Friends, is it well with your soul? How is it going with your soul? I know that this may seem an unusual question. Perhaps not so unusual for a minister to ask his or her congregation, but certainly it is not common parlance between casual or even intimate friends. But since so many of our scriptures refer to the soul—including the one shared today—I wonder what we mean when we say, “soul,” and I wonder, too, at the health of our souls, individual and collective, as much as I wonder about the health of our bodies.
Why is this question so difficult for us to ask each other in the light of day or ourselves in the quiet of the night? For one thing, we aren’t often clear on what we mean by “soul.” Some of us, unless there is scientific proof of the soul, believe that soul language is a bit of mumbo-jumbo. Some of us may entertain such questions with suspicion; we may suspect a tone of superiority in those who ask like the stranger who once approached me on the Boston T (subway) who abruptly asked me if my soul was “saved” or not. He was more interested in proselytizing and affirming his particular role in redemption then listening to my soul’s questions. I turned away.
Sometimes we do not inquire re. our souls because quite often we fear the response to which we have no ready answer. A loved one struggles with guilt or a lack of forgiveness and there is no clear answer, no one size-fits-all-remedy to offer, and to be honest, their struggle often highlights our own. Yet even when someone has a physical malady to which there is no easy fix, no clear path to healing or help, we still sit with them in the questions, in the pain, and in the silence, acknowledging their soul’s confusion, their pain, and their frustration.
It is so much easier to ask about someone’s broken wrist or lousy knee, bad back or painful, untreated abscess than to inquire regarding one’s soul. Yet body and soul are united.
Today we hear, “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope…My soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning.” (Psalm 130:5-6)
The soul waits, but what is the soul, exactly?
Some may define soul as the seat of human consciousness. Others believe the soul to be the unification of our humanity and the spark of God within us. Some consider the soul to be the fingerprint of God, the manifestation of God in this world by way of your unique embodiment. Some would speak of the higher self or the eternal essence of a human being. In Genesis, the Lord God forms man from the dust of the ground and then breathes into his nostrils the breath of life and the man becomes a living soul. (Gen. 2:7)
James Hillman described the soul as that “which makes meaning possible, [deepens]events into experiences, is communicated in love, and has a religious concern,” as well as “a special relation with death.” Richard Rohr, the Franciscan friar, has written,“ I think of soul as anything’s ultimate meaning which is held within. Soul is the blueprint inside of every living thing that tells it what it is and what it can become. When we meet anything at that level, we will respect, protect, and love it.” Yet, he also says that many human beings haven’t actually found their own blueprint or soul, so they have difficulty seeing soul in anyone or anything else. He writes that instead, “most religious people are largely conformists. There’s nothing wrong with conformity as such, but when it is only meeting reality at the external level, and we do not meet our own soul, we have no ability to meet the soul of anything else either. We would have done much better to help other Christians discover their souls instead of ‘save’ them. My sense, after being a priest for almost 50 years, is that most Christians are trying to save something they have not even found.”
In Matthew, we learn that human beings, if not careful, can “lose” or jeopardize their soul while still alive. Jesus asks, “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” Indeed, but it might be more understandable to say that we can injure or entrap our souls unwittingly. Despite the old hymn, “It is Well with My Soul,” our souls can frequently be at odds with our bodies, our hearts, and our neighbors. The psalmist asks, “Why are you cast down, O my soul,and why are you disquieted within me?” (Psalm 42:11) I suspect each one of us has experienced our soul’s disquiet, but we don’t always recognize how it manifests and why. We don’t always recognize when we have entrapped our souls or injured our souls, either by our own choices or someone elses’.
The other day—my sons and I were having a fairly typical day, when my son had a small “accident” with the chair downstairs. When I asked him about what happened, he vehemently denied any involvement, though the proof was staring all of us in our eyes. What was most difficult was not the accident itself, not the lying that followed (though disheartening), but my son’s initial inability to receive healing for his soul. My son screamed; he ran from all of us; he went upstairs and slammed the door. He locked himself (or tried to) in the bedroom and then he wailed again. “Give him a hug,” my other son said. “Come, here, and I will give you a hug and we can talk,” I said. But my son was so ashamed, so adamant in his denial, so separated from his brother and me, that he wasn’t sure how to be reconciled if it meant acknowledging his untruth and the pain it was causing him internally and us. His body was fine, but his soul was not. And he did not know how to go about healing it.
