“How will you know the difficulties of being human/ if you’re always flying off to blue perfection? Where will you plant your grief seeds? We need ground to scrape and hoe/ not the sky of unspecified desire.” — Rumi
The ground which Rumi invokes is where “soul work” takes place, since as a priest once told me, “We’re not angels yet.” And we’re not destined to become angels, because they have “blue perfection” covered.
The privilege and difficulty of being human is all about how the Spirit is fleshed out. We can intuitively recognize when spirit is dissociated from humanity: in the cult leader who promises followers a grief-free utopia; in the evangelist who is all resurrection while the shadow knows it’s fake transfiguration; in the too-good-to-be-true perennial “nice” person whose masked resentment peeks through the cracks of a polished persona.
Similarly, we know real soul when we see it and feel it. That’s why we speak of “soul food” or “soul music,” and have “soul mates” and “soul friends,” all of which put us in touch with where the surface of life meets the depths.
Soul would be defined as the unconditioned essential locus of personhood, if it could be defined. Yet the small bookshop owner or craftsperson or Prairie Messenger editor who puts a lot of soul into their work wouldn’t necessarily see or speak of it like that, and why should they? “The soul is the truth of who we are” (Marianne Williamson), and by their fruits ye shall know them.
Fortunately, we don’t need to know what exactly the soul is, to know what the soul does. The soul keeps us grounded in the truth of situations, whether easy or hard to bear. The soul keeps things simple, travels light, and slows down to smell the roses. The soul knows it’s not what you’ve got; it’s what you do with what you’ve got. The soul chooses kindness and compassion, even when surrounded by competitiveness and fear. The soul cultivates inner peace when there are reasons to be frustrated, upset, or offended.
Thomas Merton called it the true self and incorruptible point vierge. Quakers call it the inner teacher. Buddhists call it our original nature or big self. It’s the Atman in Hinduism. Humanists view it as a matter of authentic identity and integrity. “But no matter what you say, you’re still gonna have to serve somebody . . . ” (Bob Dylan, 1980).
What is soul if not the particular, unique form our self-giving takes? And that can’t be reduced to biological predispositions, psychological mechanisms, or sociological constructs. It resists marketing of all kinds, because we are processes not products and ultimately can’t be manufactured into whatever society needs us to be. In this world, what we need most is soul strength, which is not just the sum of good character traits, personal bests, and healthy lifestyles.
So what does the soul want in order to be strong? It wants to keep us rooted in our truth, able to resist the distractions of mind and diversions of ego. It wants to keep us connected to community, for no one is an island. It wants to find the place where our gifts and talents meet specific needs in the world. Mostly it wants to be food for others, because in a world that deals out too much death, life-giving nurture is of the soul’s very nature. To hear its summons, “Put your ear down close to your soul and listen hard” (Anne Sexton).
Speyer is a Benedictine Oblate as well as an author, subject matter expert for e-therapy, clinical consultant and director of InnerView Guidance International (IGI). He also directs a documentary series entitled GuideLives for the Journey: Ordinary Persons, Extraordinary Pathfinders. http://www.guidelives.ca/ Connect with Cedric on https://www.facebook.com/cms94 or via firstname.lastname@example.org