Anne Quindlen once wrote, “You are the only person alive who has sole custody of your life … Your entire life … Not just the life of your mind, but the life of your heart. Not just your bank account, but your soul.” And yet many of our decisions both individual and collective neglect the importance of the soul. We make financial decisions which prioritize our bottom line, and not the impact our choices will have, both positively and negatively, on our soul. We argue and strategize politically and professionally, without wondering how our plans might eventually enlarge our souls, or diminish them and leave us numb, brittle, and full of regret. We go to war, pass legislation, and promote ourselves in social media and leave our souls out of the question or relatively low on the list of considerations.
And yet our souls demand to be heard. Even our collective soul speaks in a voice that recalls our memories, our triumphs, and our disasters. Joy Harjo, member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, and the 2019 Poet Laureate of US and first Native American Poet Laureate of the United States, has said, “The homeland affects you directly: it affects your body; it affects the collective mind and the collective heart and the collective spirit.” Janet Mock, a transgender activist and television director, has argued, “We are all part of a larger collective looking to create a more beautiful and just world.” It is not too much to imagine that our church, our society, our nation and our world have a soul that has been shaped by our collective choices and actions. We remember that Reinhold Niebuhr, 20th century theologian, once warned “evil is not to be traced back to the individual but to the collective behavior of humanity.” And our collective behavior results from our collective soul.
If we can acknowledge our individual and collective soul, we might also acknowledge that our souls both require healing and refuge. We yearn for it, yet we can simultaneously, persistently, and stubbornly deny it. In Psalm 71, our psalmist finds in God a refuge—not simply for his person, but for his soul.
How many of us can relate to this psalmist who prays, “Do not cast me off in the time of old age; do not forsake me when my strength is spent” Or the intense yearning and confidence of these verses: “You who have made me see many troubles and calamities will revive me again; from the depths of the earth, you will bring me up again. You will increase my honor, and comfort me once again.” It is precisely when our souls have been dishonored, disregarded, distanced, denigrated, and diminished, that we –in want and in need–seek shelter and refuge. It is precisely when things are not well with our soul, that we yearn and dare to cry and sing, it is well, it is well, with my soul.
Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of this psalm asks God to be a guest room to which the psalmist might find retreat. I have a guest room, do you? In our guest room, we change the sheets regularly, even when our own beds go unmade. In our guest room, there is quiet, tissues, and a bedside lamp. In our guest room, there are fresh towels, a clean washcloth that the kids haven’t muddied, and a private bath for our guest’s use. In our guest room, we do not intrude; it is almost a sacred space and therefore it ceases being my home office when guests arrive. There are no random toys over which to trip, no piles of laundry to sort, and a door that our guest can leave open or close, purely as she wishes. At least, when I am given some notice, I keep that guest room intact. Of course, this is just an analogy of the respite to which our psalmist craves, and our own souls need.
How do we create that refuge, that guest room, for our souls? How do we protect it? Souls can get out of practice; in denying themselves, they can deny others. In failing to protect such a sacred space, we can forget the way home. We tend to think that we must approximate a strong and stellar faith to live in God and with God and yet that is utterly false. C.S. Lewis writes, “That one is perfect in faith who can come to God in the utter dearth of his feelings and desires, without a glow or an aspiration, with the weight of low thoughts, failures, neglects, and wandering forgetfulness, and say to Him: ‘Thou art my refuge.”’ That is to say, that the one who possesses a strong faith is the one who can trust God despite failure, mistakes, misgivings, forgetfulness, and mood swings of despondency. One learns to trust God over time; it is a muscle that needs to be exercised to have any effect. One seeks the guest room that God provides and trusts that it will have clean sheets and a sense of calm awaiting, despite calamity raging all around.
So, there is an inner refuge and an outer refuge to which we may all turn in seasons of distress. Call it God, call it Spirit, call it your soul’s at-the-ready guest room, but do not forget that it is there. Building that refuge is a work of courage and the spiritual work of a lifetime. And sometimes, sometimes it is the work of others to help build a bridge to refuge; it is certainly the work of the church. It is difficult work to seek physical refuge for oneself or one’s family at the very same time that one is suffering from a lack of spiritual refuge for one’s soul. Just as the struggle for physical refuge is a struggle for human safety and survival, the struggle for inner refuge is a struggle for soul stability and survival.
In the dystopian novel, Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel, a lone band of survivors form a Traveling Symphony that performs both Shakespearian drama and musical pieces to the sparse settlements that arise after a terrible flu epidemic causes societal collapse on a world-wide scale. The calamity is so widespread and so complete that the marking of time is reordered. This is a time when more than 90% of the world’s population along with many of the inventions that we take for granted are completely and utterly non-functional and useless. But why perform Shakespeare and Bach when one doesn’t have life’s basic conveniences? The people’s souls need more. As a sign on the lead caravan of the Traveling Symphony says, “Survival is insufficient.”
Friends, our mere physical survival is insufficient to these times and the desire for another’s mere survival is insufficient. If we have soul, then we are concerned likewise about the well-being of that soul, both individual, but also collective. How many of our discussions with ourselves might change if we were to approach the question from a soul’s standpoint? Will this decision ultimately enlarge my soul or diminish it? In what way will I give my soul refuge during this time of pain or distress or discernment?
In an op-ed piece for the New York Times called “The Long Struggle for America’s Soul,” Andrew Delbance poignantly writes of the comparison between fugitive slaves in the 19th century and illegal immigrants today. He describes a strong link between their shared “anguish” and shared sense of “devastating nobodiness” which is inflicted by a society that treats them as non-persons. He writes, “People demeaned in this way forced Americans then, and force us now, to confront the central question of our history: Who is — or isn’t — recognized as fully human? Our Declaration of Independence was supposed to answer this question with the proposition that ‘all men are created equal’ and ‘endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights,’ including ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’”
And yet. Can we justly pray for refuge when we deny others the same? What does this do to our soul?
In Aug 2018, the BBC recounted a true story of a little French village that had grappled with its collective soul. It had read a verse from the bible and took the verse quite seriously. The verse was Numbers 35:11: “then you shall select cities to be cities of refuge for you, so that a slayer who kills a person unintentionally may flee there.” (NRSV). Historically, the village was a place of refuge for Huguenots, the French Protestants escaping religious persecution during the 17th century. The region is still referred to as ‘La Montagne Protestante’ (the Protestant Mountain). Many years later, during WWII, a Protestant pastor André Trocmé, and his wife, Magda rallied both their congregation and the locals. The Trocmés made a bold plan to hide Jewish refugees in attics, barns, hotels and cellars across Chambon. And the town agreed. The BBC recalled that “conditions for Jews had rapidly worsened after the collaborationist Vichy government set in motion the Statut des Juifs in 1940, which demanded that Jews declare themselves and imposed heavy restrictions on their ability to work and travel. By law, all foreign refugees were to be surrendered.” Chambon succeeded in saving 3,000 Jewish refugees by hiding them in and around the village.
The BBC writer questioned how this might be possible. She concluded that the history of Huguenot persecution was still fresh in the memory of Chambon’s largely Protestant population, who empathized with the worsening conditions enforced on Jews by France’s collaborationist Vichy regime. In short, their souls were able to empathize with the persecuted minorities.
Sisters and brothers, how is it with your soul today? How might you strengthen your soul for its struggles ahead? How might you give your soul refuge by trusting God in this time and place? How might you help God to change the sheets, open the door, provide a glass of water, while recognizing that there is more than one way to lose and gain a soul?