There are many places where the intellect is given room to grow - schools and universities are a good example. The same is true with the emotions. Therapy groups, 12 step groups, small church groups all provide space for injury to be explored, anger and joy expressed. Task forces and committees provide room for the will to be exercised, organized, formed and shared. And the ego? Well, pretty much anywhere we go there seems ample space for our egos to bump against each other!
I am reassured by the fact that the church provides hospitable (but sometimes indulgent!) space for all of these parts of us - intellect, emotions, will and ego. But there is another part of us that Parker Palmer thinks about in depth in his book A Hidden Wholeness (particularly chapter four). There is another part that he worries we make dangerously little room for. He calls it the soul. I think of it as the deep center of our being, the place where the unique voice of God resides in each of us, the inner compass that resists being deformed by the pressures and messages of everyday life and sickened by the toxicity of the busyness of our age. Spaces designed to welcome the soul and support the innery journey are rare. Palmer says, "Apart from the natural world, such spaces [for the soul] are hard to find - and we seem to place little value on preserving the soul space in nature."
Yet, it seems to me that making space for the soul is the primary mission of the church from which all others flow. How would our life together look differently if we were to better make way for the soul within each of us to find room to roam?
Palmer imagines the soul as a wild animal: "Like a wild animal, the soul is tough, resilient, resourceful, savvy, and self-sufficient: it knows how to survive in hard places." Yet it is also shy. If we want to see a wild animal the last thing we should do is go crashing through the woods yelling for it to come out. It takes patience, quietness.
In Zorba the Greek, Nikos Kazantzakis offers a story that hints at the harm that our "crashing" can do, no matter the good-will with which we do it:
One morning...I discovered a cocoon in the bark of a tree, just as the butterfly was
making a hole in the case preparing to come out. I waited a while, but it was too long
appearing and I was impatient. I bent over it and breathed on it to warm it. I warmed it
as quickly as I could and the miracle began to happen before my eyes, faster than life.
The case opened, the butterfly started slowly crawling out and I shall never forget my
horror when I saw how its wings were folded back and crumpled; the wretched butterfly
tried with its whole body to unfold them. Bending over it, I tried to help it with my
breath. In vain.
It needed to be hatched out patiently and the unfolding of the wings should be a
gradual process in the sun. Now it was too late. My breath had forced the butterfly to
appear all crumpled, before its time. It struggled desperately and, a few seconds later,
died in the palm of my hand.
That little body is, I do believe, the greatest weight I have on my conscience. For I
realize today that it is a mortal sin to violate the great laws of nature. We should not
hurry, we should not be impatient, but we should confidently obey the eternal rhythm.
Healthy relationships, circles where there is trust, are neither invasive or evasive. In places where the soul might come out, we neither invade the mystery of another's true self, nor do we evade another's struggles. We stay present to one another while stifling any impulse to fix each other.
Palmer identifies four affirmations that get at what soul-safe space looks like:
So, there is much here. And if you have made it with me thus far, you have shown patience and endurance. May the Spirit add to that wisdom as we continually seek to be a community that listens to the wild voice of God that dwells within each of us.
Chuck Sigars is currently an elder at St. Andrew and a newspaper columnist and author.