Anam Cara — An Irish Healing


Simon Heathcote
5 min readMay 30, 2023
Photo by Mick Haupt on Unsplash

‘When the soul is plunged in the fire of divine love, like iron, it first loses its blackness, and then grows to white heat and becomes like the fire itself, and lastly, it grows liquid. And, losing its nature, is transmuted into an entirely different quality of being. And as the difference between iron that is cold and iron that is hot, so is the difference between soul and soul, between the tepid soul, and the soul made incandescent by divine love.’ Richard of St Victor

I have never set foot on Irish soil.

You might say that’s an improbability given that at least six pints of this body’s blood hails from that green and lustrous isle.

But there’s about us much chance of finding me on Irish turf as finding Shergar, the Aga Khan’s kidnapped and ill-fated racehorse, propping up the tarmac in Dublin city centre.

They say that after the horse was kidnapped, he panicked, damaged a leg and was killed by the IRA gang that took him, his corpse buried somewhere in County Leitrim.

But I digress. Like millions of others, some of my Irish kin made their way to the Eastern Seaboard of the USA, settling in Boston, while my own father had a less exotic succession and was adopted by the Heathcotes, a childless couple from the East Midlands.

It is not often that Irish Catholic priests write best-sellers but the former of those two facts would explain why when such unlikely a phenomenon does happen, a book might do rather well in America.

Such is the case with Anam Cara: Spiritual Wisdom from the Celtic World written by the poet, mystic and philosopher John O’Donohue, who died suddenly aged 52 before the term ‘died suddenly’ was enough to make you shudder and make the sign of the cross.

Anam Cara is one of a few must have books which navigates the complex interconnections of body, soul and landscape that remain imprinted in the national psyche.

If you have read the Nobel winner Seamus Heaney, you will know all about turf, digging, back-breaking sweat and how a real man handles a spade.

You will know something of marshes and bogs, slicing rain, potato drills, flax-dams and huge earthen sods. In short, the Irish soul is delineated by the land. O’Donohue stamps that message home until the reader is in doubt about what it means to be Irish.

A people are nothing without the ground that feeds them — a fact all indigenous people know and most ‘civilized’ ones don’t.

In a time when the world is increasingly exiled from its own roots through complex technologies, which send us shuttling into the mind as far from soul as is possible to imagine, holding on to ancient wisdom is vital.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that big-tech firms like Google and Facebook have found plenty of support in a modernizing Ireland, another place the old ways, particularly farming, are in crisis.

Anam Cara means Soul Friend and expounds a doctrine of intimacy that understands the ‘clay nature’ of human beings better than the church that cruelly dominated Ireland ever could.

O’ Donohue, who fell out with Catholicism, leaving the priesthood in 2000, does not shy away from the erotic in either spiritual life or literature, understanding that Eros, a minor but important god, will have his way with us.

He writes: ‘The Celtic mind was neither discursive nor systematic. Yet in their lyrical speculation, the Celts brought the sublime unity of life and experience to expression. The Celtic mind was not burdened by dualism. It did not separate what belongs together.’

O’ Donohue, who did post-doctoral work on the 13th century German mystic Meister Eckhart, recognizes in the idea of an anam cara, the ancient belonging that is present between some people.

How much more poetic and interesting than the outmoded and flaccid terms ‘soul mate’ or ‘twin soul’, even ‘twin flame’. The idea of an instant recognition between two souls is not a new one.

It exists throughout spiritual literature, perhaps most appealingly in Sufism, but in refusing to separate the earth from the human, certainly the human from the soul, he reminds us of depths worth remembering and, in our speedy and flaky age, holding on to.

And he understands the dangers of exile from our own nature here and now: ‘We need to remain in rhythm with our own clay voice and longing. Yet this voice is no longer audible in the modern world. We are not even aware of our loss, consequently the pain of our spiritual exile is more intense in being largely unintelligible.’

He wrote this in 1996. Nearly 30 years on, we are in danger of slipping off the radar of our own being altogether. Flat Earthers may be right after all!

Holding on to the earth beneath our feet, access to the land — a right for everyone — and an awareness that we belong to it rather than it to us, is paramount and pressing.

He reminds us that we may have everything the world values, but without love, we are lost. A true anam cara can call us out of exile, put us back in touch with both our longing and the knowledge that just like the ground we walk on, we too are clay creatures.

Perhaps it is the Irishman in me that recognizes this deeply, as well as the danger we are in, the importance of remembering our stout and fragile humanity.

Being a churchman as well as a Celt, the poet writes much on transfiguration and the role of the true soul friend in helping turn what was barren in the soul to fertile ground.

We need the waters of life to irrigate the soil of our lives, the soft touch, the language of the poet, the need for fallow time. Busyness often seems a good idea but too often alienates the better part of us.

Somehow, suddenly, we can find ourselves rushing, then hard and brittle with self and others, forgetting what we share, the fundaments the world needs more than ever.

We are reminded that we must be first and foremost our own soul friend, that instead of filling up our emptiness with people, places and things, we must go further into it to discover the flame of love that waits beneath the nothingness we fear.

There is light beneath the darkness. It calls to us, perpetually, inviting us to home and hearth.

Perhaps I will take a look at the old country before I leave this life, God willing. I have often wondered how it might feel to walk on ground that is more part of me than any other.

‘You are like nobody since I love you,’ wrote the great Chilean poet Neruda. In the deepest transfiguration of our lives, perhaps we have to become no-one before we become someone again.

This is my weekly blog for the week ending this Sunday. Do sign up below for more.



Simon Heathcote

Psychotherapist writing on the human journey for some; irreverently for others; and poetry for myself; former newspaper editor.