Posts Tagged ‘soul’

PSALM 51:1-12

Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
    blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
    and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions,
    and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
    and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
    and blameless when you pass judgment.
Indeed, I was born guilty,
    a sinner when my mother conceived me.

You desire truth in the inward being;
    therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
    wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
    let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins,
    and blot out all my iniquities.

10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
    and put a new and right spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me away from your presence,
    and do not take your holy spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
    and sustain in me a willing spirit.

There is a high probability, although we can’t be absolutely certain, that David wrote this poetic prayer in the aftermath of his moral collapse. We hear in its words a profound sense of guilt and a desperate longing to be made clean. The sin he had tried to hide could no longer be blanketed behind a veil of denial and self-justification. As long as he persisted in walling off this part of himself, he was living a divided life.

For the ego this is rather typical, but for the soul – that dimension beyond our personality where our autobiography is archived and our highest spiritual aspirations are conceived – this divided state is intolerable. Whereas the ego coordinates the multiple roles we play in life, our soul thirsts for wholeness and authenticity. While David’s ego could go on with the charade of self-justification, his soul was tormented and in deep need of forgiveness.

Repentance involves a series of subtler moves beginning with the admission of guilt, and moving on through inner remorse, self-examination, personal confession, acceptance of consequences, attempted restitution, a pledge toward moral improvement, letting go of the past and moving on. The forgiveness of God makes all of this possible by holding before us the promise of freedom, love, and fulfillment.

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MARK 6:30-34, 53-56

30 The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. 31 He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. 32 And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. 33 Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. 34 As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.

Jesus knew that stress and exhaustion can wear down both our tolerance and our charity in the adventure of life. Getting away once in a while to just be by yourself and recuperate your energy and perspective may not sound very ‘religious’, but is in fact one of the most important disciplines of the spiritual life. When we are tired and distracted by daily concerns, we are less resourceful, less focused, and less able to bring to life the vision to see our way through.

After all, our bodies are not merely the containers we ride in; they are the outward manifestation and physical support of who and what we are. Neglect or abuse the body, and the soul-life suffers. Take it for granted or ignore the communication of its symptoms, and you soon lose touch with your deeper life as well.

On this occasion Jesus and his disciples were seen by the crowd in their attempted get-away, and found the throng waiting for them on the farther shore. There were men, women, and children who had been on the outside of the wall, not permitted to enter the sacred space of the temple because they weren’t  righteous enough, or healthy enough, of the right complexion. They saw in Jesus the hope of their salvation because he walked on their side of the wall, with a vision big enough to include even such as themselves, and with a love bold enough to reach through to the crying need in every human heart.

MARK 4:35-41

35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” 36 And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37 A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” 39 He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40 He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” 41 And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

Reading this story symbolically we might see the sleeping Jesus in the tossed-about boat of disciples as the “sleeping” or unconscious or dormant “deeper self” that indwells each of us. While we strain at our oars and try desperately to stay afloat, pumped with adrenaline and nearly overwhelmed emotionally, this deeper self is at the rear of our boat, detached and at peace.

We don’t realize that this source of inner peace is always available to us, and instantly accessible. Our trouble is that our focus is so exclusively directed to the threat “out there” and our thinking so riveted on problem-solving, we can easily accuse the deeper self of being aloof and uncaring. So we pass it off as so much impractical mysticism.

This peace within, however, is far from impractical. Indeed our greatest resource for meeting the external challenges of life is this core of serenity and strength, accessed through contemplative, or “centering,” prayer. You know what it feels like when you’re off-center and out of balance. Your focus is fractured, your energy drains away, and the pressures of life seem impossible to handle. Arousing the deeper self – not as a last resort but as your first priority – provides you with sustaining strength, a wider and longer vision, as well as with a miraculous power to “still the storm” that is wrecking the sails and swamping the boats of so many around you. The hardship may not instantly vanish, but you can now bring to it the insight and faith it needs.

ISAIAH 25:6-9

6 On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
    a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,
    of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.
7 And he will destroy on this mountain
    the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
    the sheet that is spread over all nations;
8     he will swallow up death forever.
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces,
    and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth,
    for the Lord has spoken.
9 It will be said on that day,
    Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us.
    This is the Lord for whom we have waited;
    let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

What is this “shroud” and “sheet” that covers human consciousness? It must have something to do with the “tears” and “disgrace” that the poet dreams will one day be wiped away by God.  And this? What’s at the root of this heavy anguish?

