We are Christians. Other people are watching us. What meaning do they find in what we do and say? What signals are we sending out? How does our presence reflect our allegiance to Jesus and the health of our soul?
Sophocles stated that the human body was the most wondrous of the world’s wonders. Through scientific and medical discoveries, today the body human is far more wondrous than Sophocles ever imagined. More wondrous than the mortal body is the immortal soul. The most important feature of the body is that it houses the soul. God is present in the still, imageless essence of the soul. The soul is anima, feminine before God. She is the most authentic part of a human being; she animates the body and mind and lives forever.
The health of our soul is supported by daily prayer, worship, religious studies, a sound sacramental life and works of service. A Missionary of Charity sister was taking care of a dying man who had just been brought in from the street. The driver who brought the man in was not a Christian. The driver watched the sister.
The love she had for the dying man was evident in her voice, the expression on her face, and in her actions toward the dying man. The driver said to Mother Teresa: “I came here an empty man without God in my heart and without peace in my mind. I leave here full of the presence of God whom I have met in the love of that sister for the dying man, and full of peace of mind.”
If our first priority in health care is care of the soul, care of the body and mind falls into place. A person may be physically fit and have a weak soul, or be a university professor and have an ignorant soul. Conversely, a thriving soul can exist in a frail body and a wise soul can exist in an uneducated person.
True beauty radiates from the soul when it is anchored in Christ. Unlike physical beauty, soul beauty can grow as a person ages. Our souls should be beautiful for Jesus, our Lord. Jesus’ wisdom is the only water that can quench our deepest thirst. He is closer to us than we are to ourselves and closer to us than any other person can be to us.
The degree to which we keep our souls spiritually beautiful is up to us and determined through our choices. A choice prompts an action. Each action has a rating from the highest good to the lowest evil, thereby effecting a person’s eternal destination. Good choices help us reach for the higher values in life; evil choices darken the soul. Evil tendencies block what is good and what is giving within us and around us. The effects of sin dim the light and beauty of God’s presence.
Teresa of Avila’s refection keeps us moving in the right direction. “We know we have souls. But we seldom consider the precious things that can be found in this soul, or who dwells within it, or its high value. Consequently, little effort is made to preserve its beauty. All our attention is taken up with the plainness of the diamond’s setting. . .that is, with these bodies of ours.”
The King Lodged Within
She continues, “I knew well that I had a soul, but I did not understand the dignity of this soul, nor did I know who lodged within it, because my eyes were blinded by the vanities of this life, so that I was prevented from seeing Him. I think that, had I known then as I do now, that in this little palace of my soul so great a King is lodged, I would not have left Him alone so often, but at least sometimes I would have stayed with Him and been more careful to prepare a clean lodging for Him.”
|St. Teresa of Avila The Crosiers photo
Teresa was a master teacher of prayer and a writer of spiritual classics still read today. In her spiritual masterpiece The Interior Castle, she gives us an excellent description of the journey to God, who dwells in the center of the soul.
Although we can take advantage of sales while on earth, there are no cheap tickets to heaven. The eternal destiny of humankind should not be trivialized. One day each person will face his Maker and have to give an account of his life. Everything on earth has value only in the light of eternity.
There are many dangerous detours on our earthly spiritual road, so we must focus our attention on where our feet are going. God’s grace can be a temptation detector that flashes a warning when we enter forbidden territories. Receptivity to grace stops us before we get involved in dehumanizing or foolish activities. Our souls lift our thoughts and aspirations to something higher than physical or mental wants.
To grow in Christianity is to refrain from participating in that which can lead to sin. For instance: A few friends decide to go to a movie and ask you to join them. The movie is a heart-pounding adventure that won several academy awards, but its content had people who were terrorized, brutalized and blown apart. What is your decision?
The better choice: No thanks, I don’t watch that kind of movie. It stays with you. Someone said ‘You are what you eat.’ You are also what you watch. Dehumanizing images assaulting our eyes and ears are digested like junk food. These influences conceal the truth and damage the soul.
How does an individual protect his eyes and ears from negative influences that lead to sin and keep them open to what is good and holy? Today there is an excess of visual and auditory stimulation. We need to take great care regarding that to which we look and listen. The Christian practice of controlling sensory input to the eyes, ears and other sense organs, is called “custody of the senses.”
Since the majority of the information in our mind comes from what is seen and heard, exercising this daily discipline helps keep our focus on St. Paul’s message: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil 4:8). When individuals monitor what they see and hear, their spiritual foundation becomes stronger.
Custody of the eyes and ears is a lifelong habit that nourishes inner peace. This does not mean limiting one’s scope or living with one’s head in the clouds. It means looking at and listening to only what contributes quality to our existence. Little by little, we can learn more about Jesus, which will make us better Christians. Today there are many ways to augment one’s Christian information resources. Carefully selected instructive and helpful reading material, DVDs, Web sites, blogs and podcasts can wholesomely entertain, edify and instruct.
