Encountering Shattered Lives

Jun 23, 2019 by

Sermon by Bob Bond

A question … this sermon’s question! … a serious question seeking a meaningful answer from you, and for you:  What is the difference between spirit and soul?

We’ve just come through Pentecost which is all about Holy Spirit, and then through Trinity Sunday which annually parses God into three, the third-named aspect being Spirit.  “Spirit”, if you’ll allow me to lead (on the basis of longstanding usage), is something we intuitively search out by ‘looking upwards’.  It is pure and soaring, disentangled and unrestricted, emotionally positive and focussed, life-giving and life-directing, energizing!

Soul, on the other hand, we intuitively find by looking not just downwards but both ‘deeply’ and ‘widely’ so.  It is not so much a thing as a quality or dimension of experience.  It is all about complexity and nuance; shadow as much as light; emotionally challenging and difficult yet satisfying and right.  Interestingly both modern psychology (at least, some of Carl Jung’s disciples) and ancient ‘soul doctors’ put forward an understanding that it is not soul that is within us, but rather we that are in soul.  Thomas Moore in his 1992 book, Care of the Soul, wrote

The Renaissance magus understood that our soul, the mystery we glimpse when we look deeply into ourselves, is part of a larger soul, the soul of the world, anima mundi.  This world soul affects each individual thing, whether natural or human-made. (pp 167f.)

While such thinking let alone talking may not be our norm, they are part of the tradition which is our norm (this Christianity of ours!).  Together, then, these two phenomena – spirit and soul – are ‘there’ for us to ponder and reckon with, as aspects comprising every one of us.

This is all not as foreign as some might be thinking.  Consider: You know when you come upon a piece of music that lifts you, or an idea that picks you up out your everyday reality and breaths new life into you, or a relationship that makes any other secondary, or a movement that clarifies everything (puts everything else lower-on-the-list because this one aim or goal “is it!”) … these are spirit filled and empowered, and we actually say so (to ourselves and others!) when we use the word “inspired”.

You also know when – within the same realms of experience – you come upon a piece of music with soul:  it is complex, possibly messy; it is not afraid of minor keys and dissonance; there are different voices in it, and their relationships aren’t necessarily easy ones; and when the piece is done you might well be exhausted but you know you’ve experienced something important and true (something that resonates with your own inner complexity, including twists and turns in your relating to what has come before, and what is yet to come).  You know when you are in the presence of a soul-full person:  someone who has experienced life’s range of difficulty, failure and loss as well as satisfaction; who has actually engaged in these things (not turned away from them), and so has come to know ‘self’ even as they have come to perceive the world with balance, wisdom and humility.   You know when you are in a building that has soul.  Here I’ll turn to another observation made by Thomas Moore.  The medieval cathedrals of Europe were built with amazing vaulted ceilings and spires, much light and focused beauty as one’s eyes move upwards, heavenward … which is all about the spirit.   Down below where all the people move about, there are intricacies everywhere you turn:  Columns, grottoes, icons, statues, candle-light, shadow, fonts, patterned floors, venerated ancestors entombed in crypts … indeed whole complex underworlds, holy places, broad spaces, intimate confessionals, echoes everywhere, all of it made of costly substance and great beauty … this stuff is all about soul.  The cathedral as a whole portrays the coexistence and correlation between spirit and soul; it is teaching just how it is supposed to be inside the worshippers themselves who come there to do their liturgy (their “work of the people”).

Not just cathedrals, but there are public buildings in our cities, and private dwellings / homes – indeed individual rooms, indeed small corners of rooms! – that have profound soul about them; there are streetscapes with soul and neighbourhoods with soul and gardens with soul.  You likewise know the experience of neighbourhoods, streets, buildings, homes, rooms, and plots of land with little soul (shallow soul, sometimes broken soul) about them.

It is interesting to me that we don’t often talk about soul in church.  We talk a lot about spirit.  And here I’m using the pronoun “we” in its broadest, inclusive sense:  speaking for Christianity across the ages.  Whole movements of Church History get caught up in the spiritual pursuit for loftiness and purity and single-mindedness and perfection … movements that come to cherish themselves as embodying what is holy and right and the rest of the world profane and in need of salvation.  Across that same history it is often from the margins – from places of monastic separation, or from places of ministry to the infirm, the dying, the prisoner, the disenfranchised – that a spotlight gets shone (a) on the place of the soul, and (b) the enduring, balancing importance of care for the soul.

