Mary Oliver has a beautiful little poem in which she asks:
“Is the soul solid, like
or is it tender and breakable, like
the wings of a moth in the beak of the owl?”
It is both.
The soul, we are told by
philosophers, theologians, and mystics, is our essence, the permanence of our
true self. It is that part of us that lives beyond death. Or so we are taught
by religion. Where exactly the soul exists beyond that, has of course, been
There are times in life when
something deep within us is, as Mary Oliver says, solid as iron and we operate
out of some sense of aliveness, confidence, and inner strength. It may be
fleeting, but there when needed; or it may carry us through long periods of
endurance when we build a sturdy self, confident and capable of our abilities
This is the work of the soul.
This is a part of our spiritual development. This is what enables us to believe
there are forces in life, loving and generous and mystical, that nurture and
compel us toward growth and substance and maturity; that aide us in our longing
to be authentic and caring, compassionate and humane.
Companionship feeds our soul.
Intimacy. Laughter. Affection. Connection. Grace. Praise. Appreciation. Belief
in us. Successes. Achievements. All of this lifts and affirms and settles us
into feelings of worth, of aplomb, of poise and balance. It’s the stuff that
makes us glad we are here. It urges us on in the pursuance of doing good.
“Love,” wrote Shakespeare, “is
holy.” Yes, it is. So powerful. It is what creates iron in the soul. And it
comes to us in surprising and routine and dependable ways, from people and
pets, from nature and nurture, from work and leisure, from food and drink, from
things as simple as rest and as majestic as the ocean. All of that touches us
and humanizes us. And the soul cannot progress without it.
But the soul does have its
vulnerabilities. It can be tender and breakable. Even iron can be melted or
broken under severe circumstances. The soul, solid like iron, can be
Last year Ingrid did not make
the front row of girls on the dance team to perform at Homecoming. She was
moved to the back row where the girls with lesser talent were placed. She called
me that evening in tears. We talked a while and she grew calm. Later, I called
back to check on her. Her voice was quiet but still full of tears. I did my
best to reassure her, to send my love through the phone, to reach her with
gentle words. But when the soul is wounded, words don’t help much. I got in my
car and drove to the house. It was late and I figured everyone was in bed but I
had to be there. She, her mom, and her grandmother answered the door. Ingrid
fell into my arms, saying, “Oh Poppy, why are you here?” And holding her tight
I said, “I’m here for you, sweetie. I wanted to be sure you were okay.” She
sighed deeply and would not let go. Just my presence carried the assurance of
how much she is loved.
When life hurts us; when
death comes unannounced and takes someone we love; when the bottom falls out of
our marriage and we crumble in guilt and shame and bewilderment; when we lose
our job; when income fails to cover our basic needs and we panic about
tomorrow; when our children are caught in addiction or some fatal disease; when
our parents can’t accept who we are; when friends betray us—our soul turns
tender and breakable.
This is when love must
somehow reach us, must make its presence known. That is how we endure, and
ripen, and develop and grow strong.
Love does not ask us to be
something we are not, but to be more fully who we are. That’s how we survive.
It is all a part of the work of the soul.
By the way, Ingrid worked harder on her dance routines. Last fall she auditioned for the Belles Dancers, the more advanced dance group in the high school, and she was accepted. Things don't always work out, but love impels us to try, and sometimes, we surprise ourselves.
© 2017 Timothy Moody