On Not Knowing the Soul

This was delivered on June 23, 2014, as the Chapel Service as part of my Clinical Pastoral Education – Summer Intensive program.  We have chapel daily and we students are responsible for creating the content several times per month.


Opening Words Image

May all that is unknown

be a place of wonderment.

May ours be a spirit of curiosity,

no spiritual imperialism,

religious hegemony,

or emotional supremacy.

Let us be a wideness

an open-heartedness,

a humility not of our own making.



This morning I read a few passages at our morning meeting from Victoria’s Sweet memoir and treatise on Slow Medicine, which is a movement in the halls of medicine which like the Slow Food movement, is meant to bring us back to our roots, to ground us, to relinquish the sterile and embrace the life force. Sweet’s version of Slow Medicine is strongly informed by her understanding of the work of medieval Christian mystic, Hildegard of Bingen whose understanding of the green life force in all continues to offer wisdom to how our bodies and the world heals.

In the introduction to God’s Hotel, Dr. Sweet talks about her first autopsy, which when I re-read it this past week, brought me back to my first viewing. Perhaps it will do the same for you. When the body is uncovered, she discovers that it is the body of one of her very first patients. As she reacted to seeing the body, she writes,

Something was missing. But what? Mr. Baker’s breathing? His movement? His warmth? What I had expected, I later came to realize, was some sort of thing, some unopenable last nubbin, like what you find at the center of a baseball when you unroll it. I had expected some thing that was, well, ineradicably Mr. Baker, something the pathologist’s saw could not open and destroy. But there was no such thing: I could see for myself.

Much later I learned that medicine had once had a name for this, this something present in the living body but missing from the corpse. Two names, actually. There was spiritus, from which we get the English spirit, although the Latin spiritus was not insubstantial as “spirit.” Spiritus was the breath, the regular, rhythmic breathing of the live body that is so shockingly absent from the dead. Spiritus is what is exhaled in the last breath.

And there was anima. Usually translated as soul, the Latin is better for conveying the second striking distinction between Mr. Baker’s dead body and Mr. Baker – its lack of movement. Because anima is not really the abstraction, “soul.” Anima is the invisible force that animates the body, that moves it, not only willfully but also unconsciously….

By the time medicine got to me, however, words like spiritus and anima had been banished from the medical vocabulary.

Here we are, in the halls of a great institution of medicine, and we have the vocabulary. Perhaps they are different words – perhaps your words differ from mine – but we have such a vocabulary to offer, to embody, in our work in this place. We have the opportunity and responsibility to remind this place, these people, and ourselves about the soul of the work we do.

One of my spiritual ancestors was Ralph Waldo Emerson, a Unitarian minister in the middle of the 19th century who was good friends with Henry David Thoreau and connected with the Transcendentalist movement. Emerson was highly influenced by the “newly discovered” Eastern traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism. It was in his exploration of the intersections between Unitarian Christianity and Eastern views of the nature of the universe that he wrote an essay entitled, “The Oversoul:”

We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within (hu)man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal ONE. And this deep power in which we exist, and whose beatitude is all accessible to us, is not only self-sufficing and perfect in every hour, but the act of seeing and the thing seen, the seer and the spectacle, the subject and the object, are one. We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole, of which these are the shining parts, is the soul.

The soul is either a very delicate thing, or an everlasting thing. It is disputable and indisputable. Self-evident and non-existent. A matter of belief and, for some, a matter beyond believing. It is the foundation upon which theologies have been built and kingdoms sold away. It is where we locate any immortality that might exist; it is where any sense of permanence might reside; it represents wholeness unyielding to the vagaries of disease and death (though, apparently, it is possible to be corrupted morally and bought through a deal with the devil). Even for those who are not sure what they believe happens upon the death of the body, the survival of the soul offers solace.