Windows of the Soul
The eyes have been said to be the windows of the soul. Windows can be viewed in two ways. When we describe someone, we may say the eyes are warm and inviting, or cold as ice, or burning with anger, or soft with concern, or clouded with sadness. In these cases, the eyes may reflect what is going on in the soul. The soul is being seen through the window.
The soul can also look out of the window. What does the soul see? Everything we see makes an imprint. With the mind’s eye, an individual can recall visual images of pleasant memories that comfort and console. If a person’s thoughts continually return to a bad event that happened on a specific day, she must try to change channels to good events that happened over a lifetime.
When looking at the world, try to focus more on goodness, beauty, signs of love and symbols of hope. This orientation does not ignore negative aspects of society, but often prompts a person to do something constructive about them. Media that depict sin, evil and other diminishments darken vision. To limit visual images to those that are clean and bright is no easy accomplishment.
The entertainment industry would not be so popular or so wealthy if more viewers boycotted dehumanizing programs. With appropriate custody of the eyes, Christians slowly become reflectors of God’s love for others, and mirrors of holiness that all Christians are called to be.
With clear vision, Christians become more focused on and involved in the needs of society. A story is told about a professor who gathered his students together before the dawn. It was still very dark outside. He told them to pay attention because he had an important question to ask: How could they tell when night had ended and day had begun?
One student replied: “When you see an animal and can tell whether it is a sheep or a dog?” “No,” said the professor. Another student said: “When you look at a tree in the distance and can tell whether it is a fig tree or a peach tree?” “No,” answered the professor. After a few more guesses the students said, “Tell us, what is it?”
The professor said, “It is when you look into the face of any man or woman and see that he is your brother or she is your sister. If you cannot do this, no matter what time it is, it will always be night.”
The professor poses a hard challenge to humanity. How often does an individual look at others and think of them as brothers or sisters? Thomas Merton offers some help in this quest: “His one image is in us all, and we discover Him by discovering the likeness of His image in one another.”
It is said that St. John Vianney, the Cure of Ars, had a weak voice. Thousands came to hear him speak, but many could not hear him. However, those who could not hear were converted to a better life by the sight of him. A lawyer was so visibly changed. He told his friends, “I have seen God in a human.” Indeed, we can see the attributes of God in human beings.
Doors of the Soul
The ears may be said to be the doors of the soul. Open this door at the wrong time and unwelcome noise comes in. Sounds, for good or ill, echo in the recesses of the soul. And sounds can be remembered for a long, long time.
If a person is aware only of rock music and likes it, that is the music of his choice. That is all he knows. However, if he expands his musical horizons by learning more about music styles and listening to them, he has a wider musical scope.
In many areas of life, when a person knows better he can do better.
Unless the door to noise is closed, we will not hear God, and not come to know Him. We need to watch, wait and listen, as Mary did during the time of her pregnancy. If we want God, we will find a time, however short, for soul-enhancing listening. Without it there is not much hope for developing a relationship with God.
A Christian needs to be a prudent listener. There are people who talk a lot about God, but only talk briefly to Him. If they are loquacious about God, but do not pray to Him, they can be sanctimonious windbags. It is better to be holy breezes of humility. Holy breezes are quiet, so that a person can listen to what God and others are saying.
How do we do this? The ancient Sufis had a saying, “Speak only after your words have passed through three doorways. At the first doorway ask: ‘Are my words true?’ If they are, let them pass. At the second doorway ask: ‘Are my words necessary?’ If they are, let them pass. At the third doorway ask: ‘Are my words kind?’ Only then let them pass the third gateway.”
This orientation halts many areas of negative talk such as gossip, bad jokes, tale bearing, stretching the truth, chronic complaints and other forms of dark talk. If we speak as if Mary were listening, our words will inspire, strengthen, encourage and support others and ourselves.
To listen in a conversation is not easy. Often our tongue wants to lash out at something or someone who has trespassed against us. To hold one’s tongue in these situations is a great art. When listening to people speak, are there comfortable pauses between what they say, like rolling waves on the ocean, or are there non-stop sentences that resemble a babbling brook? Essentially, it is not what we say that is important, it is how God is working through us.
