January 7, 2013

Janis Joplin, Mother Teresa, and Princess Diana

"A healthy soul keeps us both energized and glued together." - Ronald Rolheiser in The Holy Longing
We don't talk much about souls.  Not in casual conversation.  I have a friend who will ask me, "How is your soul?" but she's not exactly typical.  And I don't always know how to answer the question.

What does it mean to wonder about the state of my soul?  In classic, Catholic language, it might mean, "Are you in mortal sin?"  It would be the difference between hope of heaven and despair of hell.  My friend doesn't mean it like that.

It could be as simple as "How are you?"  But how do I answer that either?  How am I?  Do you mean today?  This minute?  In my life these days?  In my life altogether?  Compared with what?

And anyway, when you ask me -- or I ask you -- do we really want to discuss the answer?

I am attracted to the idea that by "I" in the question, "How am I?" we mean the real me, underneath the façade.  Translation:  "How is my soul?"

Maybe the step back, the vantage point from which we could answer if someone really wanted to hear the answer, is to ask, "What is my soul?"

In a chapter his The Holy Longing entitled "What Is Spirituality?" Ron Rolheiser tells us that the soul is what "keeps us both energized and glued together."  This definition made me stop and take stock.  Because it seems true.

It might help -- it helped me -- to start with noticing what an unhealthy soul might look like, that is, one that is lacking in energy and falling apart.  I have to admit, I know that soul.  I know it when I don't feel like getting out of bed in the morning, because the day seems more than I can manage.  I know it when I decide to surf the internet instead of doing the laundry.  My soul isn't holding the energy of my life; it's draining out through my feet (or, perhaps more accurately, through my behind, planted in a chair).  

Then there's falling apart.  I'm reminded from a line in a poem by William Butler Yeats, "The centre cannot hold..."  Here's the context, from "The Second Coming":
             Turning and turning in the widening gyre
              The falcon cannot hear the falconer
                                 Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world...
Yeats was responding to World War I, but there is something familiar to me, something of the war that takes place inside me, inside my soul.  I feel it, the things falling apart, the anarchy loosed.  Here's how I know it's upon me:  I hear myself saying, "Everyone wants something from me!"  I know I cannot give it all.  Instead of resting content with my limited self, I come unglued.  I fuss.  I rant.  I feel panicky inside.  I make people around me unhappy -- much more unhappy than if I'd simply said, "I can't."

Then what does it mean to be both energized and glued together, if that is, in fact, the state of a healthy soul? My same friend, the one who asks about my soul, also reminds me that I sometimes allow my soul to "leak,"  my energy lost to the elements.  My energized soul is contained.  I can see it, a vessel that is whole and intact.  It doesn't much matter whether it's pretty and polished, shiny and fine.  It holds what it's meant to hold, the life energy that is poured into it.  Poured, I believe, in my soul's creation and as it is sustained by the Spirit of God.

Not only can my soul be that strong and solid container, but it can pour out its energy, as Kierkegaard puts it, by willing the one thing.  Rolheiser uses this expression -- Kierkegaard's definition of a saint -- as a way of understanding the difference in the souls of three intensely energized women:  Janis Joplin, Mother Teresa, and Princess Diana.  Joplin, he avers, wills many things -- artistic creation, sex, alcohol, drugs, fame -- and so dilutes her soul energy.  Mother Teresa wills the one thing -- "God and the poor."  Princess Diana he gives as an example of a woman who can will the one thing (God and the poor) but often wills the many (husband, lovers, children, fashion, parties, so on).  

Like us.

Like me.

Finally, Rolheiser offers this heartening thought:  "[On] any given day, we might need more integration rather  than energy, or vice versa."  Aha!

How many days have I spent feeling guilty for needing to be energized (not, perhaps, as Rolheiser suggests, by The Bridges of Madison County (!)) rather than integrated (for which Rolheiser recommends, alternatively, Sense and Sensibility).  But I notice that too much "energizing" leads to numbing out.  Too much "integrating" threatens to burn me out.

How is my soul?  What is my soul?  It's a candle, or maybe, better, a campfire.  Warm enough to cook with and warm yourself by.  Today, I choose to keep it tended, to let its light counter a little corner of darkness.  Maybe tomorrow I'll be low on wood, and I'll need you to lend me a bit of yours.  Another day, it may rage and threaten, and I will need your help to contain the flames.

I'm glad to do the same for you.

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