March 2009

Soul Searching

It’s Lent, so it must be time for a little soul searching. What is that? What is Lent, and what is “soul searching”? Well, Lent is the forty days preceding Easter, not counting Sundays. It is intended to be a time of preparation for the celebration of Easter. Over the centuries it developed on the model of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness in preparation for the beginning of his ministry. For Jesus it is described as a time of wrestling with temptation, a time for working out who he was and what his life was about. For us similarly, it has become a time in which we are invited to reflect on our lives: who we are and what our lives are about, in light of our Christian faith. Hence a time of soul searching.

One dictionary defines soul searching as “the act of facing one’s inmost self with courage, determined to bring every ulterior thought, emotion, and motive to light.” It involves time for self examination: how faithful am I to the values I profess, to the faith I profess, to the Way of Christ I am pledged to follow? Soul searching.

For what are we searching our souls? The psalmist prays:

“Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my thoughts.
See if there is any wicked way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.”
(Psalm 139:23-24)

In some traditions, the search utilizes the Ten Commandments for this self examination (Exodus 20:1-17). Or one might use the teachings found in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5 – 7). I find it helpful to measure my life against the qualities affirmed as the Fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). Ultimately, we measure the faithfulness of our lives by the two great commandments: to love God with our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves (Mark 12:31-32).

In the light of these values and spiritual imperatives, we recognize that we are not yet all that we are called to be. Nor, in all likelihood, will we ever be. Hence at the heart of our faith we come to embrace humility, forgiveness, and gratitude. I remember talking about this with a friend. Carole is a psychotherapist in private practice. She had grown up in churches, but long ago dissociated herself from them. At the time we were talking she was feeling a need for spirituality, a desire to explore faith afresh. From the perspective of her work as a therapist, she was convinced that a key contribution of faith is the grace of forgiveness. She was finding in her clients, and in herself, a need to experience the giving and receiving of forgiveness. Much of our soul searching leads us to the need to forgive and to be forgiven. This truth is embedded in the spirituality of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and the many other groups that have grown out of it.

Yet forgiveness is not an end in itself, but an unburdening, a freeing, of our souls and our lives so that we may live more fully, more deeply, more faithfully, and more fruitfully. My favorite poet, Mary Oliver writes of this goal in a number of her poems. She ends her poem “When Death Comes” with these lines:

When it is over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it is over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

And at the end of her poem “The Summer Day” she challenges us:

I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?

This also is soul searching, not merely the scrutiny of scrupulosity, but the work of getting back in touch with that which gives us life, which gives life its fullness, depth, and meaning. It is an opportunity for making any needed “course corrections” in our path through life.

Lent can be a gift. Soul searching is the process of unwrapping and embracing that gift. May you find that for which you are searching.