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Reflection July 29, 2018
"Reflections on Soul" by Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth
This past Sunday, July 22, I preached on the pursuit of meaning. In that context, I spoke about soul. I’d like to include some of those words in this week’s Advance and offer some further considerations.
I believe we misunderstand one of Jesus’ vital sayings found in Matthew 16:26 and Mark 8:36. In the New Revised Standard Version (the one we normally use) the passage is translated thusly: “For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?” I prefer the New International Version which translates the passage this way: “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?”
The Greek word translated in the NRSV as “life” and translated in the NIV as “soul” is psyche. The best English translation of this word is “soul.” The notion of “soul” has a very long and complex history in human thought. I spent considerable effort and energy exploring that history when I did my doctoral work in the fields of ministry and spirituality.
Let me add something from John Sachs The Christian Vision of Humanity: Basic Christian Anthropology: “…what the traditional language of body and soul tried to express and remind us of is the divine depth and destiny (of the human person), and the unique capacity and responsibility we have as transcendent beings to enter into free and active relationships with others, with the world and with God, and so to shape in some way the future to which God calls all of creation.”
The soul “contains” the breath of God. This “divine breath” comes from God and returns to God when anything or anyone living dies. All creatures living have a soul - the breath of God within them. This is a very ancient philosophical and Scripturally-based teaching.
But souls either grow or wither as we make our way through life. Souls are dynamic but ethereal entities (how can they be anything but ethereal when connected to the Almighty?). Soul can be understood as the abiding presence of God within the person. Soul “binds” us to God and to all creation.
We can choose to nourish our souls, feed our souls, or we can choose to starve our souls, causing them to become severely malnourished. The field of spirituality is focused on how to nourish soul.
Unfortunately I’ve encountered many self-proclaimed Christians who have unwell, withered, souls. Sin sickens our souls. We neglect soul to the detriment of everything else we do in life. “What does it profit…?”
There are many things that poison the human soul. Hatred poisons the soul. Intolerance poisons the soul. Racism poisons the soul. War and violence poisons the soul. Willful ignorance poisons the soul. Always having to be right poisons the soul. Needing to be in constant control poisons the soul. Lacking a sense of humor poisons the soul. Telling lies poisons the soul.
But I need to add a caveat, a caution, here: souls are not “things” as we normally understand the word. Soul is a divine presence, a dynamic force, within the person. Soul seeks connection. Soul seeks communion. Soul seeks union. Soul seeks meaning. Soul makes love possible. Soul searches. Soul seeks. Soul encounters. Soul discovers. Soul enlivens.
In a real sense, one’s soul ebbs and flows, grows or diminishes, depending on a person’s actions. Souls are not fully formed in us humans since souls are not “things” just as God is not a “thing.”
To nourish our souls is a vital human task. But it’s not as easy as it sounds. To nourish soul may require us to let go of our most cherished beliefs and ideas. To nourish soul we must allow ourselves to become more “touchable” as we age. Soul allows us to truly “taste” our experiences. Soul is whatever “awakens” us to life in all its amazing fullness. To nourish soul means we become attentive to what we are experiencing. Anything which “deadens” us to life and its richness diminishes soul.
I mentioned on Sunday that there are many ways to nourish soul. I find that music nourishes my soul. I love Beethoven, especially his majestic 9th Symphony. Listening to the stunning fourth movement of that symphony allows my soul to grow.
But all kinds of music can and do help soul to grow. I very much enjoy Bruno Mars “Uptown Funk” - which has been viewed well over 3 BILLION times on YouTube.
The wonderful artistry of our own Jacob Haywood on Sunday mornings, joined with our incomparable Heather Kurut, nourishes my soul. The hymns and music we experience on Sunday mornings touches us at a very deep level. At that deep level lives soul.
Having deep conversations about things that matter, nourish soul. Reading widely and wisely nourishes soul. Studying the Bible nourishes soul. Praying nourishes soul. Contemplation (being fully attentive) nourishes soul. Nature nourishes soul. Doing everything your pastor says nourishes soul (I’m kidding here - just wanted to see if YOU are paying attention!).
Nourishing soul means letting go of our attempts to grasp things, including God, or at least our ideas about God. God cannot be held onto. God can only be encountered.
The Episcopalian clergyperson, Barbara Brown Taylor, in her recent book, Learning to Walk in the Dark discusses John of the Cross and his famous experience of the Dark Night of the Soul, which I’ve long studied.
The “Dark Night” is often misunderstood as a negative experience. But as Brown notes: We all need dark nights. “The dark night is God’s best gift to you, intended for your liberation. It’s about freeing you from your ideas about God, your fears about God, your attachment to all the benefits you have been promised for believing in God, your dedication to doing and believing all the right things about God.” Many of us have lost our way because we have lost our understanding of soul.
Rev. Dr. Joel Mitchell, Pastor