Care of the Soul

Scripture Readings: Song of Solomon 3:1-5, Luke 11:2-4

"The great malady of the twentieth century, implicated in all of our troubles and affecting us individually and socially, is ‘loss of soul.’ When soul is neglected, it doesn’t just go away; it appears symptomatically in obsession, addictions, violence, and loss of meaning. Our temptation is to isolate these symptoms or to try to eradicate them one by one; but the root problem is that we have lost our wisdom about the soul, even our interest in it." I wish this insight were mine, but these are the first words of a remarkable book by Thomas Moore entitled Care of the Soul. (p. xi)

There are so many subtle and rich statements in this book that I am going to quote a number of them. "Tradition teaches that soul lies midway between understanding and unconsciousness, and that its instrument is neither the mind nor the body, but imagination . . .. [Because we no longer value the imagination, we] have come to know soul only in its complaints: when it stirs, disturbed by neglect and abuse, and causes us to feel its pain." (pp. xiii and xv)

"To feel and imagine may not sound like much. But in care of the soul there is trust that nature heals, that much can be accomplished by non-doing. The assumption is that being follows imagination. If we can see the story we are in when we fall into our various compulsive behaviors and needs, then we might know how to move through them more freely and with less distress." (p. 12)

However, "care of the soul is quite different in scope from most modern notions of psychology and psychotherapy. It isn’t about curing, fixing, changing, adjusting or making healthy, and it isn’t about some idea of perfection or even improvement. It doesn’t look to the future for an ideal, trouble-free existence. Rather, it remains patiently in the present, close to life as it presents itself day by day, and yet at the same time mindful of religion and spirituality."

But care of the soul does not stress the moral teachings of religion. "To some extent, care of the soul asks us to open our hearts wider than they have ever been before, softening the judging and moralism that may have characterized our attitudes and behavior for years. Moralism is one of the most effective shields against the soul, protecting us from its intricacy. There is nothing more revealing, and maybe nothing more healing, than to reconsider our moralistic attitudes and find how much soul has been hidden behind its doors." (p. 17)

Caring doesn’t guarantee a cure for our problems. "If you are cured, you don’t have to worry about whatever was bothering you any longer. But care has a sense of ongoing attention. There is no end. Conflicts may never be fully resolved. Your character will never change radically, although it may go through some interesting transformations. Awareness can change, of course, but problems may persist and never go away." (p. 19)

This is why caring for our souls involves caring about and for our everyday lives. "The soul prospers in an environment that is concrete, particular, and vernacular. It feeds on the details of life, on its variety, its quirks, and its idiosyncrasies. Therefore, nothing is more suitable for care of the soul than family, because the experience of family includes so much of the particulars of life . . .. Family life is full of major and minor crises ― the ups and downs of health, success and failure in career, marriage, and divorce ― and all kinds of characters. It is tied to places and events and histories. With all of these felt details, life etches itself into memory and personality. It’s difficult to imagine anything more nourishing to the soul." (p. 26)

So why bother with church? "We go to church…to participate in that strong traditional ritual, but also to learn how to do rituals. Tradition is an important part of ritual because the soul is so much greater in scope than an individual's consciousness . . .. The soul needs an intense, full-bodied spiritual life as much as and in the same way that the body needs food . . .. [But] the spiritual life requires careful attention, because it can be dangerous. It’s easy to go crazy in the life of the spirit, warring against those who disagree, proselytizing for our own personal attachments rather than expressing our own soulfulness, or taking narcissistic satisfactions in our beliefs rather than finding meaning and pleasure in spirituality that is available to everyone." (pp. 226, 228)

Spirit, however, is not the same as soul. "In our spirituality, we reach for consciousness, awareness, and the highest values; in our soulfulness, we endure the most pleasurable and the most exhausting of human experience and emotions . . .. When we feel something soulfully, it is sometimes difficult to express that feeling clearly. At a loss for words, we turn to stories and images . . .. [This is why] Formal teachings, rites, and stories of religions provide an inexhaustible source for reflection on the mysteries of the soul." (pp. 231, 239, 243)

How are faith and soul related? "Faith is a gift of spirit that allows the soul to remain attached to its own unfolding. When faith is soulful, it is always planted in the soil of wonder and questioning. It isn’t a defensive and anxious holding on to certain objects of belief, because doubt, as its shadow, can be brought into a faith that is fully mature." (p. 253)

If we understand the Lord’s Prayer as not only spiritual aspiration but also expressing soulful concerns, we may hear the words differently. "Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.” (Luke 11:3-4) These are everyday concerns of living. Similarly, we might even read in worship from the Song of Solomon ― a sensual and earthy love song that has been read in the church as a spiritual and soulful allegory.

Moore reminds us that Christian scripture, ritual and doctrine is rich soil for the soul. "The theological doctrine of incarnation suggests that God validates human imperfection as having mysterious validity and value. Our depressions, jealousies, narcissism, and failures are not at odds with the spiritual life . . .. When tended, they prevent the spirit from zooming off into the ozone of perfectionism and spiritual pride. More important, they provide their own seeds of spiritual sensibility, which complement those that fall from the stars. The ultimate marriage of spirit and soul . . . is the wedding of heaven and earth, our highest ideals and ambitions united with our lowliest symptoms and complaints." (p. 262-3)

"Care of the soul is not a project of self-improvement nor a way of being released from the troubles and pains of human existence. It is not at all concerned with living properly or with emotional health . . .. To the soul, memory is more important than planning, art more compelling than reason, and love more fulfilling than understanding. We know we are well on the way toward soul when we feel attachment to the world and the people around us and when we live as much from the heart as from the head. We know soul is being cared for when our pleasures feel deeper than usual, when we can let go of the need to be free of complexity and confusion, and when compassion takes the place of distrust and fear." (p. 304) Amen.

March 2, 2003 © Robert Traer 2016