The answer is clear: death – or better, the fear of death.

Considered by itself, death is simply an end, the period at the end of our life’s sentence. Despite all the claims, no one knows for sure what’s after death. Clearly, the body that dies succumbs to decay and decomposes into inorganic compounds – the “dust to dust” of the old graveside eulogies.

The popular confidence in something, classically called the soul or “the real me,” that survives the body is actually quite recent in the history of religious belief. By far the most ancient and widely held notion is that when your time is up, you’re done. The personal ego that spent a lifetime (however short or long) managing an identity, collecting and casting aside the things of this world, and chasing all the while after an elusive happiness (or maybe running like hell) – that gig is up when you die.

When thinking human beings consider the prospect of mortality – and more specifically the certainty of their own death – a peculiar distress can come over the mind. Further reflection reveals that this life is characterized by pain, loss, and endings, along with the anguish these can provoke. The Buddha called this “dukha”: Life is suffering.

                                                                                              

What do humans do with this creeping realization of their approaching end? They busy themselves with other things. Countless distractions are instantly available to take your mind of the depressing thought. It can be therapeutic to throw your focus into something else – sometimes the more petty and trivial, the better.

Some people try to numb the distress with intoxicants. For as long as the cloud persists and the muscles are relaxed, the matter is as good as forgotten. But then, after the headache, it’s back.

Religion has done its part, with the invention of an immortal soul – “the real me” – that simply skips like a rock on a pond, from this life to the next. Or, according to Oriental theory, across many lives. In this case, the dark punctuation of death is but the briefest transition – the proverbial “blink of an eye.”

Critics have exposed the liabilities of such an eye-blink philosophy, noting how the minimization of death translates for so many into a disregard for the genuine (and passing) preciousness of life. In their hope and anticipation of a better life to come, they let this one slip by. If this one is particularly miserable, then such hope for the by-and-by can help you hang on till the end.

But here’s the point. Whether you are futzing around with meaningless distractions, finding solace in a drug, or pinning your focus on a paradise beyond, you are living (but not quite) under the shroud of a dangerous delusion.

While it’s not necessary to fixate on the real limits and final end of your mortality, living your life in full acknowledgement of this fact can be one of the most clarifying and liberating certainties there is.

Suddenly this moment, the one you were just about to dismiss and forget, is full of mystery and beauty. When this realization dawns on you, mark the day, for it is a day of resurrection. Fear is wiped away and you are finally truly alive.

COLOSSIANS 3:1-4

So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, 3 for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.

If you have been raised …  This requires us to shift our thinking about resurrection from an end-time event, or even a postmortem event, to something that Paul looked for in the here-and-now. It’s very likely that this letter to the congregations in the region of Colossae was not written directly by the apostle Paul, but instead by a successor in the Pauline tradition of early Christianity.

The letter amounts to a defense (called an apology) against the tendency toward Gnosticism in the Greek streams of Christian development. While much about Greek culture was a celebration of the body, physical beauty, and the sensual enjoyment of life, the influence of Greek philosophy – particularly under the guiding theory of Plato and the Orphic tradition – emphasized acetic discipline of the body, renunciation of animal passions, and eventual escape of the immortal soul from its mortal coil.

Some strains of Gnosticism advised early Christ-followers to deny the physical reality of Jesus, suggesting instead that he was truly a spirit-being in mortal disguise – that his body only seemed to be real but was only an illusion. He didn’t really die (since he wasn’t mortal), except to the minds of the ignorant who were spiritually blind to his essential truth. The career-path of Christ only appeared as Jesus in order to capture our devoted attention and carry it away from the material realm and ultimately out of this world.

                                                                                           

The reader will recognize that orthodoxy Christianity eventually went in a “gnostic” direction – emphasizing immortality over resurrection (more on that in a bit), soul over body, afterlife over this life, and, since woman’s body is so deeply entwined with the rhythms of earth, moon and natural time, also male over female, reason over passion, doctrine over experience, and meaning over mystery.

Even the apology of Colossians illustrates the challenge early Christianity had in preserving its Hebraic origins as it accommodated to the wider Greek culture (the future of its expanding empire). The contrast of “above” and “below” might suggest a logic of dualism, which can easily slip into Gnostic assumptions and convictions.

Jesus and his initial revolution had germinated in a different value-context, particularly when it came to the appraisal of creation, matter, body and time. For the Hebrews, these are not corrupt, evil or illusory. Instead they represent the manifestation of divine glory and the embodiment of God’s sacred purpose.

