I started becoming interested in soul care and contemplative spirituality when I was in college. At the time, I was a youth pastor at a rural church, an undergrad student, a roommate, and living in a low income neighborhood. Life was busy, loud, full of deadlines and commitments, and I was 22 years old. Around that time, I stumbled upon the work of Henri Nouwen and found him to be a kindred spirit. Nouwen’s life had been filled with opportunities, relationships, and responsibilities, yet he seemed to have an interior largeness that saturated his life.
I deeply desired what Nouwen experienced and still do. So over the next few years, I sought to grow in some basic contemplative practices and rhythms: daily silence and meditation, spiritual friendships, extended times in nature, an annual silent retreat. These rhythms and practices became anchor points for me and nourished my life.
A few years later, I helped plant a church with a group of friends. And one year later I got married. And two years later we had our first child. And in the midst of all of these changes, my practices and rhythms changed. What worked for me before did not work for me now – or at least not in the same way. The time and flexibility that I was afforded when I was 23 and single was not the same as when I was 30 with a 1-year old. My life and contemplative rhythms no longer fit into neat little boxes that I could organize well – everything was overlapping together and I hated it. It felt like I was losing control. I was internally frustrated by the changes that were happening and slow to adapt.
Essence of Soul Care
It is amazing how difficult it is for human beings to change. We love our routines, habits, relationships, and assumptions just as they are – even if they make us miserable! And when change comes to us, we often resist it in one way or another.
As I write these words, the entire world is in the beginning stages of adapting to the coronavirus pandemic. Over 5 million people have been infected and over 300,000 people have died from this disease around the world. Millions have lost their jobs and income, the entire world is practicing quarantine and “social distancing,” and everyone has had to adapt quickly. Everything seems to be changing – the way we connect relationally, how we care for our bodies, our understanding of emotional and mental health, spirituality and religion, and the ability to do meaningful work. It is a moment of unprecedented change and adaptation in my lifetime.
The coronavirus is forcing us to comprehensively re-imagine how human beings approach life, what we need to grow and flourish individually and collectively, and how we can cultivate a whole, healthy life. In other words, we are beginning to understand the essence of soul care.The coronavirus is forcing us to comprehensively re-imagine how human beings approach life, what we need to grow and flourish individually and collectively, and how we can cultivate a whole, healthy life. ~ Matt Alexander Click To Tweet
My daughter, Emery, is in pre-school, and she has her cubby to keep her lunch, crayons, art projects, and other supplies. Each child has their own cubby which is cute and really helpful to have so that everything stays organized. No one wants to see a 4-year old melt down because her stuff got mixed up with another kid!
Cubbies are really great for pre-schoolers with their crayons but really devastating for adults and our lives. We tend to do this – we create “cubby compartments” that keep are relationships, work, spirituality, emotions, bodies, and minds nicely divided and separated from one another. We have embraced the deception of compartmentalization – that life will be easier, better, happier, and more desirable if we can break up our life and ourselves into different categories:
- Sacred vs. secular
- Spiritual vs. material
- Soul, mind, body
Western Christianity has really embraced the way of compartmentalization. We have been taught to believe that what matters most about a person is their “soul.” The idea is that what ultimately matters about a person is the status of their soul with God – the non-physical part of us that lives on after we die. This non-integrated understanding of “soul” is really problematic for a few reasons:
- It “spiritualizes” normal human challenges. A spiritual vs. material divide is created that is unhelpful at best and damaging at worst. If you are depressed or have chronic anxiety, you do not just need to spend more time in prayer – you need to work with a counselor and possibly getting some chemical help as well. Christians have too routinely “spiritualized” human challenges, and this usually does more harm than good.
- People become projects. People become “souls to save” rather than people to know and love. We must be concerned with the whole person and the cultural structures, narratives, and systems that affect the whole person.
Human beings are much more like ecosystems than pre-school cubbies. An ecosystem is all of the living organisms (plants, animals, and bacteria) and the nonliving components (air, water, soil, weather) that interact with each other as a system. The size of an ecosystem can range from a small tide pool to a giant desert. All the members of the system are interconnected, so the loss or change of one factor can have large effects rippling through the entire ecosystem.
An ecosystem is complex, multi-layered, and integrated. Each element of the ecosystem impacts all of the other elements. The elements are distinct and unique from one another, but they also overlap and experience synergy together.
Your soul is an ecosystem.
The vision of a soul being an integrated ecosystem is not a modern idea but rooted in the heart of Hebrew language and life. Ancient Hebraic imagination understood human beings as having the potential to live in tremendous harmony, wholeness, and congruence with themselves, the divine, others, and all creation. One of the primary words that was used to describe this kind of congruence is nephesh.
Part of the challenge we face today with reading and studying ancient texts like the Bible is the enormous gap between the original writers and us today. Not only are there different languages being used, but also completely different cultural constructs and communal values. So we tend to impose our ideas and constructs onto these ancient writers, distorting what they were saying initially and also missing what they wanted to say. This is exactly what has occurred with the use of the English word “soul” and the Hebrew term nephesh.
The word “soul” shows up roughly 75-100 times in English translations of the Old Testament depending on the translation that is being used. The majority of the time it is the Hebrew word nephesh that is being translated into the English word “soul.”
But nephesh is found over 700 times in the Old Testament! It is one of the most commonly used terms by the ancient Hebraic authors. It was weaved into the very fabric of their culture and baseline understanding of what it meant to be a human being. And it gets translated as several other English words besides “soul”.
Nephesh is also translated as:
- “The living”
Nephesh is a broad term that is used in different ways in the Bible, but at its core it captures your physical, holistic life and existence.
In other words, you don’t have a soul. You are a soul.
We don’t have a soul – we are a soul. This is the integrated imagination and wisdom of the Hebrews that must be recovered in modern times.We don’t have a soul – we are a soul. This is the integrated imagination and wisdom of the Hebrews that must be recovered in modern times. ~ Matt Alexander Click To Tweet
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 I can’t remember the first Nouwen book I read, but do yourself a favor and read anything of his you can get your hands on.
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