This is the first part of 4 reflections as part of our series Mapping the Constellation of the Inner Life and Building a Cosmos of Resilience.
“The Hidden Wholeness of the Soul”
Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71; 1 Corinthians 1:1-13; Matthew 2:1-12
Sunday, February 3, 2019 — The Fourth Sunday After Epiphany
Knox-Metropolitan United Church — Regina, SK — Treaty 4 Territory
Quaker theologian, writer, and educator, Parker Palmer writes that:
“We are born with a seed of selfhood that contains the spiritual DNA of our uniqueness-an encoded birthright knowledge of who we are, why we are here, and how we are related to others. We may abandon that knowledge as the years go by, but it never abandons us.”
“Philosophers haggle about what to call this core of our humanity, but I’m no stickler for precision. Thomas Merton called it true self. Buddhists call it original nature or big self. Hasidic Jews call it the spark of the divine. Humanists call it identity and integrity. In popular parlance, people often call it soul…
What we name it matters little to me, since the origins, nature, and destiny of call-it-what-you-will are forever hidden from us, and no one can credibly claim to know its true name.
But that we name it matters a great deal. For ‘it’ is the objective, ontological reality of selfhood that keeps us from reducing ourselves, or each other, to biological mechanisms, psychological projections, sociological constructs, or raw material to be manufactured into whatever society needs — diminishments of our humanity that constantly threaten the quality of our lives.
“Nobody knows what the soul is,” says poet Mary Oliver; ‘it comes and goes / like the wind over the water.’ But just as we can name the function of the wind, so we can name some of the functions of the soul without presuming to penetrate its mystery:
- The soul wants to keep us rooted in the ground of our own being, resisting the tendency of other faculties, like the intellect and ego, to uproot us from who we are.
- The soul wants to keep us connected to the community in which we find life, for it understands that relationships are necessary if we are to thrive.
- The soul wants to tell us the truth about ourselves, our world, and the relation between the two, whether that truth is easy or hard to hear.
- The soul wants to give us life and wants us to pass that gift along, to become life-givers in a world that deals too much in death.”
How often do you speak about, or think about the concept of soul?
And if you do, what do you imagine is a soul?
I’ve just read a few excepts from A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward An Undivided Life by the aforementioned Quaker theologian, author and educator, Parker Palmer, who seeks perhaps not to define soul, but at least to describe it.
For some, the soul is the incorporeal essence of a living being (incorporeal meaning without physical or bodily form).
Popular imagination, I think, assumes that the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faiths understand the human soul to be the immortal part, that lives on after the body dies — but that doesn’t play a vital of active role during life.
Popular imagination is rarely a good place to start to understand the nuance and complexity of religious tradition, imagination and thinking, but in absence of regular consideration, contemplation, and discussion, popular imagination if often where our conceptions come from.
So again I wonder, what do you imagine is soul, if you imagine it all?
The purpose of this series of reflections, over the coming weeks is to create space, and invite contemplation, and hopefully discussion, on the inner life — perhaps another synonym for soul.
Quakers, a stream in the Christian tradition, I would suggest, spend more time considering — thinking, and talking about the inner life than we do in the United Church, and we can learn from them.
When I was in Saskatoon a few weeks ago, I attended the Sunday afternoon gathering of the Quaker Community in that city. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a while, and since there is no gathering here in Regina, I actually travelled up a day earlier than I needed to in order to do so.
I arrived 3 minutes late, but I knew I had not missed anything because I had been informed before hand that there is no opening, that worshippers enter in silence, and then sit in silence, until moved (if moved) to minister, to contribute words, or song, into the gathering. During this particular gathering, no one felt so moved, we sat in a circle, 6 of us, in silence, I did my best to not try to think about how much time was progressing, eventually I heard rustling, and a hand on my shoulder brought me to standing, we linked hands, and stood in silence, then both my hands were squeezed, I opened my eyes and found others had done the same, and we all sat down. Worship was over, I checked the time, 1 hour and 13 minutes after it began. Community announcements followed as well as each person being invited to speak about the goings on in their life.
