John O’Donohue’s Anam Cara and the Mystery of Friendship

children of lir
Children of Lir, by John Duncan. The Children of Lir spent 900 years cursed as swans, healing and consoling the people of Ireland with their song. Image from The Athenaeum.

This year I was fortunate to come across the written works of the Irish poet and theologian, John O’Donohue. O’Dononhue’s first book Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom expounds on the Irish concept of an anam cara, or “soul friend,” a spiritual mentor of the early Irish church. In his analysis, O’Donohue examines how  the theory of an anam cara might be applied to contemporary life for spiritual development. Additionally, O’Donohue draws upon the syncretism of paganism and Christianity within Ireland to tell parables about the anam cara, which appealed to me as an Irish-American deepening her work with ancestral magic. I find Anam Cara to be among the more thoughtful treatises within the self-help genre. Its framework allows for compassionate healing, without falling into the trap of hyper-individualism often represented in New Age literature. Anam Cara is a guide for how to be a good friend, and its central theme is worth exploring as a model for living in this world.

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To Serve and Be Served in Good Ways

Buon Tring
Annihilation of the Montagnard village, Buon Tring, during the Vietnam War. From ICRC Archives.

As someone who was raised in a New Thought household, I have spent my life studying and practicing positive-mind mechanics, such as Law of Attraction. Often when I encounter theories about the causative power of the mind, arguments generally fall into one of two camps: either every thought creates our reality or there’s a rejection of the notion entirely. I fall somewhere in the middle. I do think that the mind plays an intimate role in how we experience physical reality, but I don’t believe it is the only influence. Because in addition to being raised within the New Age community, I am also a professional historian who studies and teaches social movements of twentieth-century America. I have a deep understanding of the power of historical context, which in the collective memory is often very painful. Just as shadows exist in our individual psyches, so do shadows haunt our collective past. Thoughtfully speaking about positive-mind mechanics can be challenging in New Age circles due to the over eagerness of most practitioners to diminish the influence of historical and cultural contexts. I want to expand on this by exploring why context is important, and how applying contextual analysis can help craft a life desired of living while ethically contributing to the mutual benefit of others.

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Orientalism: New Age’s Barrier to Inclusivity

The Snake Charmer

“The Snake Charmer” by Jean-Léon_Gerome, Courtesy Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute

 

In recent months I’ve become increasingly aware of how often people within New Age feel privileged to justify racism. There is a pervasive belief in New Age that marginalized peoples want to experience marginalization, because their soul consciously embodied into that experience in this lifetime.[i]  This line of reasoning compounded with a goal to “center in one’s truth” is an open invitation for upholding white privilege. Too many times I have witnessed white folks within New Age gaslight people of color for “talking from their ego” when it comes to calling out racist behavior.  Even I have been accused of egotism when addressing it.

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