Sermon: Centering the Soul (audio and text)

READINGS

Gitanjali 69 by Rabindranath Tagore

The same stream of life that runs through my veins night and day
runs through the world and dances in rhythmic measures.

It is the same life that shoots in joy
through the numberless blades of grass
and breaks into tumultuous waves of leaves and flowers.

It is the same life that is rocked
In the ocean cradle of birth and death,
In ebb and flow.

I feel my limbs are made glorious
by the touch of this world of life.
And my pride is from the life-throb of ages
dancing in my blood this moment.

From “Haggia Sophia” by Thomas Merton

“There is in all visible things an invisible fecundity, a dimmed light, a meek namelessness, a hidden wholeness. This mysterious Unity and Integrity is Wisdom, the Mother of all. Natura naturans. There is in all things an inexhaustible sweetness and purity, a silence that is a fount of action and joy. It rises up in wordless gentleness and flows out of me from the unseen roots of all created being, welcoming me tenderly, saluting me with indescribable humility, This is at once my own being, my own nature. . . .”

So, when did it you first experience it?
For me, I think back to a time when I was growing up in suburban New Jersey in a newly-built, ranch-style home on a half-acre that had been carved out of a one-time farmer’s field that was overgrown with second-growth woods.
Those woods, scraggly and unimpressive as they may have been, were for me a refuge. The oldest of five children born in seven years to busy parents, I longed for space to get away to where my thoughts could be my own. And the woods were that for me.
In years past I’ve reflected that that early experience bred in me what has been a life-long love of the woods and my predilection even now during hard times to set out for a forest path, the wilder the better, to find solace and perspective.
But in preparing for this service, on reading over Merton’s words and Tagore’s words and those of the writer and educator Parker Palmer, which I’ll share later, I’ve come to understand my early experiences from a different vantage. I’ve come to see that it was in those nondescript woods I not only encountered nature; I also first became acquainted with what I could alternately refer to as my center, my self, my soul.
Something rings in me when I hear Thomas Merton’s words describing it: a hidden wholeness, an inexhaustible source of sweetness and purity, an invisible fecundity, a silence that is the fount of action and joy.
I couldn’t have fathomed this way of framing it when I was younger, and yet these words resonate with the way that I remember that it felt. Wholeness, for sure. But, oh, if I could only have learned then to affirm it as a source of sweetness and integrity, as the very birthplace of whatever gifts, whatever small genius I may have to offer the world, the origin of joy and the foundation of whatever meaningful and compassionate action it is mine to accomplish in this brief life.

Instead, sad to say, as years went by doubts I came to learn often overshadowed that early insight, that early intuition. But, I also can look back on moments where it shone through, where bit by bit I came into who I was at heart. I’ve now reached the time in my life when I think I’m more attuned to my true self than I ever was before, though I’ve still got a lot more learning to do.
We’re in territory here that every religious tradition that I know of touches on. My colleague Victoria Safford describes it as “the part of you that is most uniquely you, deeper than mind, more durable even than your will – and holy if you like that word, or sacred. It is the essence of identity, radiant with dignity and worth.”
The Irish priest John O’Donohue writes, “There is a voice within you that no one, not even you, has ever heard – the music of your own spirit. It takes a long time to sift through the more superficial voices on your own gift in order to enter into the deep significance and tonality of your Otherness. When you speak from that deep, inner voice, you are really speaking from the unique tabernacle of your own presence.”
Christians call it the soul. Buddhists call it original nature. Jews call it the spark of the divine. Hindus call it Atman. Humanists call it identity and integrity. Each of those names carries different descriptors and radically different theologies, yet they each also point to a universal experience of true identity that is fundamentally ours.
And for all of them, coming to know and affirm this part of ourselves is central to the religious life because in a basic way this gives us a sense of agency and purpose. Knowing who we are teaches us that we are not flotsam and jetsam being blown across the world. We are beings with worth and integrity, as well as, in Merton’s words, sweetness and beauty, capable of meaningful action and joy.
So, how is it that so often it seems that instead we are stuck in the mire of doubt and despair, doing damage to each other and the earth?

