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Soulful living in a world falling apart

Monday, 12 February 2024  | Chris Brown

How lonely sits the city. (Lamentations 1:1)

So begins the ancient book of Lamentations. Its echo resounds in the recent assessment of United Nations Chief António Guterres that the world was ‘becoming unhinged’ (Address to the UN Assembly, September 2023). His pronouncement came before the outbreak of the Israeli-Palestine war. Coupling his statement with the graphic and distressing images of this war as presented to us through a twenty-hour media cycle, we might wonder if our world pivots on the rusted hinges of intractable cycles of violence, rendering us fearful and powerless.

Such indicators of unhinging are numerous. Guterres would point to our ecological tipping points as changing climatic conditions become our experience. People fleeing war, persecution and entrenched poverty increasingly encounter state-enshrined barricades, reducing our opportunities to welcome strangers. Inequality in access to resources continues to increase. Acclaimed technologies blur the distinctions between serving and manipulating people. Ideological authoritarianism threatens to erode democratic governance. Fear abounds. Seemingly straightforward notions of our being invited to populate this earth, to exercise stewardship and to share its abundance easily slip into the realms of naivety and wishful thinking.

This listing of indicators of 'unhinging' is far from complete. Theologian Walter Brueggemann encourages us to view such indicators as interrelated and to discern what lurks beneath them. This may mean acknowledging that we have been settling for an ‘inadequate and dehumanising way to live’. A significant underlying theme for Brueggemann is how humanity is being reduced to a commodity. This, he suggests, is choosing a pathway of death. The incredible loss of human lives considered as 'collateral' of war, as in the Israeli-Palestine and Russia-Ukraine conflicts, is a commodifier in extremis.

Life or death for the soul

How desolate indeed is this 'unhinged city' which, of necessity, we inhabit. How distressing for a pilgrim seeking paths that are life-giving when so many signposts camouflage their death-making destinations through underplaying violence, bad stewardship, lack of welcome, unequal sharing, commodifying humanity and political subservience. Can we still function in a world unhinged in such ways while not colluding with it or being formed in its shape? This could mean clinging to the one with the words of eternal life whom we know as the Holy One of God (John 6:68).

We might firstly heed Jesus, the Holy One's warnings. ‘What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?’ (Matt 16:26, NIV). Secondly, we might listen for the life-giving whispers of the Holy One whose Spirit, we believe, is imminently present in our troubled world. Thirdly, we might question our allegiances. Where is our heart, mind, soul and strength directed? Is it towards this world or to God? Suppose it is directed to the love of God in totality. In that case, this is not to opt out of our responsibilities to our world. For the overflow of such love is extended to our neighbour (Mark 12:3-31). It is not the desolate city that we seek to which to give our allegiance. Rather, with the Psalmist David, we seek the house of the Lord (Ps 27: 4, NRSV):

One thing I asked of the Lord;

this I seek:

to live in the house of the Lord

all the days of my life,

to behold the beauty of the Lord,

and to inquire in his temple.

More than ever, we need to live in the ambience of God's presence, love and mercy. This can change the way we perceive and engage with our unhinging world.

Contemplating our soul

Prayerfully contemplating living in the ambience of God's presence, love and mercy can bring our gaze to the core and life-essence of our personhood, indeed to our soul. Often strangers to its multiple mysteries, we can lose perspective on the soul as the most highly valued characteristic of who and how we are. We need reminders that our soul is imprinted with the image of our Creator and that our most foundational desire is for intimate union with God (adapted from Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 363). Such intimacy invites us to live the same kind of life Jesus lived (1 John 2:6). Insufficient of its own volition, our soul is placed in the care of Christ to be animated by the breath of the Holy Spirit. Under this divine tutelage, the Spirit reshapes our soul as an ultimate miracle of transforming grace (John 3:5-8), thus affording us eternal worth as children of God. Rather than controlling or manipulating our soul, such divine initiatives revere our freedom, openness, receptivity and willing abandonment to our Creator's care and immanent presence. This life-giving alliance of the human and divine is foundational when considering our soul's wellbeing, especially in a world that seems to be turning away from such an affiliation. Can such a life-enhancing collaboration come into the foreground of our prayerful reflections in our present times of trouble? And yet, there is more.