This is fairly common behavior for children—6 year olds—for certain. But the way our souls can suffer all manner of injury is not unique or limited to children or to a particular age or development. Deborah Grassman, who has done considerable work around soul injuries with veterans and those experiencing trauma, has said “the source of soul injury is unmourned grief and unforgiven guilt and shame over things we think we should or should not have done. Unmourned grief and unforgiven guilt can sabotage lives.” Veterans, victims of sexual assault and trauma, those who have suffered losses in myriad forms, caregivers, as well as people who have experienced loss of personal health or a loved one’s health, death of a loved one, or betrayal by a significant other can all suffer the effects of soul injury. Essentially, when a soul is healthy, it is integrated. When a soul experiences a soul injury, the effect is some degree of disintegration and distancing from ourselves. Grassman says that studies have shown that 50% of the population has experienced some degree of traumatic event. However, Grassman suggests a process by which souls may be healed from soul injuries:
- Opening to the pain or shame we flee from;
- Telling the story to a receptive “witness”;
- Re-owning the lost part of our self; and,
- Re-homing the self by retrieving the fragments of hidden scattered selves.
Throughout time, the Christian tradition has offered resources, including confession, prayer, and communal ritual to deal with the injuries and disquietude in the soul. But it has not always offered a compassionate witness. When people of faith are able to talk with trusted others about the many and various injuries that the soul is prone to without experiencing abandonment, isolation, overbearing and arrogant presence, or futile disconnection, then the searching soul can feel safe enough to acknowledge the scattered and forsaken parts of itself. When the church can hold Christ’s forgiving presence in the midst of relentless self-incrimination and pain, then the soul may come home to itself in ways that promote well-being and continued growth.
Our souls are not simply individual; there is a collective soul as well. We speak of a soul of a family, a community, and a church. The historian, Jon Meacham, recently has written a book called The Soul of America. In it, he defines soul as what makes us us, whether we are speaking of a person or of a people. He says, “In our finest hours…the soul of [our] country manifests itself in an inclination to open our arms rather than to clench our fists; to look out rather than to turn inward, to accept rather than to reject.”  Using history, Meacham’s book reads like a prayer for our nation to rise towards its’ better angels and to recall those times when our nation’s soul has been sorely tried and risen to the occasion, despite the challenge and fear. It is an exposition, in many ways, of how the United States has moved in the direction of healing in its brief lifetime as a nation.
And where is God in all of this? To acknowledge and to heal the soul, to provide safe places to explore the soul’s questions—both of individual and collective souls—seems to me a way to connect and to reconcile with God in the same way that my son and I offered our arms, our words, and our hearts to heal and to hold my son in his inner turmoil. There can be no growth without acknowledgement of that which shames and stunts our souls; likewise, there can be no peace for our souls without a compassionate “witness” to embody that peace we so desperately seek. With such worthy companion(s) at our side, we might be brave enough to examine our spiritual pain in the light of day and before God.
Grassman shares this story: After she had spoken on soul injury, a woman came up to her out of the audience. The woman shared that the woman’s adult daughter had died of unknown causes. This caused the mother, obviously, a lot of unresolved grief. Many months later, the mother told her friend, “My soul is dead.” And the friend asked, “But why would you say that your soul died?” And the mother answered, “Because my soul is who I am.” The friend then said this: “Your soul is not dead. You’re just so injured that you can’t reach it right now.” After Grassman’s presentation, the woman in the audience had come up to Grassman to say that she was so glad and excited to hear that this experience of soul injury had a name because it gave her such hope for the future.
Friends, “We wait for the Lord, our souls wait…more than those who watch for the morning dawn…” Let us then wait knowing that there is help and healing for our souls no matter how disquieted we may be as individuals and as a nation. Let us inquire of each other, “How is it with your soul?” and truly listen to the reply. For when two souls meet on such holy ground, God is there.
 Hillman J (T Moore, Ed.) A Blue Fire: Selected writings by James Hillman. (New York, NY: HarperPerennial, 1989) 21.
 Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM. The Soul of All Things, Monday, March 5, 2018. https://cac.org/the-soul-of-all-things-2018-03-05/
 Jon Meacham, The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels (New York: Merewether LLC, 2018) 8.