The service of the Lord is light, wonderful, and pleasant. It is an excellent thing to place oneself in the hand of a holy mentor, that he may direct one’s path through life.
- The Rule of Comghall, Irish, 6th century
So he departed from there, and found Elisha the son of Shaphat, who wasplowing withtwelve yoke of oxenbefore him, and he was with the twelfth. Then Elijah passed by him and threw his mantle on him. And he left the oxen and ran after Elijah, and said, “Please let me kiss my father and my mother, and thenI will follow you.” And he said to him, “Go back again, for what have I done to you?” So Elishaturned back from him, and took a yoke of oxen and slaughtered them and boiled their flesh, using the oxen’s equipment, and gave it to the people, and they ate. Then he arose and followed Elijah, and became his servant.
- 1 Kings 19.19-21
Celtic Christians practiced several kinds of mentoring for those who devoted their lives to the Lord. They understood the importance of having in their lives people who were willing to spend and be spent for the wellbeing of their souls (2 Cor. 12.15).
During the period of the Celtic Revival (ca. 430-800), parents who hoped for a holy vocation for their son, after they had raised and cared for him some years, could enroll him in fosterage at a school run by a bishop or nun. We see this in the story of Brendan, who as a lad was enrolled in the school of the saintly Ita, who became a lifelong mentor to him.
Later, that child could enter a monastery, where he would be tutored in Scripture and theology and taught the rudiments of ministry. There he would learn the value of living, sharing, and working with like-minded brethren. He might go out from there under the mentoring care of a proven evangelist or itinerating pastor, to help him in his ministry as he continued preparing for his own calling.
Women also could join monasteries where they learned different skills to prepare them for a vocation of serving the Lord, especially in ministries of caring for the poor and needy, as we see in Cogitosus’ Life of Brigid.
Along the way, young people preparing for ministry would acquire a soul friend or two, life-long prayer and accountability partners, who would look after their souls, to encourage their growth in the Lord. Celtic Christians called these soul friends anam cara – lovers of the soul. The relationship between soul friends was mutual, so that they provided edification and encouragement for one another for life.
Such relationships helped make the arduous work of ministry lighter and more wonderful, fruitful, and pleasant. They could also ensure, as in the case of Elijah and Elisha, a continuity of ministry from one generation to the next. They also helped in promoting growth in Christlikeness, as soul friends joined together and encouraged one another in the Word and prayer.
So important was the soul friend relationship to Celtic Christians that Brigid once said that a man without a soul friend is like a body without a head.
Soul friendships were not restricted to those preparing for or engaged in formal ministry. These are simply the ones about which we know the most. Soul friendship was practiced in Celtic Christian communities wherever men and women were serious about their walk with and work for the Lord.
Do you have a soul friend? Do you meet regularly with someone to encourage and be encouraged, exhort and receive exhortation, share, plan, and pray? If so, then you know the value of this venerable institution. Give thanks to God for your soul friend, every day.
Soul friendships begin between husbands and wives. But men can benefit from soul friendships with other men, and women with other women.
If you do not have a soul friend, then there’s no time like the present. Jesus, of course, is the soul friend Who sticks closer than a brother (Prov. 18.24). But He knows that we can be sharpened and strengthened by soul friendships with other believers (Prov. 27.17).
Ask God to help you become established with a soul friend – men with men, women with women. Look for someone who will commit to spending and being spent for your soul, so that you may both increase in Christlikeness, someone with whom you can pray, study, grow, and serve the Lord.
Having a soul friend could mark a true turning-point in your walk with the Lord, and that of your soul friend as well.
Psalm 34.18, 19, 3 (Alleluia [Lowe]: Mighty God, While Angels Bless You)
When for help we cry to Jesus, He will save, for He is near.
He delivers us from trouble, for He holds us ever dear.
Magnify the Name of Jesus! Let us lift His Name in praise!
Lord, grant me a soul friend to be mindful of me, and help me to...
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T. M. Moore, Principal
All Psalms for singing from The Ailbe Psalter. Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Ó Maidín, p. 33.