Lets Talk Soul

Right from my first visit to the Dublin Unitarian Church I experienced the joy of finding my spiritual home. Being part of a faith that does not expect belief based on “blind faith” is a freedom I cherish. I do not have to mould myself into a particular shape in order to belong in this community. This freedom is also one of our greatest challenges.

Why has Unitarianism always remained a minority religion?

          Why are people not beating a path to our open liberal doors?

          These are the questions that are addressed at every General Assembly. We punch way above our weight when it comes to being socially active. We march in Gay Pride, we welcome people who are marginalised, we use language that is inclusive. We serve great coffee and Unitarians are terrific company! BUT we are still a minority faith.
          Could it be that, as a society, we have moved into a secular age and religion is now consigned to the past? But evangelical churches have huge memberships, Islam is thriving, bookshops are filled with books about spirituality. Could it be that our churches are empty because, we have lost sight of our purpose as a faith community? The remit of religion is not to encourage social or political activism among its membership. The remit of religion is to “care for the soul”.
          In the eighteen hundreds Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote “God builds his temple in the human heart on the ruins of churches and religions.” Religious faith has nothing to do with creeds; it is not concerned with metaphysical beliefs. Religious faith is about connecting with the depth of our humanity. Religion is about encouraging people to live a spiritual path; live it not just talk about it. Emerson prescribed a threefold remedy for a healthy church. He said “preach -first soul, second soul and third soul”.
          Unitarians are addicted to words, words and yet more words! In the tsunami of words that make up Unitarian services we lose sight of soul. We prize Reason in our spiritual search, but Reason is a two edged sword. Reason can deaden imagination. A well researched and thoughtful service on say the “history of religions” is a good use of Reason there is a place for these types of service. However if we depend only on Reason will not nourish the soul.
          The Sufi Poet Rumi has something to say about Reason in his poem “Vultures.”

          Reason is the human’s carrion bird.
          The questions that it poses are absurd.

          It feeds on logic, to it ecstasy
          Is the main danger and the enemy.

          The saintly reason is more like the wings
          Of Gabriel who soars above all things.

          So leave the carrion bird to pick the dead
          And soar with me in ecstasy instead.

          Come fly with me, I’ll take you to a height
          Beyond ten thousand vultures in full flight.

          Too much emphasis on reason can leave us like vultures; we must ensure that our religion is more than just picking over the ancient bones of religions. It must include poetry, music, imagination and silence things that feed the soul.
          Unitarians persist in a search for words to articulate what all religions and mystics agree “is beyond words”. In the absence of appropriate words we neglect concepts like God, Soul or prayer. And we don’t sit easily with silence.
          We qualify the use of words like God and prayer. We replace spirituality with social and political activism; these are things that we understand. We think that if we can tweak society just the right amount we will create a perfect world. We forget that we cannot change the world we can only change ourselves. All the great faith systems in the world have at their core the transformation of the individual.
          The Hindu sages penetrated the truth that for humans lasting happiness is found in unity with the Divine. One Hindu saying uses the analogy of a glass of fresh water and a glass of water to which a spoon of salt is dissolved. They look the same but are totally different. Individuals with a strong connection with soul look the same but they are different. They have a calm equanimity that sustains them throughout life.
          The Buddha learned that the path to happiness lies in understanding how our thoughts keep us in a state of sleep. Jesus told his disciples that the Kingdom of God is within us; it is not found in a well organised fair society. The purpose of spirituality is Self transformation. We transform ourselves by paying attention and giving care to our soul.
          What do we mean by soul and how do we care for it? Soul is one of those words that it is difficult to precisely define; yet we speak of soul music, soul food, a piece of art may touch our soul. We experience our soul when our deepest emotions are touched. We recognise when soul is absent. We dislike things that are soulless.
          In his book “care of the soul” Thomas Merton says that “Tradition teaches that soul lies midway between understanding and unconsciousness.” So soul is not physical entity. In her spiritual diaries Etty Hillesum says that the soul “forms the stabilising centre” of the person; it is “the source of our inner strength.”
          If the soul is neglected it doesn’t just go away; it makes its presence felt as obsessions, addictions, of living with a sense that life has lost its meaning. Conversely when the soul is cared for it engenders a sense of inner peace; it brings a sense of belonging, it creates within the individual a deep compassion for all living beings. When we care for the soul we reinforce our connection with the entire web of life. Our connection with the web of life ensures that we will live ethical lives.
          Care of the soul means that we actually listen to the things that are deep within us. Enforced isolation, the absence of routine; these conditions facilitate the re-emergence of memories of painful past experiences. The baggage we have pushed under a blanket of busyness may begin to penetrate to the surface. In the lull of isolation the things we tried to bury in activities can make their presence felt.
          Experiences hidden will arrive like guests to a guest house.
          It is important that we attend to painful experiences. We care for them not with anger, or recrimination but with loving care. We “sit with” emotions that are painful and we sooth their pain. We don’t bury the memory we don’t wallow in the pain. We acknowledge the pain with loving attention while acknowledging that this is in the past; then we leave the memory and return to the present. We may have to repeat the process again and again.
          On the 26th August 1941 Etty wrote:-
          “There is a really deep well inside me. And in it dwells God.” She went on to say “sometimes I am there too, but more often stones and grit block the well, and God is buried underneath. Then He must be dug out again”. Caring for the soul is not a once off activity it needs constant care.
          There is a deep well inside each of us. This is where peace, God and all that is the best in us are found. Prayer or better yet silence is the best tool to use to excavate and bring into the light, God, Peace and the best that is in each of us. Prayer is another thorny word for Unitarians. Again this may be because we retain the childish notion of prayer being a “to do list” for God.
          Do we too easily dismiss those things that we do not understand without ever having tried them? Is it we think that rational, middle class well educated people do not need the concept of God? Are we still confined because our concepts of God have never matured beyond our childish imaginings? Why do we dismiss practices that every spiritual tradition finds invaluable without ever having fully engaged with them?
          We have the freedom to draw on the wisdom from all the world’s spiritual traditions. We must not just pick over the ancient bones of other faiths. Like an experienced cook we should incorporate the bones as the basis for nourishment then adding our personal ingredients to create our individual spiritual path; a path that nourishes our soul.

Rev.Bridget Spain
Minister Dublin Unitarian Church