For the Hebrew, resurrection represented the sanctification of flesh, to the point where the expired physical reality of the body is renewed and becomes again an epiphany of the spirit. But it wasn’t about getting the departed soul back into its carnal container – which is how a Gnostic would see it, and with considerable disgust. The Greek problem was due to the fact that its worldview and anthropology (view of human nature) were dualistic; a “reunion” of soul and body would be going in the absolutely wrong direction.

The Hebraic view, however, saw body and soul as essential aspects of a single mystery – the living person. In this value system, resurrection is the symbol of healing, communion, wholeness and authentic life. As we contemplate the witness and example of Jesus, as we follow him to the cross where he died in solidarity with God’s love for the world, we can also step with him into New Life (what he called the Kingdom of God) as awakened, compassionate, and generous human beings.

ROMANS 8:6-11

6 To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.7 For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, 8 and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

9 But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.

Earlier the point was made that resurrection is different than recovery, revival, or resuscitation, in that it involves not just a “return to life” but a transformation through life to a higher level of freedom, fulfillment, and joy. In myth and literature it is commonly represented metaphorically in the raising of a dead body back to life, but what resurrection symbolizes is much more than a mere miracle.

We also learned that in Hebrew anthropology (view of human nature) the familiar split of body and soul, favoring soul as the real and immortal identity of a person, has no support. (The split and bias towards the soul came into Western thinking from the Greek and oriental cultures.) Hebrew thought regarded “soul” (nephesh) as the temporary and inherently conflicted “agreement” of two more primary things coming together, body (basar) and breath (ruach). These two “things” were later abstracted in Hebrew thought into matter and spirit,”or the material and spiritual principles coming together in and as the living person, or soul.

Paul considered these principles as opposing forces, acting on the personality from “below” (flesh, body, instinct) and from “above” (breath, spirit, wisdom). While the soul (ego, person) is the product of these two forces coming together, it is also where they are experienced as counter-forces pulling the soul in one direction or the other. So Paul would sometimes speak of life “according to the flesh” and life “according to the spirit,” by which he meant two opposite ways of living depending on whether your focus and commitment are on the “lusts” of the flesh or the “gifts” of the spirit.

So, you can give in to the flesh and allow the cravings and lusts of the body to drive your life (to selfishness and ruin, in Paul’s opinion), or you can surrender yourself to the spirit and allow the will and wisdom of God to guide you. Attachment to a life according to the flesh only brings suffering in the meantime, to the extent that its cravings can never be fully satisfied, and catastrophe in the end, since the body must eventually expire. And yet (as Paul sees it) this is where each of us is, until we can open ourselves to the breath (spirit) of God and be filled with new life from above.

We must “die” to the flesh and be “raised” in the spirit. That is resurrection.

EZEKIEL 37:1-14

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”

So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” 10 I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.

11 Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ 12 Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14 I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.”

Resurrection is a metaphor found throughout world mythology, and likely originated in early agricultural societies where local economies looked with expectancy to the return of life in the spring. Stories across cultures tell of the god or goddess who dies or is taken into the underworld in late autumn and rises again in new seedlings and green shoots.

Because his people had languished for so long in Babylonian captivity, the prophet Ezekiel saw them as having lost their chance at fulfilling God’s destiny for them. Back home in Jerusalem, his contemporary Jeremiah was working out this same grief and struggle for hope on behalf of those who had been left behind in the city’s ruin. Although their contexts were different in that regard, both Jeremiah (at home) and Ezekiel (in exile) were searching for signs of divine presence and purpose in the midst of human suffering.

What can you say to a generation whose faith in God has been drained of life and left strewn on the ground like sun-bleached disjointed bones? Other writings of this Exilic period (587-538 BCE) – the Book of Job notable among them – had already fallen into disenchantment with the god who protects the righteous and punishes sinners. This generation was barely old enough to remember, and many of them were not yet even born, when the foreign army of Babylon had invaded their land, toppled the city walls, devastated the temple, taken their leaders away in shackles, and left the “tree of Jesse” (the father of David and his royal line) a mere lifeless stump.

How can you give hope to a people who can’t even remember what home was like? There are no commitments left behind that they can look forward to picking up again, no nostalgia under the ashes that can be poked and stirred and fanned back to life. It’s as if they need to start with an absolutely new beginning, with a new cycle of time, a fresh creation and their own identity.

