For most of my life I used the terms “soul” and “spirit” interchangeably, as if they meant the same thing. I have since learned there is a difference. Our souls refer to the depth dimension of ourselves, a reality that can only be accessed by some kind of descent (going down). In your soul, you are absolutely unique, a one-of-a-kind creation never to be replicated. If you listen to your soul, you will discover God’s plan for your life, a plan that nobody else is entrusted with in the same way. However, when you think of spirit, think of ascent (going up). In your spirit you share in a mystery that permeates everything in the universe and yet transcend it all. Soul embraces and calls us toward what is most unique in us. Spirit encompasses and draws us toward what is most universal and shared.
Soul is what is most wild and natural within us. It is the essence of you, me, the trees, water, calves, insects, volcanoes, butterflies, hurricanes, and corn stalks. In that sense, soul is more aligned with nature, because nature itself is always wild and we dare not tame it without doing damage to our own souls. Deplete forests and you run the risk of depleting your soul; they are that interconnected.
This descent into our souls is always a painful descent especially for the unprepared person who always wants to get out of that hellhole as soon as possible. It feels too much like surrender or, even worse, dying. Avoiding the descent, abandoning the journey, means a wasted opportunity to dialogue with our souls.
You can count on wild nature to reflect your soul because soul is your most wild and natural dimension. I bet everyone reading this has had a least one profound encounter with their soul in nature. It seemed to have been true for the founders of the major religions: Moses on Mount Sinai, Jesus in the desert for forty days, Muhammed in a cave outside Mecca and Buddha under the bodhi tree.
The Medieval mystics remind us that the body is in the soul, not the soul in the body. Our bodies are instruments of our souls; they go where our souls ask them to go. They dance when our souls feel like dancing; they mourn when our souls feel like grieving; they skip when our souls feel uplifted.
Your soul wants to be embodied in the world. This is what stirs you much more than career advancement, buying a new car or a new house or an ideal vacation. The essential life energy of your soul is fiery and longs for expression. If we don’t move with it, it may turn inward and manifest depression, anger, lethargy or other psychological or physical symptoms. Our souls are never satisfied with mere thoughts and prayers.
Ancient cultures always knew about the journey of the soul as a downward pull. Mythologies are full of stories of the hero’s and heroine’s descent to the underworld. If one never made the journey, one would never know their truest and deepest self, nor their purpose in life. The language of the soul bypasses words, ideas, and concepts. Instead, it expresses itself through images, poetry, metaphors, imagination, and dreams. When you can’t stop looking into the eyes of a newborn or can’t get the lyrics of a song out of your head, it is your soul wanting to express itself.
The great poet Henry David Thoreau feared people would lose touch with their souls, their relationship with nature, by the sheer speed and inattentiveness by which we move. (He discouraged people from riding trains as they went upwards of 30 miles/hour!). As a poet, Thoreau accessed his soul regularly, so go for a walk. Ponder a tree. Trees do it best for me. Why? Perhaps it’s because they make me think of Jesus. He was not afraid to do his own soul work by descending into death, death upon a tree. I think of the roots descending into the earth (soul), so that its branches can ascend to the heavens (spirit). Nature never lies…nor does Jesus.
Fr. Phil Mulligan