By Russell Levenson Jr.
Last Sunday was Father’s Day. For many it is a day of celebration of our fathers and grandfathers; and for those who are fathers, it was likely a day that many gave thanks for the gift of children. I had a good Father’s Day, and was able to call my good father and wish him well.
But you know, not everyone had a good father. Some people — perhaps many — had abusive fathers, neglectful fathers, distant fathers. Study after study shows that a withdrawn parent is one of the chief causes of emotional and mental distress and illness. When children do not experience love, acceptance, protection, then often they turn to other things to attempt to fill a hole left behind.
Do any of you feel that way? Do any of you feel the indelible mark left on your soul by some pain inflicted on you by one who was supposed to be the first source of health in this world? What happens when that kind of soul wound is not tended to and healed?
In his novel The Paper Men, William Golding offers a veiled biography of a famous writer, Wilfred Barclay, who is tormented by three witches in his life: alcohol, sex, and immortality. He confesses: “I could describe my whole life as a movement from one moment of farce to another farce on one plane or another, nature’s comic, her clown with a red nose, ginger hair, and trousers falling down at precisely the wrong moment. Yes, right from the cradle.”
To mock the words of Johnny Lee’s old country song, why do humans look for “soul” in all the wrong places? And if we do not get some end to our search, then, like Barclay, we will merely skip from one empty and shallow farce to the next.
Most of us know the old joke. On a very dark night, a policeman comes up on a man hunched over, obviously and desperately searching for something under a bright street lamp.
The policeman asks, “What’s the matter?”
“I’ve lost my keys.”
“Well, let me help you,” the cop responds.
After several minutes, the policeman finally stands up straight and says, “Hey, we’ve searched this whole area and I just don’t think they are here. Are you sure this is where you dropped them?”
The man responds, “Oh no, I dropped them over there,” pointing to a dark alley across the way.
“Then why on earth are you looking here, good man?”
“Well,” the man says, “The light is better here!”
The problem with our modern search to fill the hunger and thirst of our souls is that the light is being shined in the wrong place. And like a moth to flame, we are drawn desperately to the hope that “more” will somehow make up for what our soul is desperately lacking.
In 1992, one of the best-selling books was an intriguing though not necessarily easily digested work called Care of the Soul. It was written by Thomas More, a former monk turned psychotherapist, who began with these words:
The great malady of [of our time], implicated in all of our troubles and affecting us individually and socially, is “loss of soul.” When soul is neglected, it doesn’t just go away; it appears symptomatically in obsessions, addictions, violence, and loss of meaning. …
The emotional complaints of our time … emptiness, meaninglessness, vague depression … disillusionment about marriage, family and relationship, a loss of values, yearning for personal fulfillment, a hunger for spirituality.
All of these symptoms reflect a loss of soul and let us know what the soul craves. We yearn excessively for entertainment, power, intimacy, sexual fulfillment, and material things, and we think we can find these things if we discover the right relationship or job, the right church or therapy. But without soul, whatever we find will be unsatisfying, for what we truly long for is the soul in each of these areas. Lacking that soulfulness, we attempt to gather these alluring satisfactions to us in great masses, thinking apparently that quantity will make up for lack of quality.
And so, what is the prescription for cultivating our soul? We have it right here in Psalm 42. This beautiful bit of poetry, written by David, we are told for the director of music, for a group known as the Sons of Korah, kind of the ancient Levitical choir, who were appointed to sing during worship in the temple. It is a bold, honest, confessional Psalm in which David reveals his own anemic soul.
It is a beautiful Psalm, but also painstainkingly honest (verse 6): “Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul? … and why are you so disquieted within me?”
In other words, though David has power, wealth, fame — his soul is deeply disturbed; there is something amiss, and he knows it, he feels it. He says that his tears are a visible testimony to his doubt: “My tears have been my food day and night … while all day long they say to me … “Where now is your God?”
Have you ever felt that way? Do you feel that way now? How amazing, really, that something written thousands of years ago can actually speak to this moment, this time, right here and now.
It may not have been an absentee father that has brought about your tears today. It may be the end of a marriage or loving partnership; the disastrous decisions your child is making; that notice you got from your boss that your days are numbered. It may be the call from the doctor; or simply the day to day-ness of life. For whatever reason, let’s be honest, many of us can say with David: “As the deer longs for the water-brooks … so longs my soul for you, O God. … My soul is athirst for God, athirst for the living God.”
Well, then, what’s the answer? Look first at verse 9: “One deep calls to another in the noise of your cataracts.” I actually prefer the simpler version, which is helped a bit more by our modern language: “Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls.”
Deep calls to deep. I would suggest to you that a first place to begin allowing our deep need to find a place of deep satisfaction to our soulless searching is realizing what does and does not feed us.
A few weeks back, I ran across the film Citizen Kane. Orson Wells’s epic film is full of life lessons about the futility of things that do not assuage the deep hungers of the heart. There’s a crucial scene when the wife of the wealthy Kane tells him that she has had enough — enough of a marriage not grounded in love, but in the trappings of wealth, power, and prestige. When he says, “But you can’t leave,” she answers, “I am going to,” and out she goes.
At which point, Kane begins to pitch a full-fledged tantrum, walking around one of his museum-like rooms throwing possessions in the air, against the wall, and to the ground. Kane’s wife knew what Kane could not see — that there are some things that cannot be satiated with wealth or power, that there are simply some things that the material world cannot provide.
Now I am not, for one moment, going to stand here before you and tell you there are not aspects of this very material world that I like, dare say, I love — my home; my comfortable furniture; a good night’s sleep; a bold glass of merlot; a strong cup of coffee. I like these things, and a list we don’t have long enough to explore. But I also know, in a moment’s notice, this heart could stop beating and all, all of it, will remain right here, while the substance of who I am will then stand before God.