I’ve long been drawn to Parker Palmer’s way of framing all this. We begin with the notion that we are each born with a true self, what Matthew Fox calls an “original blessing.” The problem is, Parker says, that “from the moment of birth onward, the soul or true self is assailed by deforming forces from without and within.” That is to say, not only do other people impinge on us, but we can create our own demons in how we respond. So, many of us take on lives of what Palmer calls “self-impersonation,” identities that we create to respond to the circumstances we face but have little to do with who are.
In time, we may even lose touch with the true self we sought to protect. And when that happens, he said, we are at risk of losing our moral compass, that sense of identity that grounds us.
“I have met too many people,” Palmer writes, “who suffer from an empty self. They have a bottomless pit where their identity should be – an inner void they try to fill with competitive success, consumerism, sexism, racism, or anything that might give them the illusion of being better than others.”
It is the kind of attitude that looks like self-centeredness but actually has its origin in no sense of self at all. What may appear as a selfish act, Parker says, is actually an effort to fill the emptiness we feel inside, often in ways that harm us or bring grief to others.
We don’t necessarily do it intentionally, but because we have lost connection with our own inner integrity we allow ourselves to be co-opted into someone else’s scheme, a scheme that offers no true benefits for us but profits the other in any number of ways.
Others of us may be aware of an inner true self but shelter it from others around us. So, we live a divided life, split between the constructed self that we show to the larger world and the hidden identity we keep to ourselves.
We may get by, even succeed materially living like that, but inside we never lose sight of the lie at the center of how we live our lives. And that lie works on us, often breeding anxiety, self-loathing, or just numbness. It makes for a precarious existence. So, how do we recover our true self, that hidden wholeness that is our birthright?

Palmer argues that we must find or create safe space for our true self to show itself. This is not as easy as may sound. Our true self has experienced enough wounds to be wary. It may be hidden away, but it is not soft or weak. Instead, he says, it is more like a wild animal, and like a wild animal it is “tough, resilient, resourceful, savvy and self-sufficient.”
I love this image because it invites us to see our true self as a source of strength and courage. It is something, he says, that knows how to survive in hard places, but it is also shy, seeking safety in the dense underbrush. It won’t be flushed out, or badgered or harangued into showing itself.
Palmer tells the story of his own history with depression, which he came to see as centered in a lost sense of self. The experience, he says, left him in a “deadly darkness,” where “the faculties that I had always depended on collapsed. My intellect was useless; my emotions were dead; my will was impotent; my ego was shattered.”
All the same, he said, “from time to time, deep in the thickets of my inner wilderness, I could sense the presence of something that knew how to stay alive even when the rest of me wanted to die. That something was my tough and tenacious soul.”
Inner work can help acquaint us with our true self, but we can never fully come into ourselves by ourselves. We need engagement with a community.
Unfortunately, community is not always a safe place. As Parker Palmer puts it, “community in our culture too often means a group of people who go crashing through the woods together, scaring the soul away. In spaces ranging from congregations to classrooms, we preach and teach, assert and argue, claim and proclaim, admonish and advise, and generally behave in ways that drive everything original and wild into hiding.”
In these circumstances, he says, “the intellect, emotions, will, and ego may emerge, but not the soul: we scare off all the soulful things, like respectful relationship, goodwill, and hope.”
What we need, he argues, is a context that respects the solitude of our individual selves while affirming our deep connection to one another.

In such a setting, he says, “Solitude does not necessarily mean living apart from others; rather it means never living apart from one’s self.” While community, he says, “does not mean necessarily living face-to-face with others; rather it means never losing the awareness that we are connected to each other.”
Creating that sort of context requires that communities like ours develop a kind of discipline, discipline that counteracts a prevailing culture that measures the worth of people by what they produce, by their gender, their race, and the dozen other ways we judge one another as we compete for glory and gain.
The discipline that we need, says Parker Palmer, is one that is centered in cultivating the soul, the true self, the hidden wholeness within each of us, and elevating it from a shy presence we seek in the forest to a teacher.
To do this, he has offered the model of what he calls circles of trust. These are places where people gather in small numbers and listen to each other without judgment, without seeking to instruct or fix, offering each other simply open and honest questions and providing space for the soul, the true self to appear.
It’s a model very much like our covenant and theme groups – places where the only business before us is that we each invite each other’s true self to be present and help each other into deeper awareness of what our lives call for from us.
With that grounding we are ready to engage in the tough work of building a life, of being a compassionate presence, of organizing for change.
I look back to those early days in the woods and I find my dawning awareness that I was a being with my own integrity. It was an awareness that Tagore’s words speak to so powerfully.
“The same stream of life that runs through my veins night and day runs through the world and dances in rhythmic measures.” I am not separated from the vast buzz and beauty around me. I move in it and it moves in me.
“It is the same life that shoots in joy through the numberless blades of grass and breaks into tumultuous waves of leaves and flowers.” Wherever I look I see other co-equal beings, each of us, “rocked in the ocean cradle of birth and death, of ebb and flow,” each of us “made glorious by the touch of this world of life.”
I am not better or worse, greater or lesser. My hope, my destiny is wrapped up with it all.
It was a perspective that invited me out of myself, invited me to see in the eyes of others a similar spark, to see a similar union that links us all.
“Who are you,” says Victoria Safford, “is a complicated question. Who are you? And whose? And why, and how, and who says so? Who gets to say? The soul is a spark deep within, inviolate, your own, and you stoke that fire with new vitality your whole life long, shining your bright flame and warming your hands at the hearts of strangers and lovers and everyone else.”
May our work here invite us each to know and affirm our true selves and those of our companions that in community we might awaken to the joy of life, the beauty of relationship and duty to all of the living.