Perhaps counter to what one might expect considering the description of their gatherings, Quakers are considered to be among the most active livers of their faith, in contrast to other streams within the tradition, like Reformed Protestants (among whom we in the United Church are technically a part) are considered in comparison to be prone to some naval gazing.
The opening of Palmer’s book was our Modern Wisdom reading for this morning, and it’s been paired with this passage from Matthew intentionally, that we might read the two against and through one another.
Both readings speak of journey for which the way is difficult to discern.
The Magi (a term which I prefer to wisemen) leave the place of familiarity to go to a place that they have not known, yet something compels them, and they leave changed. But their journey, is not simple although the pacing of the narrative does not necessarily do it justice.
They have come “from the East”, or more literally in the Greek in which this is written, “from the rising [of the sun]”. The Parthian Empire, centred in Persia (now Iran) dominates the lands East of Judea throughout antiquity, with Zoroastrian being the dominant religion of the priestly, or Magi class.
There is an Iranian legend of Magi and a Star predicting the rise of a ruler who is a manifestation of fire and light, and also there is a story that King Tiridates I of Armenia and his Magi travelled to Rome to pay homage to Emperor Nero in 66CE, about 20 years before Matthew is written.
Western Christian Tradition has settled on 3 while Eastern and Syriac Christians number the Magi at 12.
Jewish Palestine is on an important trade route between Asia and Africa which is among the reasons it is so often fought over during Antiquity, so the route from Persia is simple on one end, the image that it is both provoked and guided by a reading of the stars is a profound symbol when read spiritually.
I spent some time this week on the website of Tristan Gooley, the Natural Navigator, British naturalist and award winning author who teaches people to read stars, water, plants and more to find ways and to enrich journeys and connection to the natural world. Lily and I have one of his books on hold at the Library which we’re picking up this afternoon.
Gooley writes of this as a subtle art that is easier than one might think but that for many in the West has simply fallen out due to misuse, and requires practice. Palmer might say the same about navigating the inner life.
I think that in this way, the Magi story reads as such a compelling metaphor for inner spirituality. A journey following signs to a place of grounding from which life is lived differently, and Palmer’s poetic imagery of the challenge of finding ones way back into the safety of home in the midst of a Prairie snow storm.
These are compelling metaphors for a spirituality of the inner life.
Again, Parker Palmer reflects:
Occasionally, I hear people say, “The world is such a confusing place that I can find clarity only by going within.” Well I, for one, find it at least as confusing “in here” as it is “out there”–usually more so!-and I think most people do. If we get lost in New York City, we can buy a map, ask a local, or find a cabbie who knows the way. The only guidance we can get on the inner journey comes through relationships in which others help us discern our leadings.
The way that Palmer writes about soul I think can read into Matthew’s narrative of the Magi on journey to Bethlehem, and the need to leave from Bethlehem by a new route, a symbol of change, perhaps even of commissioning.
Again for Palmer, soul is not the part of the human that lives on after the body, but the aspect of the self within from which many live separated.
Now that might sound a bit too esoteric, but how often do we use phrases like “come into their own” about someone?
We seem to perceive the idea of true-self within others and use it as a barometer of another’s well-being.
I think that the story of these wise ones who have come from the rising of the sun, following the signs in the stars, who knew the patient wisdom of journey, offers an invitation to consider a spiritual exploration of internality of what is requires of us to make it safe for the soul to show up and offer us its guidance”
Do you think of soul, and if you do, how do you imagine the idea?
Palmer offers another metaphor of the soul as the inner teacher.
…we all have an inner teacher whose guidance is more reliable than anything we can get from a doctrine, ideology, collective belief system, institution, or leader. Second, we all need other people to invite, amplify, and help us discern the inner teacher’s voice…I am grateful for what they taught me about the reality and power of the soul, about a way of being together that allows the soul to make a claim on our lives, and about the miracles that can happen when we do.
Perhaps this is new language for you, if so, I invite your curiosity over these coming weeks as we accept the invitation our Scriptures to read inwards.
In epiphany, we remember those who were literate in signs and stars, and with that found a centre from which to live. These next few weeks is about developing a literacy of the internal life, that we might learn to better navigate and find the home, the Bethlehem, wherein the soul shows up to guide us.
For in life, in death, in life beyond death.
God is with us. We are not alone.