Seals, saints & soul friends ~ unravelling my Celtic knots


Seals, saints & soul friends ~ unravelling my Celtic knots


The seals sang to us the first evening on Lindisfarne.  We went down to the beach after dinner to watch the sunset and I was stunned to hear this plaintive, mesmerising sound emanating from a sandbank not far off shore. Softer than wolf-song and not as melancholy and bone-shivering as whale-song, the sound echoed along the shore line while the singers remained unseen, too far off in the gathering dusk to be visible. We picked our way across mussels and rocks to St Cuthbert’s island and stood breathing in the magic of the place till we saw the tide was covering more and more of the rocks and we scurried back to the mainland before it became impassable. The next morning, before much of the island was stirring, we returned to pray, to reaffirm our marriage vows some 25 years after we made them. Our witnesses were the seals and the sea-birds who watched us and called their blessings on us. I cried.

I’ve long had an affinity with seals, and with many creatures. I rescue worms. I cry over dead birds. I talk to frogs (and anything else for that matter). And I know that probably makes me as mad as a biscuit in the eyes of many. But it would seem I am in good company. Cuthbert kept vigil on that rocky islet, up to his knees in icy water, and was guarded and warmed by wild seals and otters. It only takes a short trawl through the lives of the saints to find that many Celtic saints experienced extraordinary encounters with wild beasts. Hagiography aside, these stories have a ring of truth. Once, some years ago, we found a young seal who was undernourished and storm battered and I sat for 5 hours on a freezing beach waiting for the RSPCA to arrive. The seal slowly made his way up the beach to sit next to me, leaning his bulk against my leg and gazing up at me, and singing his lonely song.

While we were away, I read a book called Water From An Ancient Well, which was about these mad saints of the Celtic world and found my own faith in that strand of spirituality reignited. I’d turned away because the external trappings had become more important (or so it seemed) than anything deeper. But I began to think again about certain aspects of this deep, ancient and life-affirming strand and found that it chimed ever more deeply with my own experiences. God-in-everything, that panentheism that many Christians disdain or denigrate or even demonise, seems to me so much more relevant that it did even ten years ago. To care for the environment, for the living beings around us is so much more vibrant when you encounter it with the realisation that they are as sentient, as alive and valued as we are. My new garden has frogs(we move this week but took our bees there last night) and tiny ones no bigger than my thumb abound. I scooped one up, and after she climbed out of my closed hand, pushing her cool nose through the loop between finger and thumb, she sat on my thumb, watching me, bright eyes shining with life. That something this small sits blinking on my hand makes something long buried deep within me leap for joy.

One of the other features I began to look at anew was that of the Anam cara, the soul-friend. I’d read the book of that name years ago, but had let a lot of the thought behind it slip away. A soul-friend is hard to define but it’s someone with whom you have a deep, mutual connection that goes beyond either the usual bounds of friendship or even that of blood kinship. There are many examples I could give of such a friendship, but this would become a vast and unwieldly essay verging on a thesis. A soul-friend is someone with whom your connection is so deep that time and distance matter little; there is something eternal about them. There can be a phase where one is the teacher of the other but the relationship is also mutual. It’s a love than is quite different to either a romantic love and yet can be too easily mistaken for it. Many marriages though can be between soul-friends, because having one does not preclude the other.

We live in a time when communication has been easier than at any time in history, and yet there is a deep loneliness in society. I have long thought that a growth in understanding of this ancient form of connection would ease this burden of loneliness; indeed, I talked a great deal with someone I believed to be a soul-friend about how it might be possible to create a renewal of this to act as a powerful soul medicine, or therapy. That friendship ended (devastating me) but not that kernel of thought of how to bring back and encourage others to seek their own Anam Caras for the solace of all.

I’m going to be working on it.






Cast adrift, I float.

My boat a simple coracle:

Bent withies, rawhide shell,

No sail, no paddles.

Calm as a village pond

The sea holds me

Cupped in watery hands

I could step ashore,

Wet no more than knees,

Feel feet on shingle

And a heavy failure.

The current catches-

I whirl like lily leaf let loose.

Dizzied, I sit down,

Hug my knees and wait:

The farthest shore is near.