Let me give you an example of the practical and present difference between these two ‘ways of the person’.  Within a spiritually-focused world view, depression – when it is encountered in oneself or another – is a problem.  It is shadow and darkness obscuring the way of light.  It ‘pulls down’ in opposition to the soaring that is desired and constantly sought.  So what is needed is – seemingly obviously – a fix, a rescue, a make-over to get things back on an upward path.  Within the world view of the soul, however, depression is known, accepted and valued as a needful and productive/creative movement.  There is no other way to go on from complicated loss in life, or disappointment, or failure, or shame, or any one of a number of other unavoidable distressing human realities than to fall apart, sit in the midst of the broken pieces, come to know and feel them each, and all, then figure out or intuit out or feel one’s way out concerning what to do with all the pieces, recognizing the old way isn’t possible anymore.

Depression is where Elijah found himself.  The man truly was spent / exhausted.  Not just for days, weeks, or months but for years he had championed the reality of Yahweh, the god of the Hebrew people, against pretty-much full-scale religious, political, military and social opposition.  He endured!  And there came a climax … that scene on Mount Carmel with God’s fire coming down on the water-drenched altar and God’s holocaust vindicating Elijah’s faithfulness.  A spiritual high, leading on to an awe-full (full-of-awe!) cleansing of the land.  But crash in on Elijah it all did when, next, Queen Jezebel put a contract out on him.  That’s where today’s Old Testament passage starts.

We recognize the depression.  Not that scripture uses the word … it doesn’t even possess this concept the way we have it … but Scripture plays it out geographically (a common ‘portrayer of meaning’ in biblical stories):  Elijah finds himself in wilderness.  And there he prays to die; he lays down and sleeps, praying to die.

As the story moves on, we actually get to hear Elijah’s description of the loss / disappointment / failure / alienation and hence the brokenness he is experiencing:  “I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”

We are going to come back to this story in a while, people, to ponder God’s response to Elijah’s brokenness (his depression); but before we leave it, let us recognize this fact:  as you heard from Garry’s reading, following God’s dramatic answer-to-Elijah’s-state, Elijah remains un-moved in the depression.  Elijah declares the exact same state-of-being and of perceiving: “I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”  Using words we’re focused on today as diagnostic tools,

  • Elijah’s spirit remains dashed, and
  • his soul is unmoved/unaffected … by which word-choice I mean to say he has not moved one centimeter beyond sitting in the midst of the broken pieces, coming to know and feel them all; he has not started to figure out or intuit out or feel his way through, recognizing the old way isn’t possible anymore.

Elijah’s story, overall, is one big on spirit [(a) ramped up-and-up over the years to dramatic climax, then (b) broken], and it is a story small on soul [… ‘soul’ is pretty much a missing dimension!].

Let me pause with you, here, to insert a cautionary statement lest we think ourselves superior for figuring such things out and living otherwise.  There are indeed limits to what any person can take in life without being shattered … there is such a thing as ‘too much to bear’.  I’d have worn out long before Elijah did.  And in times of my life when spirit was enthusiastically fueled and soul unexplored, my end-state could not have been any better than his.

Today’s Gospel story is about a man who had been pressed way, way beyond the point of ‘too much to bear’; and here I remind this congregation of Ray Hobbs’ work with us and for us, in years gone by, on this very Gospel story.  That wild, scary, naked man among the tombs actually speaks to us about his modern diagnosis – across two millennia of medical advancement – by his naming of the demon hoard:  they are Legion, he says.  This comes from the lips of a Roman legionnaire who has lived brutality and violence and destruction that tears (in any time and across all time) at the anima mundi (the soul of the world); it has shredded away the man’s sensitivity and sensibility; it has displaced human spirit by brokenness and deposits of evil, hurt and rage.  As of the end of the Second World War, military doctors came to name this phenomenon “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder”.  However, increasingly, psychotherapists join to challenge this naming because it is truly not the sufferer but rather the triggering brutality and violence and destruction that is disordered / out-of-order / out-of-place within the anima mundi (the soul of the world).  What a traumatized soldier goes through as a result is horribly difficult and lousy but it is a normal and correct (not at all “disordered”!) response to the terror they have lived.

Here, again, I would pause with you to recognize an important characteristic of the soul:  The soul ever reveals itself, its state and its needs, in powerful statements using its own rich-and-complex language:  the language of symbol.  Anyone can access this most directly by considering one’s dreams, where every setting and actor and relationship and movement is about the dreamer, delivered symbolically.  Beyond dreams, you’ve heard me say it so often you’ll consider me a broken record when I point as well to a person’s relationship patterns, a person’s sicknesses, even a person’s word choices (and so much more about the person!) as symbols flooding us with feedback about ourselves … the way I’m framing this afresh, in today’s sermon, is to say all these things are the soul “speaking out” / “exercising its voice”.

