Warm-up #1: Resetting the Stopwatch with Kairos Time

Soul Element Exercised: Timelessness

 

“In the spiritual life, God chooses to try our patience first of all by His slowness. He is slow: we are swift and precipitate. It is because we are but for a time, and He has been for eternity. . . . There is something greatly overawing in the extreme slowness of God. Let it overshadow our souls, but let it not disquiet them. We must wait for God, long, meekly, in the wind and wet, in the thunder and the lightning, in the cold and dark. Wait, and He will come.” – Frederick Faber

 

“You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life.” – Dallas Willard, on the health of the soul

 

It’s been a shocking two months since I’ve last written, and it shows how much I’ve become locked into the chains of chronos time (gr. scheduled, chronological time). But a little over two weeks ago, at 25 weeks along in my pregnancy, I took my last chance (pre-child) to go on an intensive retreat with 52 students from our Jesuit high school where I work, a retreat called Kairos (gr. “God’s Time”). It was a chance to step out of the office, step out of my responsibilities as a wife at home, and focus on the spiritual needs of myself and the community of the retreatants there with me.gods-time-1

The retreat was an intense four days of talks, reflections, prayer, small group chats, and emotional revelations, from seven in the morning to past midnight each night. Day two included my 25-minute talk as a retreat leader on the topic of “God’s Friendship”, which was simultaneously empowering and emotionally draining. It required me to dig down to things I hadn’t touched in a long time as I rehashed my history, including my faith struggles during my parents’ cancers, the pain and disorder of my father’s loss, and my own intense loneliness as I navigated those years feeling isolated in the experience due to my age and entrapment caused by my dependent status. To make sure the kids listening understood my perspective from these rough years of my late adolescence and very early 20s, I didn’t hold back on those elements; however, the meat of my talk arose from those moments (and I shared most of them) when I realized, sometimes many months after the events, that I wasn’t alone, in any of it, ever.

I won’t share the whole talk here. It was a long one. But I will say that writing it and giving it served as a reminder to me, as much as a revelation to some of the kids, that God is active in our lives in quiet ways, through gentle reminders, circumstantial blessings that are unexpected, and the generous hearts of others who follow an impulse that goes beyond mere human kindness – the kinds of gestures that can’t be explained by anything but the influence and presence of the divine.

I went back to my room that night to find a thick mail packet on my bed. Although most students (despite the secrecy surrounding this retreat) have come to expect that a part of Kairos is getting some letters from your loved ones as an encouragement, I was surprised as an adult leader to have notes from anyone but my husband, to whom I’d shared the details of the retreat ahead. As I opened note after note, I realized he’d done more than just follow an impulse to write me a little something for my Kairos mail; he’d hacked into my email to contact relatives, college friends, and even high school friends. I also opened several notes from many of my coworkers, sometimes surprised by their candidness as they shared their thoughts on their past four-and-a-half years with me.

And as I read past two in the morning in that Spartan little retreat room with one light, I remembered those many moments in my life when these note-writers had shown me that I wasn’t alone. I remembered, too, the intense spiritual talks with some of them that had influenced me in darker times.

Even though I came home on Day 4 from the retreat to almost immediately engage with the real-world and its demands again, the spiritual time-out allowed me to remember, as I embark on this next part of my life journey, this time as a parent at the end of my twenties, that I’m still not alone.

I just had to take the time to remember this truth by disengaging myself from the world’s notion of time and dipping into the non-scheduled space of eternity.

I need to do it more often, and I hope that anyone reading this gets inspired to take off for a little time to themselves to relive moments of God’s kindness in their lives. After all, it’s hard to understand and enjoy that kind of eternal, everlasting love unless we can turn off our calendar apps and schedulers for a little while and experience the time our soul is made to dwell in: an unlimited continuum not measurable with a minute-hand.

Taking that little space to breathe gave me one relieving piece of knowledge: that God measures our lives as a kind of ripening, and not as a rush.

 

Warm-up #2: Cleansing Breaths to Replace “Comparisonitis” with Gratitude

Soul Element Exercised: Peace and Perspective

 

“We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.” – Thornton Wilder

 

“To be truly grateful, you must not only recognize the benefits or gifts that come your way, but that they are not just random acts; they are not accidents. They are coming from Someone who has good intentions for you.” – John Ortberg, Soul Keeping

 

I’ve been home from the retreat for a few weeks now, doing what women in their third trimester tend to do: scurrying around completing childbirth education, scheduling prenatal medical appointments and tests, planning for the mountain of work to get done (or leave detailed guides on how to do) before maternity leave, and trying to outfit the necessities in the nursery (oh, and doing taxes, because it’s that time again. Joy.).

