The Soul in Suffering

June 29th, 2014

Preacher: The Rev. Doyt Conn

Today I want to continue our sermon series on the soul.

There are two things I’d like us to think about. The first has to do with suffering. My observation is that the soul is fixed where the soul is fixed when the suffering arrives. It is like being caught in a rain shower. We are where we are when the rain begins to fall. The second is that measuring our level of patience gives us a tool for assessing the soundness of our soul prior to the arrival of the suffering. If you want a sense of the soundness of your soul, take a look at how patient you are.

Here is why I think this matters. There is suffering in the world. Each one of us will suffer. When the soul is unsound and agitated, and suffering is set upon us, (as it inevitably will be) then despair will be our traveling companion until our memory of the suffering fades. That does not need to be the case. Even in the pit of suffering a symphony of joy can sound as background music in our soul. It is possible, and it is what God hopes for our lives.

Patience is a gauge for assessing the state of our soul. The problem, however, with patience is that it can only be assessed when tested. We have all had our patience tested, and no one really likes it. So when your patience is tested next, consider it a well check-up opportunity for your soul. The problem is that these check-ups are hard to plan. We never really seek to have our patience tested any more than we seek to experience suffering. If patience is the soul’s tool for preparing us for joy in the midst of suffering, then, like suffering, patience must come as a surprise.

I was surprised the other day. I had my patience tested. I’m driving Desmond, my son, to summer camp. We are at a stoplight. I’m in the right lane, at the front of the line but stationary. My foot was firmly on the brake because it is a “no right turn on red” zone. As I wait, I am typing a quick text to my daughter. The next thing I know a woman is pounding on the window, right in front of Desmond. Her face is contorted as she screams: “I’m going to walk now! Do you hear me? I’m going to walk!” She crosses, and then she yells over her shoulder: “You are a horrible role model!” I’m thinking, does she know me? Then I’m thinking, well, that’s the pot calling the kettle black. Finally I realize she is talking about me texting at the stoplight. I turn to Desmond, who is a bit wide-eyed at this point, and say, “Well, that’s not such a healthy soul.” That was my first response, and he smiled and began to breathe again. Then temptation set in. Then the dark shadows of my soul began to beckon me. Habits from my past sprang to mind as a few excellent retorts materialized; as did a few creative plotlines for revenge. But the cat was already out of the bag. I had already responded and the response was good for me and for Desmond. “Well,” I said, “that is not such a healthy soul.”

We talked about how this won’t be the last time we run into a disquieted soul. We talked about how God gives us the grace to not let the crazy of an agitated soul disrupt the equanimity of our own. But I thought about that situation throughout the day. I wondered what I might have done had I not been cloistered by the need to be a good role model for my son. I mean, I hope I wouldn’t have bit her (World Cup reference), but I might have pulled over and stepped out of my car. I might have shared a word or two with her. I don’t think I’m beyond that, though I’d like to think I am. Assessing one’s level of patience after those moments when it has been tested is a good way to gauge the soundness of one’s soul.

Nickos Kazantazakis, in his book God’s Pauper, has a short vignette that I often think about when I am thinking about patience and the soundness of my soul. I think I have used it in a sermon before. It is about St. Francis and joy in the midst of suffering. I guess great art is worth looking at more than once, so bear with me as I tell you the story again. The scene is this: one of Francis’ monks asks, “What is perfect joy?”

“What is perfect joy?” Francis responds.

“Let’s say a messenger comes and says that all the great scholars of Paris have become Franciscans. Know that this is not perfect joy. Likewise, say all the prelates beyond the Alps, and archbishops and bishops, and the King of France and the King of England have become Franciscans. Know that this is not perfect joy. Likewise, say all of my friars went among the infidels and converted all of them to Christianity; and that I have been given by God the power to heal the sick and work many miracles. Still know that this is not perfect joy.

So what is perfect joy? Let’s say I return to the monastery in the dead of night, in wintertime, and I am so frigid that icicles hang from my tunic and pierce my shins as I walk, so that blood spills down my legs. I come to the gate and I knock for a long time and call out. Finally an agitated friar comes and he asks: ‘Who is it?’ I respond: ‘Friar Francis.’ And he says: ‘Go away; it is not a decent hour; you may not enter.’ And again I call out and the crazy man responds, ‘Go away; you are a simpleton and an idiot.’ And I stand again at the gate and I say: ‘For the love of God, take me in!’ And he says: ‘NO!’ I say to you that if I have patience and am not upset, this is perfect joy and soundness of soul.”

What I have observed, as a priest in the church, is that a soul is where a soul is when the suffering arrives. Equanimity or agitation become a fixed state, it seems, until the suffering passes. I think to some degree we can determine ahead of time, what the state of our soul will be, based on how we care for it right now.

When suffering arrives people often end up in church. There is still a faded memory in our culture of church and the health of the soul having some correlation (that link was the point of my sermon last Sunday). If that soul comes to church and still feels a sense of disquietude, he or she often end up in my office. For this I am grateful. I listen to their story, and we cry together, and we pray together. That is good, and I hope it is helpful at some level. But mostly I can’t give them what they want, which is equanimity of the soul.

Francis did not find the joy of his circumstances that winter by accident, or because he was naturally good-natured. He found joy because he had dedicated his life to the soundness of his soul. “How goes it with your soul?” It is the question the ancient Christians asked one another. If you’re wondering, take a reading from your patience gauge.

Jesus, as a master teacher on the soul, understood all of this. Last week Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew said: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul,” which was to say that the soul belongs to God. Jesus went on to say that if the soul belongs to God, then it would seem responsible to set it as our highest priority.

To dramatize this point Jesus continues, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” But Jesus also understands that we will encounter agitated souls along the way, and that this will test our patience. In Luke chapter 21, he says: “You will be betrayed by your parents and brothers, by relatives, and friends. You will be hated because of my name, but by your patience you will gain your soul.”

Jesus models this patience on the cross. As he hangs there, in cruel suffering, he begins to recite Psalm 22. (My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?) For those hearing the words from his mouth, their minds naturally finished the Psalm just as our mind would finish this tune if we heard “Ode to Joy.” Psalm 22 begins with suffering but moves to the praise of God. It moves to a place where the soul is liberated by the power and presence of God. This liberation is joy, perfect joy. When suffering hits, Jesus’ soul is where his soul is, and where his soul is, ours can be as well. That is what he teaches as the master teacher on the soul. He means it when he says, “You are my friends, and you will do even greater things than these.”

This summer I’d like to encourage you to consider your soul by taking on the challenge of reading the Psalms. It is the study guide for the soul. When you read them have a pen in hand. Read slowly. Every time you see the word “soul,” circle it. Then stop and wonder what it is saying to you. Read the Psalms with your soul in mind, and ask:

  1. What does this say about joy?
  2. What does this say about suffering?
  3. How does the Psalmist help me better answer the question: “How goes it with your soul?”

Over the last three weeks we have considered the soul. The soul enlivens and integrates and correlates all aspects of our being. We glimpse it on occasion, in moments called touchstones, when we know God is reaching in to sooth our souls. We are called to consider our souls when we encounter coincidences, asking ourselves: “I wonder what my soul is up to?” Now we are asked to prepare our souls so when that the suffering does hit there is a symphony of joy still playing in the background. Soundness of soul is, after all, the salvation of the world.

Let patience be our gauge. Let Jesus be our master teacher. Let the Psalms be our study guide, so when the question is asked, “How goes it with your soul?” we may respond, “Towards perfect joy!”