Here is one poetic reflection on the soul, this one from Mary Oliver, entitled, “Bone:”

  1. Understand, I am always trying to figure out
    what the soul is,
    and where hidden,
    and what shape
    and so, last week,
    when I found on the beach
    the ear bone
    of a pilot whale that may have died
    hundreds of years ago, I thought
    maybe I was close
    to discovering something
    for the ear bone
  2. is the portion that lasts longest
    in any of us, man or whale; shaped
    like a squat spoon
    with a pink scoop where
    once, in the lively swimmer’s head,
    it joined its two sisters
    in the house of hearing,
    it was only
    two inches long
    and thought: the soul
    might be like this
    so hard, so necessary

    yet almost nothing.
    Beside me
    the gray sea
    was opening and shutting its wave-doors,
    unfolding over and over
    its time-ridiculing roar;
    I looked but I couldn’t see anything
    through its dark-knit glare;
    yet don’t we all know, the golden sand
    is there at the bottom,
    though our eyes have never seen it,
    nor can our hands ever catch it

    lest we would sift it down
    into fractions, and facts
    and what the soul is, also
    I believe I will never quite know.
    Though I play at the edges of knowing,
    truly I know
    our part is not knowing,
    but looking, and touching, and loving,
    which is the way I walked on,
    through the pale-pink morning light.


That is the true thing and the hard thing: our part is not knowing. We are pulled and pushed, drawn to ideas that attempt knowing, attempt defining, attempt to explain. The impulse is beautiful, is innocent, is a simple yet voluptuous artifact of our humanity – yet the acting upon it is too often a twisted, mechanical perversion of the Ineffable. Though I play at the edge of knowing, truly I know our part is not knowing.

I recently had the honor to sit with a mother, father, and seven-year-old as she asked her parents about the death of her beloved grandmother. The question arose of what happens when the body is turned to ashes. This was, compared to the question about heaven, much more concrete, and thus, easier for me to answer. Because she was seven (and not four and not eleven) and because it was her question, not someone else’s, I responded with simple, concrete, accurate details of the cremation process. No euphemisms. No make-believe. No non-verbal indications that this is a weird or off-limits question.

The heaven question, now that one was harder. In my faith tradition, there is no one answer about what happens upon death. Some say heaven and some say earthworms. Some say both. Some say that and more.   In general, we UUs tend not to emphasize much attention to an afterlife for two reasons: since no one has come back with confirmation, we simply don’t know anything with any reliable certainty. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, as the Rev. Marilyn Sewell says, “we do know about suffering and injustice on this earth, and so we try to create the Kingdom of Heaven here and now, with real people.”

I know there are huge, important distinctions between the soul and any afterlife, and yet I find, at least today, that there is not much difference, or not difference enough for our purposes here and now. The cosmos is vast and grand. Differences on our human scale seem paltry in the face of its grandeur. In honor of this, I offer a second and final poem. This one from John Glenday, entitled, “Concerning the Atoms of the Soul”:

Someone explained once how the pieces of what we are
fall downwards at the same rate as the Universe.
The atoms of us, falling towards the centre
of whatever everything is. And we don’t see it.
We only sense their slight drag in the lifting hand.

That’s what weight is, that communal process of falling.
Furthermore, these atoms carry hooks, like burrs,
hooks catching like hooks, like clinging to like,
that’s what keeps us from becoming something else,
and why in early love, we sometimes
feel the tug of the heart snagging on another’s heart.

Only the atoms of the soul are perfect spheres
with no means of holding on to the world
or perhaps no need for holding on,
and so they fall through our lives catching
against nothing, like perfect rain,
and in the end, he wrote, mix in that common well of light
at the centre of whatever the suspected centre is,

or might have been.

So we can let scientists and theologians, believers and non-believers, good people and good people, debate and discuss on the virtues and possibilities of the soul, its weight and its fate. Here on earth, at this hospital, in this place of suffering and healing, we companion those souls with bodies, spirits in human form, sparks of divine light who talk and moan, live and love, breathe in and breathe out. It is our deepest honor.

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