The poet John Keats once wrote, ‘I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of the Imagination’.
Heart and soul are synonyms; both pointing to the inner life that is also our outer life that is also intimately connected to our inner life. Confused? Thomas Moore says “It is impossible to define precisely what the soul is. Definition is an intellectual enterprise anyway; the soul prefers to imagine.” The instrument of the soul is imagination.
Soul has to do with creativity, playfulness, meaning, loss, and hope. Soul is tied to life in all its particulars – satisfying food, music that reaches inside us, beauty that surprises, genuine friends, and experiences that stay in the memory and touch the heart. So it’s revealed in attachment, love, compassion, and hospitality.
Robert Fulghum tells of a well-to-do, busy businessman who left his house one morning with a cup of coffee and his leather briefcase, as normal, climbed into his Range Rover, and began to drive to work. He ignored the continuing honking of a neighbourhood woman from the little Episcopalian Church, and of Fulghum himself, who both followed him trying to attract his attention. Eventually the man was so frustrated by this cacophony that he slammed on his brakes, ready for a confrontation, only to watch his expensive briefcase and his coffee slide off the roof of his car and smash onto the ground. Fulghum writes:
Now he’s not a bad guy… I think he may not know as know as much as he needs to know about the most basic business concern of all: profit and loss. Here’s a very old profit and loss statement, purportedly from the lips of Jesus himself, to put on the wall of any business [or church!]. It’s a lesson to be learned by all of us. “What does it profit a man or woman to gain the whole world and lose his or her own soul?”[i]
In Fulghum’s story, the man in the Range Rover couldn’t appreciate his neighbours’ help because he was not sensitive to the depth of his problem, the seriousness of his own plight. Many of us don’t comprehend how much trouble we are in until it’s too late to do anything about it: when our coffee cup is smashed and our briefcase is run over.
Let’s return to the scriptural text. The first part reads – ‘What does it profit a person to gain the whole world’. It brings to mind the mythical Matthean story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness and being taken to the top of a high mountain and the tempter “sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them.”[ii]
Of course the geography student will immediately say that there are no really high mountains in Israel and even if there were one could not see all the kingdoms of the world. So the gain promised has a fault-line running through it. Nevertheless many pursue the power and the glory – whether that is importance, wealth, physical beauty, popularity, influence, longevity… And these pursuits when we look into the mirror of raw and uncomfortable honesty are part of our lives too.
I think the saying “What does it profit a man or woman to gain the whole world and lose his or her own soul?” suggests that the danger arises when the pursuit of matters of body and mind, of security and acceptability, and all that insulates us against loss become so dominant that the soul is not heeded or cared for. In Fulghum’s tale the criticism seems to be that the busy businessman in his busyness could not change gear, slow down, and shift focus. He could not interpret interruptions as helpful but only as hindrance.
This is the only verse in the Bible that suggests that one can lose one’s soul. The author Philip Pullman in his science fantasy Dark Materials trilogy creates a scenario where one’s soul is personified by an animal or bird, and called a daemon. Pullman is drawing upon ancient Greek writings about daimons – unnamed spirits that motivated and guided life. Socrates for example claimed to have lived his life according to the dictates of his daimon.
In Pullman’s novel the Magisterium – the religious baddies who are obsessed with control – capture children for the purpose of severing them from their soul/daemon. Like with the word ‘Magisterium’ the resonances with some of the worst features of the Roman Catholic Church are strong, and Pullman was pilloried by some religious groups.
Why though fear the soul? While, as I said in my introduction today, soul eludes concise definition it has filial links with imagination and creativity, with dreams and stories. It is therefore often corrosive of dogma, and disdainful of rigidity. It wants to play, laugh, write poetry, sing in the rain, splash in puddles, and make unique creations in the kitchen.
Religious authorities have over the centuries run scared of the fires our instinctual spirituality, or soul, can generate. For soul, like a jester, is a friend of anarchy and delights in joviality and intemperance. It is subversive of good order. It doesn’t stay within the boundaries of religious conformity.
Not all religious groups though have found Pullman’s books offensive, most notably Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, who argued that Pullman's attacks focus on the constraints and dangers of dogmatism and the use of religion to oppress, not on Christianity itself. As Pullman himself said of his novel The Book of Dust it is based on the 'extreme danger of putting power into the hands of those who believe in some absolute creed, whether that is Christianity or Islam or Marxism.'
Religion, regardless of doctrine, creeds, and the misguided certainty they breed, has long been a friend of soul. Look around you here: gracious architecture, the beauty of candles and woodwork, a place of public music, of liturgical poetry, a place to be still in and in the midst of the living, the dead, and memories, a place where stories are told… Mosques, temples, synagogues, and churches all have similarities. They are places for the soul, regardless of what any Minister, Iman or Rabbi might believe.
When our society ventures too far down the rabbit hole of its love affair with technology, development, restructuring, and profit, religions – at their best – stand as counter-cultural signposts, inviting us to enter into a different way of seeing and being.
For centuries the vocation of a priest/minister was the cure of souls. ‘Cure’ is an old word that blends the notion of ‘charge’ with ‘care’, and gives a hint that such work is therapeutic. The word ‘curate’ derives from this, as does ‘curator’. It is interesting to think of an art curator as offering a caring, even healing, leadership that enriches the soul of those who walk into the gallery.
Art is ultimately not about the expression of talent or the making of pretty things, but the preservation and containment of soul. It is about arresting life and making it available for contemplation. Why did we ever stop painting and drawing and affixing our work to the fridge? The example of the artist teaches us that every day we can transform ordinary experience into the material of soul – in dairies, poems, drawings, music, letters…
Mark Pierson likens liturgical leadership, indeed ministry itself, to curating – providing opportunities for people to enter into sacred space and experience for the care of their soul. Of course the care of our soul is really the vocation of each of us - we need to tend to our inner spiritual life and its manifestations.
One of the soul arts is story, in a religious context what might be called poetic or playful theology. The tragedy of fundamentalism is to freeze life into a solid cube of understanding; or, changing metaphor, lock text and god up in the prison of right belief. Instead, without denying the insights of textual scholars and theologians, soul invites us to roam free and to re-imagine the world and god and our place in them. It is to read ourselves into stories, so that for example the pregnancy of Mary might be about us labouring to give birth to god – ‘god’ being the nexus of kindness, compassion, and hospitality.[iii] Or the feeding of the 5000 being about the singularity of our focus [like Fulghum’s harried businessman] being shattered by the miracle of multiplicity that allows space and sustenance for the many and different.
In the past soul was thought of as that which lives on after we die. So for some religious leaders curing a soul was the task of making sure that person had the right set of beliefs (and actions arising from them) that would guarantee him or her entry into a heavenly afterlife. The by-product of this next-worldly focus was often a lack of attention to the social conditions of the poor (what mattered after all was the soul!); which in turned allowed the rich to largely escape religious criticism.
Thomas Moore is a Jungian therapist with a religious formation who has written wonderful books on the care of the soul. He writes, “We care for the soul by honouring its expressions, by giving it time and opportunities to reveal itself, and by living life in a way that fosters the depth, interiority, and quality in which it flourishes… To the soul, memory is more important than planning, art more compelling than reason, and love more fulfilling than understanding. We know that 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 that 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.”[iv]
[ii] Matthew 4:8.9 KJV
[iii] This is the insight of Meister Eckhart.
[iv] P.304 Thomas Moore Care of the Soul.