August 2 2020

Soul

It has been said that when preaching, the minister hands out hats which can fit some members of the congregation. I’m not sure that I often do this. But what is certain, however, is that those for whom the hats may have been intended, will seldom wear them. They usually feel the hat was meant for someone else, not themselves.

Vast numbers of people are indifferent to religion these days, which is a pity, because religion puts to us possibly the most vital question of all: What shall it profit a man or woman if they gain the whole world, and lose their own soul? The New English Bible translates that as: What will a person gain by winning the whole world at the cost of their true self? Or what can they give that will buy that self back? To the religious understanding, human life is an adventure of the soul, or of the self.

A very common analogy has likened the soul to a lighthouse. When skies are bright, the breeze gentle and the sea calm, the lighthouse is a picturesque sight on the headland. But when the storm rises and night closes in, the lighthouse becomes indispensable. Serious and searching experiences come to us all. Then we need that interior guidance. If it is not forthcoming our experience may become a sorry one.

We gather the qualities out of which our self or soul is built throughout our days. The soul, our inner self, is where we live, and it is there where we learn to interpret the glory and the tragedy of life.

Oliver Goldsmith, a fine 18th century writer, often found it hard, as writers often do, to make ends meet. Someone was once openly contemptuous of him because he lodged in a basement. Goldsmith’s response to that person’s lack of generosity was to reply: My body may be lodged in a basement, but not my soul.

To remain with literature, The Diary of Samuel Pepys is a classic of its kind, a most intimate record of certain years in a man’s life, and also a revealing picture of state and court affairs at the time of Charles II. In the Diary are set down all the vanities, ambitions, prejudices, conceits and meanness, as well as some of the better qualities, of the author.

We see how Pepys, as a regular theatre-goer, church-goer and sermon-taster (as the expression went), could more or less bluff his way through life in those days, without much serious self-examination or self-reflection.

When he was 37, however, he started to go blind. He had to bring to a close his ten-year diary, and he did so with these words: “And so I betake myself to that course, which is almost as much as, to see myself go into my own grave: for which… the good God prepare me.”

After all his insatiable curiosity about the doings of others, Pepys had, at last, to deal with himself.

Facing up to one’s self, being genuinely self-aware, is a searching experience of the most profound kind, and that is probably why we so often try to avoid it. It is said that the “social conscience” was awoken in the eighteenth century. But it remains notable that our concern for the welfare of our brother or sister can often remain little more than something which allows us to forget some of the more pressing demands which lie within ourselves. But whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, the quality of our days, our successes or failures, our joys and sorrows, in the deepest sense all come from within.

Think for a moment of some of the great figures in the dramatic tragedies: Hamlet wrestling with his indecision, Macbeth with his ambition and remorse, Othello with his blinding jealousy. The real battlefield for all these characters is in their own souls. As Julius Caesar reminds his erstwhile closest ally: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”

And when we go to the theatre, that is what we are witnessing. Not Caesar’s Rome, not Hamlet’s Denmark, nor Macbeth’s Scotland, but the human soul in all its complexity.

Art is very closely allied to religion, because with both we are given the chance to address ourselves to what is infinite and eternal. We put one in a cathedral or church, and the other in a theatre or an art gallery. To visit both in a meaningful way is almost the same. We go for almost the same purpose: to apply our art or our religion to ourselves. Just as the well-known American poet and Unitarian, Longfellow, observed after a service he attended in the August of 1860, “Mr Ware preached a good sermon. I applied it to myself.”

I don’t think I hand out hats in my services or sermons. And yet, who leaves the theatre or the chapel, or the art gallery, or the cathedral, exactly the same person they were, as when they came in?  Amen.

Our concluding prayer comes from Andrew Parker (adapted).

O God of all, who walks with us all the days of our lives, even when we do not know it, we bring to you our thanks for all the blessings your love has brought to us.

We thank you for our church and chapel communities, and for the fellowship they provide for us; the opportunities for doing your work, and for advancing the boundaries of your kingdom.

We thank you for the many wonderful and beautiful things which surround us. We thank you for the artists, sculptors and builders of many generations, who have left behind them such a treasure store of marvels, not only for our pleasure, but  for us to use as a window, through which we may catch glimpses of you and your glory. We pray that our time spent in special and holy places, may inspire us in the days ahead.

By the fuller living of our own lives, O God, help us to find the meaning that life is trying to teach us.*   Amen.

[*from A Powell Davies]

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