I admit, when I sat down in February to figure all this out in terms of my calendar and our budget, I felt frankly overwhelmed, anxious, and at times resentful.

Not that I wasn’t grateful to be having a healthy baby – I was and still am—but I had been running seemingly every day into women who are or have recently been pregnant and who have far more of this figured out, or have had the luxury of more personal time and more financial resources due to their husband’s full-time employment, than I do. These well-meaning women have kindly asked if I’d heard of this class yet, or if I’d joined a prenatal yoga group, or gotten scheduled for massages to help with pregnancy pains, or how often I was able to nap during the day (my answer – never, during the work week).

Pinterest before bedtime didn’t help. I stumbled with a sort of helpless nesting-instinct-driven-fascination onto blogs written by women who have had the resources and time to set up and document beautiful nurseries in well-proportioned houses, and buy adorable and expensive clothes, toys, knickknacks, and doo-dads. I came across scholarly articles telling me that I was a bad mom because I hadn’t also shelled out a lot more money to take this other special class, or have this special test or treatment, before my due date arrived.

I’d shut off my laptop some nights and wander the 20 feet into the single bedroom of our apartment which I realized had been all furnished with hand-me-down furniture that I’d cobbled together into something resembling “cozy”. I had one area by the window where I was hoping to fit in the rudiments of a nursery, and I was having trouble envisioning what would go where in a small room that was seemingly full already.

Even as I shut off the lights, the smallness and the shabbiness of the room still dimly shadowed my mind as I thought back to the sparkling affluence and beauty of the things I’d looked at others enjoying on the web as other couples filled up their big nurseries and big houses with exciting things for their newborn.

And then, on the penultimate weekend of February, my in-laws arrived to offer a cradle that had been in the family for decades. My husband had once slept in it, and other kids on that side of the family, too. And in our tiny apartment, it was a better answer than a huge crib, at least for a little while. It came inside with us from the backseat of their car, out of the cold and snow.

This is the little cradle with so much history.

This is the little cradle with so much history.

As I polished up the old wooden cradle and gave it an experimental rock, I noticed some things about it. The first was that it had been well-sanded to a gleamy smoothness before it had been stained, and its components had been put together entirely by hand using a tongue-and-groove design; there’s not a clunky nail in sight. And then, as I looked closer at some of the scratches and nicks in the wood, I recognized places where wedding rings, toys, and maybe other furniture had scraped this cradle as babies were placed in and lifted out of it, from years and years in my husband’s family, in days and nights of loving routine and fretful concern.

I thought about the hours spent in previous generations sitting beside this cradle, and all the sudden, all of it – the stuff on Pinterest with that posh designer feel, the anxiety I felt about putting the nursery together in time, the worry I felt about finances being there when we needed them – it just went away.

And I remembered to be grateful for what we already had, which was all that was really going to matter: that this child would be born with a loving extended family and the commitment my husband and I have for each other. That’s all that most babies for thousands of years have ever been able to ask for, and it’s all that any expecting mom can really hope for.

 

But on that note about all this other baby stuff, stay tuned for some upcoming posts about Bringing Up Baby on a Budget….

It’s been several months, readers! I apologize. It’s been a wild ride.

And really, it’s funny that my last post in September was about a DIY facial; the breakout I experienced at that time was due to a rush of progesterone, which was one of many biological clues (and one prove-it-all test) that led to this announcement to Boaz:

Baby announce collage

Can you read it? The moment was captured live on September 17 on my smartphone, so it’s a bit blurry at this size. My message next to the sticky bun says, “There’s a ‘bun’ in the ‘oven’!”

I’ve confided on this blog before that I (hence, we) have been using the Fertility Awareness Method for nearly two years – first, to avoid pregnancy naturally (successfully, too), and then, more recently in August, to reverse the pregnancy-avoidance method to attempt to conceive. I don’t know why I was so convinced that it would take us months and months to conceive on any method, but I was pretty darn wrong.

So, the last few months, I’ve been busy, busy, busy, in addition to being sleepy, nauseous, and hungry, to the point of coming home from work and making dinner, eating it, and falling asleep in my plate instead of writing blog posts.