Listening is necessary for peace. Words that come after listening aid peace. Words that come from compulsive talk can be agitating. A person needs to listen in order to appreciate the gift of speech. An anonymous author once wrote:
Could you just listen? When I ask you to listen to me and you start giving me advice, you have not done what I asked. When I ask you to listen to me and you begin to tell me why I should not feel that way, you are trampling on my feelings. When I ask you to listen to me, and you feel you have to do something to solve my problem, you have failed me, strange as that may seem. Listen! All I asked was that you listen, not talk to or do, just hear me. Advice is cheap. . .I can do for myself; I am not helpless — maybe discouraged and faltering, but not helpless. When you do something for me that I can and need to do for myself, you contribute to my fear and inadequacy. But when you accept as a simple fact that I do feel what I feel no matter how irrational, then I quit trying to convince you and get about this business of understanding what is behind this irrational feeling. When that is clear, the answers are obvious and I do not need advice. Irrational feelings make more sense when we understand what is behind them. . . . Please listen and just hear me, and if you want to talk, wait a minute for your turn, and I will listen to you.
Silence and solitude are two supplements necessary for soul health. Kierkegaard wrote, “If I were a physician and if I were allowed to prescribe just one remedy for all the ills of the modern world, I would prescribe silence.” Jane Frances de Chantal advised, “It is good when a soul loves solitude; it’s a sign that it takes delight in God and enjoys speaking with Him.” There is a lot of dirt in society, and sometimes it seems to be coming at us from all directions. How does a Christian keep his soul healthy in this milieu? Christians must avoid evil, erroneous and tempting situations, and actively seek situations that promote what is good, true and beautiful.
Jesus should be in the common room of the mind. However, He is often relegated to the basement. In this noisy and highly social world, silence and solitude are disciplines to be cultivated so that Jesus is the center of our lives. Silence can be more powerful than words. The flora and fauna of nature grow in silence. The earth orbits in silence. The stars shine in silence. God is found in silence. Prayer is a fruit of silence. God speaks to us in silence.
We must look and listen with our souls or else we will miss His quiet messages of love. We learn to know Jesus through many good avenues, but a very good avenue is being with Him in the silence of the soul. It is here where an individual receives the light of God’s love, and therefore sees God’s love shining in others.
The Art of Aloneness
We need solitude to find ourselves as well as to find others. Only after we find Jesus in ourselves, can we find Him in others. Jesus preached to the people but also sought solitude in the desert. William Ward said, “Practice the art of aloneness and you will discover the treasure of tranquility. Develop the art of solitude and you will unearth the gift of serenity.”
Self-knowledge requires solitude. With God’s help we can face the who, what and why of our existence. Facades are dropped and we see our own deep need for conversion. In solitude, we realize that God brings good out of anything and works in the messes in our lives even if we do not see it. He brings wholeness to the fragmented and strength to the weak. We are disappointed, but find disappointments can be the shadows of God’s protective wings. Whatever caused a disappointment may not have been good for our soul. God knows about things that are unknown to us.
Silence and solitude reveal our need to be malleable. Knowing how to bend prevents us from breaking. To be active and passive is comparable to the work of a potter. As a potter creates, one hand is on the inside applying pressure to the clay. The other is on the outside gradually forming the pot. Too much pressure from the outside or inside would cause the pot to collapse. Pliability gives us the strength to actively participate in and passively receive the mysterious craftsmanship of the divine potter.
John Henry Newman wrote: “The Christian has a deep, silent, hidden peace, which the world sees not, like some well in a retired and shady place.” This hidden well has many gifts, as water has many forms. To enhance inner peace, it would be helpful to visit the ocean. If we sit for an hour and watch the rolling waves, our thoughts turn to God because aspects of the sea remind us of His majesty. The sea is an image of infinity, with power, depth and mystery. We listen to the waves and they teach us how to listen to others better. We look at them and they teach us about individuality and equality. If we really listen to God, and look at other people, we might avoid difficulties that disrupt our inner peace.
However, if we do not have the opportunity to visit the ocean, we can spend about 20 minutes a day, alone and quiet, sitting in a sacred place in our home. This is a holy time, free from personal cares, used for calming Catholic spiritual practices. We have a treasure trove from which to choose, from gazing at an icon to praying a litany, to anything else that refreshes the soul.
An anonymous poet wrote, “Lord, keep me still. Though stormy waves may blow, and waves my little bark may overflow, or even if in darkness I must go, Lord, keep me still. The waves are in Thy hand; the roughest seas subside at thy command. Steer Thou my bark in safety to the land, and keep me still. Keep me still.” By being alone and quiet we can be more open to, and have a greater appreciation for, that which is beautiful, good and holy in our Christian soul.
Oh, when a soul is hid in thee
For what adventure can it yearn
Save love and still more love to
And thus to love increasingly,
So deep does love within it burn?
My God, I pray thee for a love
That yearns until I see thy face,
And builds itself a nest above
Within its true abiding place.
— Teresa of Avila
Carolyn Humphreys, O.C.D.S. is a secular discalced Carmelite and a registered therapist. She is the author of From Ash to Fire: a Contemporary Journey Through the Interior Castle of Teresa of Avila.