As a member of the Admissions Team for One Spirit Interfaith Seminary for a number of years, I completed dozens of interviews – some on the phone, some on Zoom, some, when the candidate was local, in person. My task was to be spiritually prepared – to create a welcome space in my heart and then to ask the same set of questions to each candidate: Why do you want to attend? How do you hope to minister? What has prepared you to take this next step? And more…
I met some of the most wonderful people who were applying for seminary. But, one interview was unlike all the rest. It was the last interview I would be hosting at home in New York before David and I moved to Cape Ann. When I greeted Brigid at the door, I immediately felt her enthusiasm and joy. She had such good energy that I could tell we were going to have an engaging conversation. But, as Brigid answered my questions and I listened to her story, I was caught totally unprepared. Her story was my story. Not only that, what we held in common I had never, ever heard another person share. It was a part of my life that felt so painful. For years, I had worked very hard to ignore and move beyond it.
But, here was another person, another woman, who I could see and feel was just the most tremendous person. Just being in her presence and hearing her tell the story so freely , released me of some of the pain and shame I was still holding. Even without sharing all the details of this part of my life with her, I somehow felt uniquely seen and understood in a way I had never felt before.
After the interview was over, I rushed to David’s studio in another part of our house and said, “I can’t believe it. I just met someone I know I should be friends with and we are getting ready to leave here. How can it be that I have never met her before? She’s fantastic! And we share something in common that I’ve never shared with anyone else in person.” What I didn’t know was that on her way home, Brigid called her parents, “I can’t believe it! I just met someone I know I should be friends with and she’s getting ready to leave. How can it be that we have never met before? She’s fantastic!”
What Brigid and I didn’t see coming that day and what we have since been blessed to share is the gift, the pure gift, of a soul friendship. Of what is known in Gaelic as an Anam Cara.
In today’s reading, Mary and Elizabeth offer a similar gift to each other. Mary is an unmarried pregnant woman. She would expect social judgment, shame, even ostracism from her older kinswoman. Yet Elizabeth knows from her own experience the cost of being shamed and excluded. In her culture a woman’s primary purpose in life was to bear children, so as an elderly infertile wife she had endured a lifetime of being treated as a failure. (Source: Judith Jones)
Elizabeth opens her arms and her home to a relative whom her neighbors would expect her to reject. Instead of shaming Mary, she welcomes her and blesses her, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” The pregnancy that might have brought Mary shame brings joy and honor instead.
In his book of the same name, John O’Donohue explains that an Anam Cara is a person to whom you can reveal the hidden intimacies of your life. This friendship is an act of recognition and belonging. There is an awakening between you, a sense of ancient knowing. It is a connection that discloses the special and sacred identity of the other person.
Christine Valters Paintner explains “an anam cara isn’t one who judges or accuses – they simply hold space for us to be completely honest about who we are and where we are , and they offer us the room and loving space and presence to heal and grow. A soul friend offers us the courage needed to say yes to the dreams being birthed in us. They help us gain clarity over places of self-deception and denial. Soul friends withstand the test of time, they are non-judgmental, safe, trustworthy and empathetic.”
It is this sort of friendship that allows us to heal the pain of the past and to unleash possibilities for the future. “Soul friends call us forth,” Stephen Cope writes. “They draw out the person in us that we want to be. It’s almost as if an invisible bond of energy connects us with these people.”
Soul friends can show up for us in different ways – they may be family members, partners, or best friends. They are the people with whom we can share our greatest secrets, and our most painful experiences – those parts of ourselves that we might prefer to keep hidden. A soul friend allows us the freedom to be all of who we truly are and in so doing, opens up depth and richness to life, to allow past dark experiences to become fertile soil for new growth.
We can never know how confident Mary was or was not feeling about her pregnancy. Likely she was feeling vulnerable, unsure, perhaps overwhelmed with the task ahead. It’s not every day that an angel appears to announce that you will “bear the Son of the Most High.” Into that tender moment, Elizabeth acknowledges and affirms that God is indeed at work; that no matter what struggles she is facing, God is blessing Mary; and that Mary, herself, in actively believing, is an agent of that blessing: “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
Consider who Elizabeth was for Mary in order for Jesus to come into the world. Even in the best of circumstances, pregnancy can be emotionally and physically challenging. Even in the best of circumstances, pregnancy turns a woman’s life upside down. But add to this, Mary was so young and unmarried, living as a poor Jew under Roman occupation. She did not have it easy and she was carrying the added burden of shame, believed to have either cheated on Joseph or been with him before marriage.
