Thursday, June 21, 2012

The role of the Anmcara in the Early Irish Church

RIA MS 23 P 3 f14v
The Rules of Carthach and Cormac
The role of the Anmcara (Soul Friend) was vitally important in the early Irish church. Outside of Ireland many Christians in the early medieval church feared to confess their sins (particularly serious ones). The washing away of ones sins at baptism was regarded by many in the church as a fearful thing, since what could the Christian do if he sinned in a major way after his baptism? Augustine’s parents did not have him baptized as an infant for this reason, (Augustine was later baptized in his thirties). For those who had been baptized and later fell into sin there was the opportunity for a second ‘baptism of tears’. This was public confession followed by a strict penance, which usually involved being separated from the main congregation at church services, dressing in sackcloth, and being denied regular access to the Eucharist. This public confession was offered once, a last chance, any further lapses meant excommunication. As a result many Christians did not partake in confession but put it off until they were old and near death.

The early Irish church adopted a different approach. Instead of a once off public confession they advised all Christians (lay and religious) to have a Anmcara, a soul friend, to whom they could privately confess their sins and receive correction and advice. This was not a once off event, but part of the daily life of the Christian. The Rule of St. Carthach of Druim Fertain (c. 630), outlined the duties of the soul friend, such as leading by example, encouraging a candid and contrite confession of sin, listening with silence and being able to teach the penitent the way of truth. The ninth century Rule of Cormac lauded the value of a humble learned Anamcara (anmchara umal eóla) who could encourage his brothers to converse with the Scriptures (comrad fri Canoin) and live holy lives.

The Anmcara was seen by the Irish as someone who was both a trusted confessor and also a teacher who brought the penitent back to Scripture. While the Anmcara was someone to confess your sins to, they did not act in a sacramental capacity i.e. bestowing absolution. They simply were seen as a spiritual doctor directing the penitent back to God. The Irish writer Cummean (c.650) described the ‘medicines of Holy Scripture’ as central to the correct understanding of repentance. Comgall, sixth century Abbot of Bangor, was credited with the Irish proverb, colann cen ceann duine cen anmacharait” (a person without a Anmcara is as a body without a head). The day Comgall’s old soul friend died he described himself as a body without a head. One of the younger monks under his rule came to him with a Gospel book and advised Comgall to pray for a new soul friend. Comgall was moved to see the young monk display such concern for him and so he took him as his new Anmcara. The young monk had displayed the key characteristics for an Anmcara, he was concerned for the spiritual health of another and he brought the Gospel to them. In essence that was all that a true soul friend was required to do.