Entering the wilderness to heal the soul

My time on my little farm I call The Hermitage, short for the longer title, The Hermitage of the Incarnation, sounding like a monastery, is in fact, a somewhat monastic lifestyle.  When undertaking the work around the place, I do so in silence—no radio, no music, the odd word to the dog, sheep or chickens, but in silence.  The silence leads me to think about things, to think about what I am doing on this little farm, to think about what we are doing as a church, thinking about particular people and what is going on in their lives, thinking about things that are taking place in the world, and thinking about myself and who I am.  And, thinking in fellowship with the Holy Spirit, is prayer as I listen in the silence for what God is revealing to me about these things.

The word used in the bible translated as wilderness literally means to be in a place, or state, of aloneness; not lonely, but alone.  Of course, from a Christian perspective, we are never alone; what it means is to be separated from other human beings.  This doesn’t have to be a place deserted of life, particularly here in Australia, we would describe wilderness to be in the middle of a rainforest.

In the beginning of Jesus adult and earthly ministry he took time out in the wilderness.  If the place I went to on my pilgrimage last year was the place, for Jesus this wilderness was literally the desert.  There we are told, he was tested by the devil.  Good biblical, prophetic, religious language for ‘find out who he really was and what this meant he was supposed to do fulfil that identity.’  We know that he took other times go off on his own to pray, in particular when he wanted to choose the twelve who would be his closest disciples.

The wilderness, being alone with God, is a place, or state, of aloneness for discovery of God and self.  It is no wonder that Isaiah speaks so positively of the idea and hope of wilderness

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,

the desert shall rejoice and blossom;

like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,

and rejoice with joy and singing.  (Isaiah 35:1-2a)

The literal image speaks of the desert, rather than being a place of barrenness, a place that is full of blossoming and beautiful plants.  The poetic, metaphoric, image is one that speaks of this state of aloneness providing the grounding for the development of the person who opens themselves to it.  The wilderness, the state of aloneness, is one that leads to joy where,

They shall see the glory of the Lord,

the majesty of our God.

Strengthen the weak hands,

and make firm the feeble knees.

Say to those who are of a fearful heart,

“Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God.

He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense.

He will come and save you.” (Isaiah 35:2b-4)

and it goes on.  Out of the wilderness, out of aloneness with God, comes joy.

I have been thinking about joy over the last week in response to my reading of the last few months concerned with who I am and what God wants me to do.

I have often said that there is a difference between happiness and joy.  As emotions, happiness is dependent upon what happens to us, joy is not.  The question I had this week is, ‘What is the source of joy?’  Where does this joy that sustains us, where ‘sorrow and sighing flee away’ (Isaiah 35:10) in the face of calamity come from?  The answer is, I think, the soul.  The state of our soul is the source of joy.

Let me begin by saying that I now think the soul is who we are.  To put it another way, we do not have a soul, we are a soul and our bodies are the physical representation of our soul.

Sure, we are created in the image and likeness of God, as Genesis 1 tells us.  By this I understand, as creatures of the Creator, we are in the image of the Creator.  In addition to this, we are also a unique and distinctive likeness of the Creator.  This is breathed into us as the poetry of Genesis puts it.

So, what does that mean?  It means that our physical bodies—what is going on with it—may be telling us something about what is going on, or not going on, with our soul.  If we aren’t nurturing our soul it will scream out to us for attention.  For example, broken and dysfunctional relationships or unexpressed emotion, may find themselves expressed in our bodies as rheumatoid arthritis; what we might call psychosomatic illness.

Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul, tells of a client, a man who had some responsibility in his job.  He came to Moore because he couldn’t sleep, his relationships with his children and wife were failing and he was always angry.  As Moore spoke with him it became quite clear that the man was extremely unhappy and unfulfilled in his work and pressured to continue in order to financially support his family.  After many sessions, the man returned, his relationships had been restored and he was full of joy.  He hadn’t found a new attitude toward his job, he hadn’t been fixed of past experiences as a child, he hadn’t had marriage counselling, he had changed his job to one that was giving expression to his soul.

I think a problem with our so-called western, modern society is that we have become soulless.  By this I do not mean that we no longer have a soul, I mean that we have stopped recognising and nurturing the soul.  For example, simply because a school student does well in their VCE we encourage them to be medical doctors or lawyers.  But, what if that is not their soul’s expression.  What if their soul finds its expression as a brick layer?

The difference between a job and a vocation is that the former is what we do simply to get paid.  The latter is what we do because it is the expression of who we are.  The idea of a calling to be a priest is the realisation of this ministry as the expression of an individual’s soul.  Gerhard Hughes, God of Surprises, describes this soul’s work, ‘when our job loves us back.’  The job loves us back when we find fulfilment in the work that we do.  Work both expresses and nurtures the soul.

We can know when we have been nurturing our soul and it has found expression.  I know it when I look at the plumbing job, or the carpentry, I have just completed, and say to myself, ‘Look what I have done, and it is marvellous in our eyes.’  I have to confess I return to it until I have completed the next task and have another wondrous look.

If this understanding of joy coming from the fulfilled soul is correct, it is not surprising that the biblical idea of healing and salvation have the same meaning.  Acknowledging the pain and struggle of depression, perhaps we can even think of depression, not as a problem to be cured, but as the process of the soul trying to heal itself.

In my present single and monastic, wilderness lifestyle I am realising my own personal psychology and I am actually enjoying finding myself fulfilled (the duality of that phrase is not accidental).  The work I realise I am undertaking is soul work.  By undertaking the work of nurturing our soul we can find the everlasting joy that carries us through the easy times and the hard times even though it is sometimes the hard times that send us into the wilderness.

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