The second trimester is definitely here now, though, so I’m feeling much more like myself . . .

. . . And at the same time, not myself. Because at the moment, I’m essentially two people in one body.

What a strange way to start off 2015.

As weird a body-space as I’m occupying now, the head-space of this change in state has been even stranger. Everyone has heard stories about the bizareness of pregnancy dreams and cravings and so forth, but no one warns you about the philosophical space you enter.

One of the more persistent thoughts I’ve had as I entered 2015 has been this:

I’m a soul, nurturing another soul. Whoa.

It’s thought-fodder enough to really shape my resolution this year:

I want to learn how to feed my soul so that I can ultimately nurture my child’s.

That gets into some tricky grounding, though. After all, what even is a soul? And why is it that nobody (not even in most churches, folks!) seems to ever talk about it, or seem care about it anymore?

We live in an era of history where the shape of the body and the accomplishments of the mind are EVERYTHING. Our society chases new fitness and diet regimes, running until we have to replace our knees, then spend tens of thousands on degrees to prove we know what we know in the hopes of getting hired, making money, and enjoying life.

But we forget that neither the body nor the mind (or the material gains we make from them) are guaranteed to last – just ask anyone in a hospital spending what thousands of dollars they once had in savings on cancer treatments, or chat up one of the pleasantly confused old citizens wandering around your local nursing home.

I want to give myself, and my child, the only kind of health and wealth that lasts beyond this life.  

So, in this post, I want to begin exploring what a soul is, and what a healthy versus an unhealthy soul does. There’s a lot of (older) literature written about the soul, and there’s a lot to pull out of it in an attempt to define something so ineffable. Please feel free to jump in with your own gleanings from what you’ve read and discovered!

Defining the “Soul”

When most of us think of the word soul, the mostly widely-recognized early Western-world definition of the soul springs to mind without our realizing it, simply because this early definition defined so much of our foundational thinkers’ philosophies. Rendered in Greek as ψυχή, or psychē, it is loosely translated as the “life, spirit, consciousness,” closely related to the verb for breathing or blowing, essential for life; more recently in human history, it has served as our root for the word psychology (the study of the soul). We owe the popularity of this root word to Plato’s Republic, in which Plato presents the soul in three parts: logos (logic, mind), thymos (emotion, spiritedness, our response to the action in our world, considered masculine) and eros (the desires and wishes, considered feminine), which all strive to rule the will of a person. In Plato’s view, in a balanced, spiritually healthy person, logos rules the other two elements, and so commands the psyche. Like his teacher, Socrates, Plato believed that the soul, though influencing the physical body, survived after death, unlike the physical body.

In Hebrew tradition, the word for the soul is nephesh, likewise meaning “vital breath,” and, similar to Plato’s view, is an entity somewhat distinct from the body, although it nevertheless imbues life to the physical form on Earth through the touch of the divine.

Due to Septuagint-based translations of the Hebrew scriptures, many Christians pass over the word nephesh without even realizing that it refers to the soul when they read the English versions of Genesis 2:7 (“The Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being [or soul, since this is nephesh].”), and the Psalms (such as Psalm 49:8, often translated as “The ransom for a life (nephesh) is costly; no payment is ever enough.”), and even the Torah-building law book of Deuteronomy (in Deut. 4:9a, the English Standard Version translates most correctly, “Only take care, and keep your soul (nephesh) diligently.”)

Other times, the Septuagint renders nephesh directly into the English word soul or spirit, most notably in the Psalms, which depict some behaviors of the soul: yearning for the divine (and in many places, responding to the sublime as a connection to the divine), feeling unrest, and enjoying celebratory praise and giving blessing, as well as enduring beyond life, leaving behind an empty body. Here are some examples:

Psalm 43:5a: “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me?”

Psalm 63:1: “O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.”

Psalm 103:1: “Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name!”

Psalm 116:7: “Return to your rest, my soul, for the LORD has been good to you.”

Psalm 146:4: “When their spirit (here, denoted as ruach, meaning “breath, wind, spirit”) departs, they return to the ground; on that very day their plans come to nothing.”