As the Christian writer John Ortberg likes to say, “At the end of the game, it all goes back in the box,” and by the box, he does not mean the things we collect in this world, but the deep things — those things that, in Jesus’ words, “moth and rust cannot destroy.”
I wonder if you know that when Alexander the Great had conquered virtually the entire civilized world, he quickly became disillusioned with life because he began to understand that possessions do not bring happiness. He had enough presence of mind to request that when he died he would have his hands open.
He wanted people who came to view his body to realize that the man who owned the whole world left with nothing (see J. John, “Wealth,” in A Box of Delights [Monarch, 2001], p. 208. We would do well to begin our journey toward a deeper existence by realizing what does and does not quench our thirst and feed our hunger.
A second step in allowing deep to speak to deep is to actually go deep. What do I mean by that? Well, while I step just a bit here on meddling, I think many of us — and that goes for me too — are a bit reluctant to go deep. What do I mean by that? I mean, simply, that we step beyond the outward actions we offer in this place and allow the outside to match up with what’s going on inside.
My friends, I believe our liturgy to be some of the most wonderful, if not the most wonderful, offered in the Christian Church. But it is more than words and religious calisthenics. When we listen to the Scriptures and the sermon; when we confess those things done and left undone; when we kneel before the Holy Sacraments and take them within ourselves, this mingling of corporate and private acts should not just be a whisper in our ears, but acts that pierce our souls and change our lives. If we are serious, we must be willing to really, really go deep. But we are hesitant, aren’t we?
Just before the Middle Ages, the most widely used form of farming was called “skittering.” A small instrument, about like a rake, was brought behind a goat or a horse to till the ground and prepare for the planting of seeds. What happened, of course, was that only the top inch or so of the soil was turned over, and while there was a harvest, it was usually small, which contributed to the pervasive hunger and poverty of those days.
When iron became more widely used, so did new tools for farming, including large, heavy iron blades that could be brought behind the strength of a team of oxen. Now the blades would go deep, very deep; and when they did, farming became a bit more difficult — roots and rocks were encountered, along with rabbit holes and wasp nests.
But the end result, of course, of going deeper was that the good, dark, rich soil would be turned up and turned over so that deeper planting could take place, and a better harvest.
So, the second step I am going to suggest for finding your soul in a soulless world is not to go shallow, but go deep. Go in for the whole treatment. Deep planting is difficult. You’ll turn up for sure roots of old wounds; rocks of addiction; wasp nests of things you simply do not want to turn loose — but then the end result is a great and magnificent harvest. It is a new you.
But then, how to ultimately assuage that hunger and end that thirst? Because the light keeps shining in wrong places: “Peace is over here, in your bank account”; “Give in just one more time to your addiction”; “Don’t turn loose of your anger — it has served you well.” But we know that’s not where the truth is. And, my friends, I will be honest and say, it is also not ultimately in St. Martin’s; or the Bible; or church school; it is not in service; or financial or time contributions to the Church — though all of these may be part of the planting that brings about a harvest.
No, the real, best answer I know to feed and water the hunger and thirst of your hearts is to go even deeper, deeper than this place; deeper than what we do here; deeper still.
What is that deeper place? The answer is in verse 7. It is simple, and yet at the same time incredibly hard. “Put your trust in God.” That’s it, plain and simple. That’s what it means to allow deep to speak to deep. The deepest needs and wants, hungers and thirsts, of your heart find their rest in the deepest place in all creation: God.
It is simple, because there’s the answer. That’s the end of your search right there: God. It is hard, because it is so very contrary to our human nature and the culture in which we live. But again, if we are quiet, for just a moment, if we listen to that voice on the inside, “As the deer longs for the water-brooks, so longs my soul for you, O God. … My soul is athirst for God, athirst for the living God.” I would bet it is for more than a few of us. So if we want that need fed, do we really have a choice?
We can keep looking in the wrong place, drinking from the poisoned well, eating from the spoiled meal; or we can look to God, drink from God, feed on God; and be reminded, to be called, to be converted into the very person you were created to be — the object of God’s love. You see, that is what heals those wounds: opening them up to the deep love of God.
I love that little line from C.S. Lewis’s work, The Four Loves: “God, Who needs nothing, loves into existence wholly superfluous creatures in order that he may love and perfect them.” Disconnected from that love, our souls will always hunger, they will always thirst. Connected to that love? Engulfed by that love? The soul begins to heal, and you begin to become who God intends you to be.
There’s a great old medieval fable about a mother tiger who died giving birth to her cub. The new creature wandered the jungle without any family support until a pack of goats came upon him and invited him to join their company. As the months went by, this creature began to take on the qualities of the goat companions.
One day, the king of the tigers saw the little cub acting like a silly goat and roared out, “What’s the meaning of this ridiculous masquerade? Why are you behaving like a goat?”
All the little tiger knew to do was to was to bleat nervously and begin to nibble on some grass. Then it dawned on the king that this little cub had no idea who he was.
So he took the little one down to a river and let him see for the first time a reflection of himself. “See,” the king tiger said, “You’re not a goat, you are a tiger!” Then he laid back his head and let the creature hear how a tiger was supposed to sound. At that, the king tiger said, “Follow me, little one, and I’ll teach you to become the grand thing you already are and possess in you to become!”
So that’s the answer for us, isn’t it? Realize what does and does not feed us; be willing to go deep; no, be willing to go deeper still. How? Put your trust in God and you will become the grand thing you already are and possess in you to become! Put your trust in the deep love of God and have those empty holes filled, those old wounds healed, your soul brought to life again.
What the deep love of God heals is you, and that is a grand and wonderful thing indeed.
The Rev. Russell J. Levenson Jr. is rector of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, Houston.