Lifted beyond ourselves, yielding our full consent of faith to God's gracious love and desiring like-mindedness with Christ (Phil 2:5), our soul is invited to emulate the luminosity of the Holy Trinity. How different this is from our above listing of indicators of an unhinged world! Through Christ, we are offered glimpses of the sacrificial self-giving and other-receiving of the Three Persons of the Trinity as they are fully present one to the other. In a sublime and free task of sacrificial love (John 3:16), Christ binds our soul to God as he binds earth to heaven. God's eternal desire is that we be conformed to the image of his son, who freely gives himself as our way of living. His incarnation into our humanity enables us to actively engage with life in and around us. Therefore, it is valuable to ask: ‘Is it well with my soul within a world becoming unhinged and falling apart?’ This question invites reflection on our identity, meaning and purpose, as well as on our experiences of God. Our heartfelt responses to our troubled world can then come from a Spirit-enlightened and soulful place (Eph 1:18).

Soulful ways of knowing and engaging

It is difficult to speak of our soul in conceptual terms, especially as it involves the essence of who we are, who we are becoming and how we relate to the world around us, including to our Creator God. Our rational minds alone would draw us into complexity and to grasping after meaning and purpose. But there is convolution enough in the troubled world around us – we need something more. When speaking of our being enabled to love because God first loved us, Charles Haddon Spurgeon suggested: ‘Our love is a simplicity founded on a mystery’ (Spurgeon's Sermons, vol. 47, 1901). Such a mystery is found in God's divine availability and life-giving presence among us. Our soulful response to this mystery is to become present to God, our inner self, our human fraternity and our created though broken world. The receptive soul will also find affinity with the biblical narrative of God's creative, redemptive and restorative covenant with humanity. Finally, there is the unveiling of our status as children of God. With the eyes of our hearts enlightened by the Spirit, our invitation is to actively participate in the new life and kingdom purposes of Jesus. The hope of the future flourishing and shalom of the new heaven and earth is on offer (Rev 21:1).

It is reassuring to the soul that we can participate in Christ's new life and purposes even amid the struggles and sufferings of our unhinged world. The way of Christ is ‘cruciform’, conforming as it does to the pattern of his sacrifice (Richard Middleton, A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology, 2014, 147). He invites us to embody his way of being present to those in pain and to reflect his presence among them. Expressions of our soul might come through deep sighs, tears and heartfelt resonance. Where direct descriptors of our soul may fail us, metaphor, imagery, poetry, parable, music, nature, awe, reverence and surprise may suffice. There is much around us that can awaken us to the riches and treasures of our souls. The Psalms and other scriptures are crammed with soul idioms and invitations offering nourishment, enrichment, guidance and purpose.

Poets also help. Had she been alive today, I am sure Emily Brontë would make a helpful response to our question: ‘How is your soul in “the world's storm troubled sphere”?’

No coward soul is mine,
No trembler in the world's storm-troubled sphere:
I see Heaven's glories shine,
And faith shines equal, arming me from Fear

(From Emily Brontë’s poem, ‘No Coward Soul Is Mine’.)

Emily is open and receptive to God's immediate presence amid our troubles and sees ‘Heaven's glories shine’. Such presence evokes a mirrored response from within her soul, with her faith shining ‘equal, arming me from Fear’.

Contours of the soul

The life-giving Spirit flows through the open and receptive soul, enhancing freedom, augmenting wellbeing and offering rest. In this intricate interweaving of our humanity with the divine, our encouragement is to discern the Spirit's prompts and experience heart-to-heart resonance with Jesus. Does not our heart burn within us (Luke 24:23)? The Spirit can assist us in sifting out falsehoods and illusions to discover what is most real and aid us in surrendering our often-self-preoccupied self to God.