This last Psalm uses the word ruach, which also has a few other instances of use in the Old Testament canon, including uses that tell us more about the soul or spirit. I’ll summarize what I found: A person’s “spirit” has many characteristics, including unfaithfulness (Psalm 78:8), sincerity (Psalm 32:2), and humility (Isaiah 57:15). The “spirit” can also be unsettled, even crushed (Joshua 5:1), but it can also be restored and brought back to health (Isaiah 57:15).

In the Christian New Testament, the word psyche (sometimes rendered psuche) is predominantly used for the soul (this is presumably Koine Greek rather than Plato’s Classical Greek). Jesus’ teachings frequently mention the word, and it’s re-emphasized again in the apostolic writings. All these instances agree that the soul is eternal, valuable, and able to be damaged by darker forces and burdened by evil doings (this is remarkably similar to ancient Egyptian beliefs recorded in the Book of the Dead, by the by).

Here are just a few example verses:

Matthew 16: 26 –[Jesus speaking:] “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul (psyche)? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?”

Matthew 10:28- [Jesus speaking:] “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul (psuche). Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in Hell.”

1 Thessalonians 5:23 – [Paul writes:] “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul* (psuche) and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

All of this is some heavy theology. But the point is pretty clear. The soul is important. We should care about it. But how do we figure out how to do that?  Maybe it’s best to look at what the unhealthy soul and the healthy soul look like for some clues.

What a soul so often lacks is the quiet needed for clarity. We live in a noisy, attention-seeking world.

How an Unhealthy Soul Behaves

 “Because my inner life is invisible, it is easy to neglect.” – John Ortberg

The soul seems to be a fragile thing in scripture and even in Platonic philosophy. Since it serves as the harbor for the complexity of our personal traits, spiritual energy, and competing desires as well as acting as the burden-bearer of our life experiences, it is prone to great unrest.

Theologian Dallas Willard devoted a great portion of his life to understanding the behaviors of the soul; one of his students, John Ortberg, boiled down some of the behavioral patterns of souls in poor health using one of the parables of Jesus from Matthew 13: 3-9, the Parable of the Sower (Ortberg, 54-60). This parable outlines three unfulfilling attitudes of various “states of soil” (which the reader understands as representing the states of various people’s souls) as they respond to a generously given “seed” (a message from God or the divine):

Hardened: This is a soil (soul) that has surrounded itself with a protective shell of bitter cynicism or suspicion after bearing the burdens of a life made difficult through sources of continual, overwhelming fear. Good things that try to grow here never even get the chance to take root.

Shallow: This is a soil (soul) that has a very shallow level of growthful depth, caused by a preoccupation with immediate gratification and comfort that leaves no room for “staying power” or capacity for commitment beyond that initial gratification. This is a soil that won’t give the best of itself to nurture anything. What good things try to grow here unfortunately die quickly.

Thorny/Cluttered: This is a soil (soul) whose focus is entangled with externals that seem important – the pursuit of a material lifestyle, awesome reputation, or unique and exciting experiences— that choke out its desires for the more valuable, simple, less glamorous blessings that come from the divine. Good things that try to grow in this soil have to constantly compete and do battle with the myriad pleasures and status-boosters that this soul desires.

Sad thing is, none of us choose to have souls in these conditions, but they do happen—to all of us, I think, just at various times of life. And when they do, they alter our psychological (our psyche’s) mindset completely, blinding us to the deeper truth of our circumstances. It can lead to our isolation or alienation from friends, cause rifts in relationships, or set us up for disappointment and heartache in other ways. Often, we look back on these periods of poor soul-health later in life with regret, recognizing at last the many missed opportunities or the time-wasting pursuits (or even relationships!) that we were too blind to see for what they really were while we were rolling around in our bad soul-dirt.

I’d love to try to protect myself in the future from having more of those regrets, and teach my child to keep him or herself balanced to avoid these spiritual pitfalls . . . but life, it seems, can really throw us all for a loop.

How a Healthy Soul Behaves

“A soul,” explains John Ortberg in Soul Keeping, “is what integrates your will (your intentions), your mind (your thoughts and feelings, your values and conscience) and your body (your face, body language, and actions) into a single life. A soul is healthy – well-ordered – when there is harmony between these three entities and God’s intent for all creation. When you are connected with God and other people in life, you have a healthy soul” (43).

Keeping this in mind, there are a few specific ways that a healthy soul then behaves:

A Healthy Soul Stays in Alignment with What It Values.