However, in Elizabeth’s eyes she is blessed. In her home, she is welcomed. In her struggles with shame, she is not judged, but accepted.
John O’Donohue writes, “Love allows understanding to dawn, and understanding is precious. Where you are understood, you are at home. Understanding nourishes belonging. When you really feel understood, you feel free to release yourself into the trust and shelter of the other person’s soul. When you learn to love and let yourself be loved, you come home to the hearth of your own spirit. You are warm and sheltered. You are completely at one in the house of your own longing and belonging.” This is the gift Elizabeth and Mary gave each other.
In the poem, “The Visitation” Malcolm Guite writes, “Here is a meeting made of hidden joys Of lightenings cloistered in a narrow place From quiet hearts the sudden flame of praise And in the womb the quickening kick of grace. Two women on the very edge of things Unnoticed and unknown to men of power But in their flesh the hidden Spirit sings And in their lives the buds of blessing flower. And Mary stands with all we call ‘too young’, Elizabeth with all called ‘past their prime’ They sing today for all the great unsung Women who turned eternity to time Favoured of heaven, outcast on the earth Prophets who bring the best in us to birth.”
The relationship between Mary and Elizabeth, between any soul friends, is unique, precious, and rare – a true gift of God. Though all of us might not be fortunate enough to receive the gift of that particular kind of friendship, all of us can develop those habits of heart and spirit that can make us available for soul friendship, that can make us gifts for someone else, that can illuminate someone else’s path in life and help bring the best of someone else to birth.
We can be people who are like Elizabeth, willing to move past judgement and shaming,and offer God’s blessing.
We can be people who refuse to focus on the worst in other people and ourselves and instead look for God’s grace at work in the world, other people, and our own lives. We can be less critical and more contemplative.
We can choose to resist pointing the finger at others, and instead raise a hand of blessing.
At our best, this is what church can be – a community of people willing to open our hearts and our doors, to be vulnerable, and to be receptive to those in need of acceptance, encouragement, connection, witnessing, and love. It’s what AA and other recovery groups like it do so well.
For years this spiritual community has fostered many beautiful sacred friendships. I think of the way Kathleen nurtures the choir and the way Jaye, Elizabeth, and the Care Team are there for others. Since the pandemic began, a group of sweet souls has been meeting on Thursday nights to accompany each other on our spiritual journeys. This past week was particularly tender, as some in the group are experiencing intense challenges within their families. There is enough safety in this group, that tears were flowing freely in our time together.
One of the women, our precious Julie Carbin, was joining us from a neighbor’s place – someone who would be coming home the next day from the hospital on Hospice. We were able to watch as Julie lovingly and carefully made her neighbor’s bed to provide a warm welcome home. Cindy drew our attention to the luminous grace of the moment, one I will not forget.
This is exactly what we can – and dare I say “should” – do for each other in a church community… We can be a safe place for each other, willing to hear with compassion each other’s pain and struggles. We can lift up, rather than tear down one another. We can nurture each other’s dreams and name each other’s gifts. We can point out and illuminate the action of grace in our midst. We can be Mary and Elizabeth for each other. And, if we do this, new life will be born in our midst, too.
When Brigid and I first met seven years ago, we each wondered how as women with a call to ministry who were raised in a church that did not welcome our gifts, and as women carrying the pain of becoming pregnant with men who were also called to ministry in the Catholic church, we would ever find a way to fully offer our gifts. Similar to Mary and Elizabeth, Brigid and I have known what it is to have an unexpected pregnancy and we have discovered the healing and new beginnings that arise from a soul friendship. As I speak, back home in Albany, my Anam Cara, Brigid, is offering her second sermon as a pastor at Unity Church. “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” And blessed are we to receive and give the treasure of holy friendship. Amen.