-- José Saramago, Blindness
Every Sunday night from January to May, I am in the soul shaping business. On those evenings I meet for two hours with a class of rambunctious and curious and antsy eighth grade young adults. There I challenge them to do one very unusual thing: to think about their souls. Not their minds that are well cared for in school all week. Not their bodies that are challenged in sports and pushing through puberty so that each of them might grow into amazing young women and men.
No. What I seek to help them realize, cherish and develop is their souls. My faith tradition, all faiths recognize one essential spiritual truth. The best life, a good life, the most meaningful life, always works on soul shaping. Soul growing. Soul nurturing. A soul: the unique part of ourselves that makes "me", me and "you", you, unlike any other human being among the 7.6 billion people who call planet earth home.
I know that for most of us "soul" is a very squishy idea, hard to nail down or define, and yet, we each do have a soul. Some "thing" within, more than our bodies, the mere physical containers within which we move through the world. A body is finally just a collection of chemicals that makes it possible for us to walk and run and breathe and eat and speak and laugh and procreate and touch and live.
Nor is the soul about our minds either: the center of our ability to think and reason and learn and imagine and create. One hundred billion neurons, the cells that send and receive electro-chemical signals to and from the brain and nervous system: these fire our minds. Make it possible for a toddler to say "Mama" for the first time and for Albert Einstein to propose E=MC squared, unlock the secrets of time and space.
Yet the soul is so much more than a body or a brain.
Remember the first time you really fell in love and your heart leapt for joy? That was your soul. The moment you cradled in your arms your newborn son or daughter and your heart broke wide open? That was one soul meeting another soul. The anger you feel at the world's cruelty and injustice and the conviction that moves you to do some good and make this world a better place. That's a soul in action. The feeling you have that there must be more to life than arising, eating, working, sleeping, repeat. That's a soul wondering. Or the sparks of connection you experience in another: their energy, personality, passions, quirks, ideals, and essence? You are encountering their soul.
Our culture does a great job in telling us how important it is to take very good care of our bodies and our minds. So we spend hundreds of billions of dollars and spend lots of time and effort on going to the gym and playing sports and visiting doctors and taking medicine to make sure our chemical containers are in the best of shape.
We spend the first 12 to 16 years of life, even beyond, in the full time business of learning, of filling up our brains with knowledge, honing the life skills we need to survive and thrive. We test and test and test our kids to make sure that their minds are up to speed, push them to get into the "best" schools, and pray that they will find a calling and work in life, and always be able to make a living.
But what of our souls? How well do we take care of the soul within each and every one of us? How is your soul this day? How are the souls of the folks you love: your children, your family, your community? What are you doing (or not) to shape the one soul that God gave to you?
A wise teacher once famously asked, "What does it profit a person to gain the world but lose their soul?" He knew that a life of wealth, power, material possessions or external beauty: it all falls short if a person does not also do the soul work of life. To find meaning and purpose in what we do and who we are. To live for others and not just for self alone. To look beyond the external appearances of a fellow child of God--race or class or sexual orientation or ideology--and instead just see and honor another soul. To love, not as a transaction, but as a gift and a courageous leap into life.
This is the work of the soul. So absolutely, go and workout this week, hit Planet Fitness, take your pills, and eat healthy. Read a book, go to school, soak in knowledge. But don't forget to take care of your soul too. And if you'd like to join my Sunday night confirmation class, you are more than welcome!
All souls invited.