Thought for The Month February 2023
Do you have a soul? If so, what’s it like? What do you do about it?
I imagine a number of you will simply answer “yes” to the first question and send this “thought” to the recycling bin. Some of you may feel angry that I am turning my thought inward at a time following the earthquake in Turkey when the thoughts and prayers of most of the world are outward bound. In which case apologies; yet, I would claim, this is possibly the most important question in your life and will need an answer long after the world has moved on to the next tragic news story.
Let’s start with the Virgin Mary and her song called the Magnificat. “My soul doth magnify the Lord…” Not my “voice”, not my “feelings”, not my “thoughts”, but my soul. Everything about the annunciation was bad news – a pregnancy outside marriage, with all the difficulties with your husband, your family, your in-laws, the local community that that involves. Not to mention morning sickness and the rest of it. It would not have been surprising if feelings and thoughts had given voice to dismay. That’s what your “flesh” would say; but her “spirit” spoke of pride, of trust in God, of exaltation.
I always used to tell my students not to include a dictionary definition of a topic in an essay, so here, breaking my own rule: “soul” can simply mean a person. Old King Cole was a merry old soul – not that he had a merry soul of whatever age-group, but that is the kind of person that he was. I think if he consumed all that tobacco and alcohol he wouldn’t have stayed a merry soul for many years. And if I were a king, I would want a full scale orchestra, chorus and soloists to keep me entertained, not some scrawny string trio.
So I don’t buy that definition. Let’s turn instead to Sir Thomas More in “A Man for all Seasons” talking about his refusal to countenance Henry VIII’s divorce: “And what would you do with a water spaniel that was afraid of water? You’d hang it! Well, as a spaniel is to water, so is a man to his own self. I will not give in because I oppose it—I do—not my pride, not my spleen, nor any other of my appetites but I do—I!” That is a definition I do buy.
Or another unlikely authority from the same period, Sir Toby Belch, talking about a famous duellist: “souls and bodies hath he divorced three”. This refers to the Elizabethan view embedded deep in our view of Man that the soul is like a partner that stays with us through life, from which we are only separated at death. Is it true? Theologians have tried to prove it by weighing a body at the moment of death, seeing if there is a change of weight at this crucial moment of departure of the soul. A futile attempt, given that a quantity air is also lost at this point – from more than one orifice! You might like to think of it though as what W. S. Gilbert calls a “legal fiction” – even if you can’t prove that there is such a thing as a soul, it is better to act as if there is.
If there is a soul, then we all, Christian or otherwise, have one. Including Walt Whitman, who looked forward to the journey into eternity with his soul:
Sail forth — steer for the deep waters only,
For we are bound where mariner has not yet dared to go,
And we will risk the ship, ourselves and all.
O my brave soul!
O farther farther sail!
O daring joy, but safe! are they not all the seas of God?
O farther, farther, farther sail!
And so, as Valentine’s Day comes around, my advice to you is to be good to your soul. I don’t know what things yours goes for – mine is uplifted by music, performing it and listening to it. And sometimes by complete withdrawal and emptiness, for God is there too. Know your own soul and her needs: treat her well, with affection and the things that she loves. She deserves it for putting up with you all these years.