the soul is like a wild animal
“The soul is like a wild animal—tough, resilient, resourceful, savvy. It knows how to survive in hard places. But it is also shy. Just like a wild animal, it seeks safety in the dense underbrush. If we want to see a wild animal, we know that the last thing we should do is go crashing through the woods yelling for it to come out.”
Parker Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness
I’ve said it before: one of the greatest gifts Pastor Jon gave us at our internship last summer was to direct us to love the congregation. You’d hope we would’ve done that anyway (and the people there are so lovable that we couldn’t have avoided it!), but Jon’s instructions made it clear. More than that, he streamlined our purpose. We had a few other responsibilities, but we would not have mistaken those for our primary work.
As it turns out, that purpose—loving the people of First Reformed Oak Harbor—saved us from the temptation to appear busy with ministry. We did not have to scurry from event to event or to lock ourselves up all day with a “Shh! Sermon in Progress!” sign on our door (although I can’t recommend distraction and interruption as efficient sermon-writing techniques, either). Both we and the congregation understood that when we were not in the office, we were still being pastors.
Ruth Haley Barton, whose book I’ve just begun, would agree, I think, although she simplifies it even further. Her diagnosis? Too many church leaders have lost their souls. By that she doesn’t mean that we’ve lost our faith or our salvation, but that the heart of our vocation—the core of ourselves, in a sense—has slipped away while we’ve busied ourselves with ministerial tasks.
Her prescription? Solitude and silence, among other things. To regain our souls, we have to sit very quietly, like the Planet Earth cameramen waiting for the elusive snow leopard. With patience, the soul will emerge out of the overgrown, tangled wilderness of our lives. And when we give the soul space to come forth, we’re able to reacquaint ourselves with the reason we entered ministry in the first place. It had something to do with God and desire and imagination. When our brave little soul comes out of hiding, we have a place to encounter God and to remember the love we had at first. It took Moses’ wandering to the far side of the mountain to meet God in the bush.
I’m not a pastor yet, but my soul didn’t need more than a few years at seminary to skitter off into hiding. I’m not saying that seminary is the dark night of the soul, as I had been warned, but I can attest to not feeling myself. I don’t know what to compare it to: cabin fever? It’s like I’ve been cooped up with very little light for too long. My soul, which loves to be energized but gets easily anxious and bored, has fled while I keep stoking the stove, stirring the pots, fixing the leaks, readying myself to take on the woods. The cabin is safe, but it’s limiting. Vibrant, exotic life exists beyond its threshold if I’m willing to camp out under a tree for a few hours.
Something about this semester has opened the door and let in some light. After reading Barton, I wonder if it’s that several of my classes have that soul-element to them. They’re hitting on something deeper within me. They have built in the time to sit and encounter God. And I feel revived.
Now I know this isn’t a book review, but I do have two questions I’d like to ask Ruth Haley Barton, two points I want to push her on.
The first is this: I have a hard time sorting out God and the soul in her discussions of solitude and silence. Are we waiting for our souls to emerge, or are we waiting for God to show up? That’s a big difference, and one of the reasons I’m not a huge fan of Parker Palmer. He seems to think it’s good enough to be our deepest selves. But I’d argue that our deepest selves are pretty shallow—tainted by the fall and all. While reading Barton, I tried to avoid the confusion by imagining that by allowing my soul to come out, I was sending someone to meet God. That seemed a temporary fix.
My second question: what are the limits of solitude and silence? Is it possible for our souls to be present in community? I know there’s a long Christian history to these disciplines and I don’t want to question that. But I’m not convinced that the solution to soul-less pastoral ministry is to retreat, retreat, retreat. What about the body of Christ? Are we not made whole when we commune with both God and each other?