I think it’s hard to feel settled within ourselves when we observe occasional hypocrisy in our own behavior. Worse, inconsistency within our actions can become even a little pathological, leading to disordered thinking and behavior over time. But when our souls are consistently aligned with what we most deeply value, we gain a deep spiritual contentment and true sense of being where we are meant to be. One of the prayers I’ve learned at my job at a Jesuit high school comes from Fr. Pedro Arrupe, S.J., and it goes like this,

“Nothing is more practical than
finding God, than
falling in Love
in a quite absolute, final way.

What you are in love with,
what seizes your imagination,
will affect everything.

It will decide
what will get you out of bed in the morning,
what you do with your evenings,
how you spend your weekends,
what you read,
whom you know,
what breaks your heart,
and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.

Fall in Love,
stay in love,
and it will decide everything.”

This kind of empowering commitment gets our butts off the couch and out there with other people who need us. It’s a powerful, meaningful way to live and to see life.

A Healthy Soul Finds Contentment.

. . . But not by going out the door looking for something/someone to give it contentment, but by practicing the art of gratitude for what is already present.

How often do we forget how blessed we truly are? Friends, family, even our abilities, all of it is really a gift. We forget that, sometimes! But when we remember to be grateful, we no longer feel the need to go restlessly searching on, seeking that one other thing we need to make us happy. We find happiness in the moment.

We remember, too, that God is a part of that happiness, when we see how little of what we had was actually earned by our actions. “Praise the Lord, my soul,” writes the Psalmist in Psalm 103, “and forget not all His benefits . . . who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, who satisfies your desires with good things . . .”

A Healthy Soul Draws Sustenance from Something Other than the Self.

We live in an age where even well-meaning people say, “Take care of yourself!” when we feel run-down or are faced with a difficult trial. While it’s sensible to care for our bodies with adequate rest and nourishment, a soul finds its sustenance beyond the bounds of our bed and board, and certainly finds better food for growth and thought when we aren’t too focused on ourselves.

When we’re run down by the demands of our draining, self-filled lives, our souls miss the replenishing focus and direction provided by the divine. We often forget the power of prayer in this regard, but as Francois Fenelon, an erstwhile royal tutor to King Louis XIV (who fell out of favor when he stood up to the monarch) discovered while in a very stressful exile, “In order to make your prayer life more profitable, it would be well from the beginning to picture yourself as a poor, naked, miserable wretch, perishing of hunger. . . These are true pictures of our condition before God . . . and God alone can heal you” (qtd. Ortberg, 87).

A Healthy Soul Has No Need to Become Anything Else.

A balanced, well-nourished soul that is connected to others, content with its own resources, and is connected to God is virtually unstoppable. It gives the soul-bearer an oddly glowing, resilient, hard-to-drag-down quality, even in tough times. It also grants the soul-bearer the kind of un-self-concerned freedom, inner strength, and courage that’s needed to reach out to others in need in ways that are deeply meaningful and life-changing. There is a ton of value in having a soul that’s in this state, because this in itself is extraordinary in terms of its spiritual potential.

In the words of Dallas Willard, “You are an unceasing spiritual being with an eternal destiny in God’s great universe . . . The most important thing in your life is not what you do; it’s who you become. That’s what you will take into eternity.”

But of course, getting to this point can really take some work. Join me in the coming weeks as I come around to this topic again in a mini-series of posts called “Workouts for the Soul.

In the meantime, happy, soul-nurturing New Year to you all!

Ruth

NOTES:

* There are some disagreements about the role of the soul versus the spirit among Christian theologians; some view them as interchangeable, as “spirit” (rendered pneúma or ruach in Greek ) closely resembles the meaning of nephesh in Hebrew (both referring to breath, as in breath of life of the divine). But there’s also a lot out there about whether the soul and the spirit are separate entities, as it appears sometimes that they are used interchangeably, and at times, as separate and defined entities.

My take on this debate rests on Hebrews 4:12, “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, bone and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” From this metaphoric phrasing I (admittedly simplistically) extract that soul and spirit are loosely both a part of the same spiritual force, although with defined functions, like a bone contains marrow, with the ossified tissue of bone playing a different, but supporting role to marrow tissue. To me, though, this whole argument really isn’t terribly important; regardless of the roles of each, both spirit and soul point to the deepest, most essential and spiritually-enduring parts of us.

Non-linkable Citation:

Ortberg, John. Soul Keeping: Caring for the Most Important Part of You. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014. Print.