’s the God in us and us in God of both John’s Gospel and the letter.  This is the meaning of “soul friend,” this deep accompanying, of being with, of belonging.
I doubt if anam cara was in the minds of the writers of our United Church creed; but the first lines, “We are not alone.  We live in God’s world,” could have been rendered, “We are not alone.  God is with us.”  Indeed, God is with us and we are with each other, intricately woven in a tapestry of life.  This is why we gather here to worship; this is why we’re involved in a spiritual community. We belong to each other!
Emmanuel, God-with-us, is not just for Christmas.  It is the deep proclamation of God’s deep friendship and kinship with all life, including our own.  And all of this is undergirded by love.
Blessings to all.  Amen.

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