One of the children of some friends of mine is on the track team at a local high school. At a recent track meet, the younger siblings of the track star were struggling with the glacial pace of track and field events. The youngsters wanted more action, noise, and excitement. They were restless little souls.
Today’s second reading says, “you have now returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.” (1 Pt 2:25) There was a time when it was common to use the word “soul,” but use of the word has fallen out of favor. If there is a thing called a soul, and if it is important to human experience, we might well ask what the word “soul” means.
When it was still popular to talk about the soul, the word was used most often to designate something that individuals possessed. It could be said that one’s soul was weary or that one’s soul was in need of salvation. Unfortunately, most of the talk about the soul made the soul sound like an organ or appendage, a component part of a person. Bodily parts can wear out; some can be replaced. The soul, however, is not a component like a hip joint or an appendix.
In the Scriptures, the word “soul” refers to one’s personal existence. Today, we tend to use language like “personality” to refer to what the Scriptures mean when they use the word “soul.” When we talk about the salvation of souls, then, we are not talking about some part of us being rescued; rather, we are talking about redemption of our entire person, that is, both our bodies and minds. “Soul” is our personality, the entirety of the self, and it is the proper subject of God’s Grace.
The Creed recited at Sunday Liturgy proclaims belief in “the resurrection of the body,” that is, the salvation of our whole personhood. Every Catholic repeats these words at every Sunday Liturgy, but I’m not convinced that Catholics really believe what they profess. Based on anecdotal evidence only, it appears more likely that Catholics think of the soul as a component of human existence that awaits liberation from the body. Perhaps, we need to be reminded that God’s gift of salvation is addressed concomitantly to the physical as well as the interpersonal dimensions of our lives.
In modern terminology, salvation is “wholistic.” As God’s Grace is addressed to the whole person, and not merely a few components, faithful religion is an act of the whole person throughout the whole of life. Just as “soul” was viewed as a component of a person, religion has been viewed as an aspect of one’s life; this is a deeply flawed understanding of religion. In order to be addressed faithfully to the One, True God, religion cannot be treated as a pastime or hobby or parttime pursuit.
Rather than being a form of self-care, faithful religion is the response of one’s whole person to God’s graciousness. As God’s graciousness is infinite, the only appropriate response is the engagement of one’s entire life and self.
This above probably explains why so many find religion to be less than satisfying. As religion has its intended effects only when it is an act of one’s whole person, less than full engagement with religion is destined to be disappointing. Like the two young siblings bored by the track meet, those who don’t engage fully in a relationship with God are restless souls.
The twentieth century theologian Karl Rahner wrote that human nature is created with a desire to encounter and know the Infinite. The life of faith that the baptized promise to live fulfills the capacity and desire for the Infinite by keeping us united with “the shepherd and guardian of (our) souls.” (1 Pt 2:25) For that reason, we give ourselves over completely and fully to the practice of our religion because that alone fulfills our deepest desires.
Thanks Fr. Alan. Your Homilies are always thought provoking. I am a “snowbird ” and I have just returned home to upstate NY. I will miss the liturgies at All Saints that my sister and I were a part of at 9am each Sunday. But I will be viewing the liturgies online in addition to getting back to my home parish, St Francis of Assisi in Northville, NY
You’re very welcome. Have a safe and restful summer.