What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?
-- Mark 8:36 (KJV)
Some say that life is an opportunity to grow a soul. If the soul is something we have to grow through a lifetime, then it follows that we start with only the dry seed and not the thing itself. Garrison Keillor, pastor to the largest congregation of liberals, says that if you’re planning to sell your soul, you should nurture it a while so it will go at a good price.
The organization that trains me, judges my work and declares me fit for my ministry has pledged itself to “Recovery of Soul.”* This pledge presumes that soul has been lost. Lear said that “the first time that we smell the air we waul and cry.” Something is always already missing – not on the world’s first day but on the first day of our sentience.
Our cry of birth, the sign of new life, cues our parents’ joy. They celebrate our loss, and we seek our restitution from them. When they disappoint us we go into the world, assuming that somewhere out there we’ll find the missing part of us. We try out our various toys, loves, works and deeds. Some of them are worth living, perhaps even dying for. But none of them is the thing missing. When we think that one of these obsessions is our soul, that’s what’s called idolatry.
Stanislavski loved to watch his cat relax, leaving a round full imprint on the pillow. He wished his theatre students could do the same, but of course they can’t. They’re human, and they’re in the theatre, and they leave a jagged imprint where they lie. We actors and human beings are split by definition, so our weight comes down to earth irregularly. It’s not our fault. It’s our paradoxical blessing, that we’re not cats but human beings. We’re not made for spherical oblivion on the counterpane. Our great opportunity begins with the bum’s rush, flaming sword behind us, nostalgic for what we can’t remember because it isn’t memorable, yearning to be again in the place where we didn’t know where we were, each of us free malgré lui.
Before we managed our appearance before God – before we donned our fig-leaves, corsets, cravats and tuxedos, rags and uniforms, spectacles and lab-coats, bikinis and little black dresses – we had no knowledge of ourselves. To know ourselves is to know that we are missing something. They’re watching us, and we forgot to get dressed. We wish we were better, or at least better-looking; but we’re not, and so the costume parade commences, the greatest show on earth.
We’re not born bad. The notion that we are infernally blotted because our first ancestor didn’t stay in the womb is one of those fantasies engendered by idle, idol theology – faith with too much time on its hands, envious of house-cats. We’re not created evil, but rather with something missing, all of us like Macduff untimely ripped, because there is no time for such a word.
I talked to a man of business who suffers unbearable pain. Every year or so he comes back to treat the pain again. What is the reason of this torment? Is God trying to tell him something?
For that matter, is suffering the slang of God? Is the slaughter of Haitian innocents a kind of singing telegram, a way of getting our attention?
My Baptist businessman and I agree that God doesn’t massacre babies or torture a man’s spinal cord to prick the conscience. Nature follows her courses, and from agony and outrage a conscience may arise, but that is our accomplishment not God’s. Rain falls and buildings collapse on the just and on the unjust alike. Pain recurs to this man in spite of his faith and prayers, in no discernable relation to his balance of good and bad deeds. If this is the divine message, then God is a poor communicator.
The world is what it is, not what it would be if . .
And so my Baptist becomes a Stoic. “The world is what it is,” he says, “but I have my grandmother in my pocket.”
His grandmother was wise. She had seen many idols exposed. She could bring him back to himself, from the worship of what his hands could make, and she gave him an icon, a little cross he carries on his keychain. When the world that is what it is goes into deathly spiral, he can put his hand on wisdom. Grandma reminds him to wait here incomplete, and to resist the lust for sirens of completion.
Seductive are these demons, born of our dearest hopes. The financial industry is our most recently burst pustule of idolatry, but liberals must remember that wealth is not the only corruption. If only I could publish this book, or get this body pregnant, or found this church, or cure this disease, or change this unjust law, or get this child of mine into the correct pre-school, or win this woman’s love . . . All these projects are born of the life instinct. All of them can, without appearing to change, turn deathly. We should ask of the priest, the politician, the doctor, the social worker, the protester, the parent, the lover, what we long to ask of the banker: is your dream the means to a greater end, or has it become the end itself? Are you its master, or has it eaten your soul?
When Moses saw God in a burning bush, the bush was not consumed, and the flame that was not a flame carried the voice of a God who was not there. When Isaiah saw God, the hem of God’s garment filled the temple, which was the prophet’s way of saying that, though he heard the voice there, God was not in the temple but somewhere else.
“It is in your power, whenever you shall choose, to retire into yourself,” wrote the stoic emperor Aurelius.** To recover the soul is to take Grandma out of the pocket. Which is to come back to ourselves. Which is to remember our mortal incompletion. To be full and round, leaving an even imprint on the pillow, is to be dead before we die.
The soul is recovered when we know its absence.
*Covenant of the College of Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy, www.cpsp.org
**Meditations IV.3 (trans. George Long)