And so this first century soldier reveals, to any who dares look on, the fact of the destructiveness of Rome’s dominion-making and warfare.  He – “acting out” in that graveyard – is a window into the soul of the Empire.  But there is Gospel / Good News as well, for this man.  There is good news for victims of trauma in every time, when they and their lived reality get heeded and heard, the trauma – every bit of it!, in that soldier’s case the bits as numerous as the swine on a neighbouring hillside – [that trauma] being revealed and recognized and validated (not consigned to an abyss of silence, instead its destructiveness fully exposed and expressed)!  The soul gets to hold up all its broken pieces, and then figure out or intuit out or feel its way out concerning what to do with them all, recognizing the old way isn’t possible anymore.  There’s no going back; but there is “now”, and there can be a going forward.

I promised a return to the Elijah story, and the reason is that even though Elijah was unmoved by what God did for him, it is still the case that God did what is of most basic, profound, and primary importance for a soul shattered and brought low from devastating experience:  And this is something that all religions offer their followers, if only those followers are attuned and practiced in applying the gift they have at hand.  It is the discovery that God (the divine, the creator, the provider, the saviour) is right there at the point when the devastation (the fire, the earthquake, the storm) has done all its worst and we are standing there feeling only broken and exposed, feeling only disappointment and alienation, sensing there is nothing left … lo and behold it is in that void, that silence, that stillness that God shows God’s-self to have been present all along, and indeed it becomes known afresh that God’s-self is never any further away than this, and so there is ultimate Ground of Being upon which the currently shattered and scattered pieces can be built up, put together differently to mean something more soul-ful (more nuanced and complex and mysterious — more full of both shadow and light, both crooked and straight — more significant than anything before).

Such is the reality of “soul”.  May you, may we, be ever deepening and widening this work-of-soul as individuals and as a community.  Indeed may our gathering be always cathedral-like for one another:  a rich co-existence of the beauty of inspiration from on high with the depth, the breadth, the honesty, humility and strength of soul.  Amen.

Pastoral Prayer

God the Creator, Provider and Saviour; Jesus the Way, the Truth and the Life; Holy Spirit our inspiration:  When we bow our heads, it is both a movement intending to express our deference before (our honouring of) You, and a movement that focuses on and surveys our state-of-soul (looking down into its breadth and depth; its areas of integrity and those of brokenness) in order to bring about a full and true encounter of ourselves with You in prayer.

God, thank You for the mystery of the anima mundi (the “soul of the world”) and the mysteries of our “being in soul”.  Help us as we live out these mysteries!  God, the things of life that present (or are received by us) as “against us” (… against our soul’s longed-for ‘upward climb’) [these things] seem to come at us from everywhere at times(!), and the losses / challenges / suffering are great at times.  We also do find ourselves as members of this tradition (this Christianity) not just schooled in but founded upon a movement of the soul that goes: “death to self” divinely answered by resurrection into new order.  Help us as individuals, and as a gathered body, ever to tend our soul work, O God, to nurture it, to pursue it along the journeys and to the destinations You would have us go.

God we pray for our world, fully aware how the anima mundi is in peril.  Just days ago we learned the world was only minutes away from American military response to Iran that potentially could have escalated into nuclear war, with the deciding man one with no signs of soul, and such idolatrous spirit.  We can equally reflect on leadership issues across Asia, Africa, Europe, Russia, South America; indeed we must reflect on the Canadian soul laid bare on First Nations reserves, out on tar ponds, in laws pressing down rather than lifting up targeted segments of the population.  God let us (individually and in this community) find and live the way of prophetic voice and action, the way of neighbour-love and enemy-love solidly built upon self-love (as both Old and New Covenants require), the way of Jesus.

We pray for people of this congregation, and for people in each of our many communities, whose work-of-soul in their current circumstances is hard, hard work to do.  We pray for Glenys, Charles and Cheryl, Beverly; individually we pray for others whose names we bring to You in silence. <pause> God, help them!; be clear to them as “Ground of Being” even as you made this clear to Elijah.  Let us be ones who attend them, who bear witness to your work of death-answered-by-resurrection, even as Jesus did for that Geresene man among the tombs.

Our prayers we sum using the words Jesus taught us to pray together:  Our Father, …  Amen.

Benediction

In the words of Joshua: “Be strong and of good courage; be not frightened, neither be dismayed; for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”  [Joshua 1:9]

In the words of Jesus: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” [John 14:27]

Go now in the providence of God, the grace of Jesus, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

 

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