‘Is it well with our soul?’ ‘Yes!’ However, our soul can remain reserved, even estranged, in the face of God’s divine presence. There is attraction. There is also shyness, perceptions of unworthiness and shame that foster resistance. The Spirit's breath will also touch upon other undulations of the soul, including those that disaffect us from the divine presence, our inner self and others. There is the scepticism that can erode our delight in the divine presence. We can be inattentive to interior stirrings, lacking discernment and instead grasping for understanding and control. Then there are our preoccupations with illusive and misplaced desires, our flights from reality and our overly self-contained, sometimes fearful and insulated, selves. Finally, there is the contemporary emphasis on self-actualisation that can hollow out the relational dimensions of the soul.

The gentle and patient breath of the Spirit throughout our lives and actions can remind us that we are still a work in progress: a soulful work of the Spirit who is forming us into the likeness of Christ.

Such attributes and foibles of our soul could be considered ‘contours of the soul’ along which the breath of the redeeming and transforming Spirit blows. Reimagined in Beatitudinal terms as our poverty of spirit (Matt 5:3), they highlight our need for help and so can become sites of self-surrender. The doors of our soul can open to Christ's redeeming, reconciling and transforming presence. I present these possible ‘contours’ in summary form below.


In the ambience of God's loving presence

Enfolding our soul

These seemingly opposite contours are gently and purposefully held in the spacious ambience of God's loving presence. So are those wounds that lurk, partially healed, beneath our estrangement, scepticism, grasping, illusions and overly protected self. Whether visible or hidden, such marring of the soul is impacted through our embeddedness in a world in which our deeper essence is in jeopardy. These wounds can be too deep for us to offer each other a relational presence totally free from fear (Henri J. M. Nouwen, In the House of the Lord: The Journey from Fear to Love, 1986, 23). Somewhat ambivalent about what has been formed within us, we tend to live externally to our soul. This leaves us more susceptible to the pushes and pulls, disturbances, anxieties and illusions in and around us. Such vulnerabilities can be amplified during crises, such as we experience today. The invitation of the Spirit is for us to ‘fall into’ a presence far greater than our own, one more embracing and life-enhancing than that which left our soul wounded.

It is not common for people, wearied and burdened by the impacts of their world falling apart, to reference their struggles as those of their souls. Descriptors of experiences might instead be of ‘being stuck’, ‘struggling to keep my head above water’ or ‘being at the end of my rope!’ Attended to prayerfully and in the presence of the Spirit, these expressions of our struggles can become doorways deeper into our soul. For Jesus, they would reflect our being ‘poor in spirit’ (Matt 5:3). Acknowledging our need for help can open us to his personal invitation and welcome. ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest’ (Matt 11:28). Or our parched soul might attune to his estrangement-shattering cry: ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me’ (John 7:37). It is in the imminent presence of divine love, a love far greater and more accessible than our own, that we can find release from our estrangement, and surrender our scepticism, our grasping, our illusions and our anxious preoccupations of self. The doors of the kingdom of heaven swing wide open (Matt 5:3).

Rest for the soul

The wind of God's Spirit, which swept over the face of the waters in the creation of heaven and earth, is the same breath that can reshape our souls' contours into the likeness of our Creator. As our soul surrenders to the gentle and humble heartbeat of divine presence and the Spirit aids us in discerning the challenges around us, we learn the unforced rhythms of grace (Matt 11:29, The Message). Amid upheaval and suffering, we also know a place of prayerful solitude, stillness, awe and reverence before the presence of One who is boundless and to whom even darkness is as light (Ps 139:12). In all circumstances, we can choose to open our souls to God's enfolding and the Spirit's indwelling presence (John 14:16-17). Held in such spaciousness, we are enabled to enter into the adversities and sufferings associated with a world that is becoming unhinged. At the same time, the divine invitation is to live freely and lightly amid its challenges (Matt 11:28-30, The Message). Amid the upheaval of our world, we can experience guidance and rest for our souls (Matt 11:29).

Chris Brown is an honorary research fellow of Trinity College, Queensland, and a spiritual director. His two books are Reflected Love: Companioning in the Way of Jesus (2012) and Guiding Gideon: Awakening to Life and Faith (2015). He is co-editor of To Whom Shall We Go: Faith Responses in a Time of Crisis. Chris contributes to https://holyscribblers.blogspot.com.

Image credit: A close up of a metal hook on a wooden fence by K Adams on Unsplash.

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