                                                                                        

Resurrection, then, is more than a recovery of what might once have been. Its literal meaning has to do with “being raised up” from a state of profound discouragement, hopelessness, paralysis or death. This literal meaning is widely used as a metaphor of an experience that is widely contemplated across the world religions, of not just coming back to life as it was, but transforming to a new quality, vibrancy, or fullness of life.

The help his despondent generation, Ezekiel had to first get them together – thus the sound-imagery of rattling bones clicking together, the sight of flesh covering skeletons, and of  the ground cluttered with corpses. Only with the body thus reconstituted could the breath (spirit) animate it with life and new hope.

We need to be reminded that Hebrew anthropology did not accept the oriental and Greek idea of a body-soul dualism. For the Hebrew, “soul” is the unique individuality of a human being, a synthesis of a material principle called body (basar), and a spiritual principle called breath (Heb. ruach, Grk. pneuma, Lat. spiritus). Once the breath leaves the body, it is dead and the individual soul simply ceases to exist.

Unlike their cultural neighbors farther West (Greeks) and to the East (Hindus), the Hebrews didn’t engage in speculation over the metaphysical status of the once-embodied soul. The metaphor of resurrection for the Hebrew, then, wasn’t just about getting a departed soul back into its former body. It was an event of new creation! God is starting again with a fresh word: Let there be!

This was good news for a community that had all but given up.

 

JOHN 4:5-15

5 So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

7 A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8 (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) 10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” 

11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12 Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” 13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” 15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

“I thank the Lord, blessed be, that I was not born a woman, a Samaritan, or a dog.” Such was one of the prayers that Jewish men might frequently utter on the street corner or in private, directed to a god who was all about separation, purity, and control.

This poor soul, born as a woman and a Samaritan, was in a bad place culturally speaking. Her people, the Samaritans, had made the unfortunate decision centuries earlier to give up their Israeli pedigree and intermarry with neighboring groups. Just as your typical dog in the street would have been a mongrel and half-breed, so this Samaritan woman was literally a hopeless mix of nonredeemable elements.

And a woman? Maybe even worse. She – Woman as mythic archetype – was the one who first disobeyed god in the Garden and listened to the serpent instead. And the serpent – again as archetype – was a representation of slithering darkness, the slippery principle of metamorphosis, bound to the earth and the very embodiment of rhythmic time. She had fallen for the snake, which subsequently made her a captive to the dark forces of night, moon, and blood.

Woman was dangerous.

But she is also necessary to the tribe’s continuation through the generations. So, woman needed to be carefully controlled. Strict rules about when and how she could be seen in public, what roles she was permitted to occupy in society, and where she stood in the sacred hierarchy of things – all of it kept her busy, distracted, and safely out of the way.

In first-century Judaism, woman was saved by association – not for what or who she was, but for where she belonged, and to whom. So when she found Jesus (a Jewish man) in her path, this Samaritan woman was probably tracing out her proper avoidance maneuvers.

                                                                                             

Everything could have gone without a hitch, but then Jesus spoke up and requested a drink of water from the bucket she had drawn up from the well.

We need to pause briefly here to acknowledge a few metaphorical signals that the author has placed on the stage of this story. The time of their meeting is “almost noon,” just at the apex of the Light principle and before the day begins its slide into Darkness. They meet at a well, a symbol of depth and mystery, provision and life. And then of course there’s the woman herself – archetype of Earth-power, embodiment, and generativity.

This may help us appreciate Jesus’ “living water” as more than a conventional reference to running water, or water drawn from a moving stream rather than a still well. This living water will slake the thirst of the soul for eternal life – not everlasting life later and somewhere else, but abundant life now … now … now.

Every human being, in his or her inmost self (soul) longs for wholeness, fulfillment, and communion. In the spirit of the story’s central metaphor, we all thirst for “deep wellness.” Not life derived or siphoned off some external source, but “gushing up” as a living spring from within.

Precisely because it is not derived and secondary but always accessible by a deep descent into the spiritual ground of every individual’s existence, this living water – this answer to the soul’s quest and fulfillment of its deepest desire – cannot be managed by religion, qualified by orthodoxy, or confiscated by any empire.

Conventional systems of division, hierarchy and control cannot allow for a spirituality that is mystically oriented, direct and spontaneous, transcendent of doctrines, and instantly available to all.

Letting that loose into the world could foment a revolution. And no empire wants that.