Magnificence of Soul


 Think of twin girls who pretty much look the same but inwardly could not be more different. They are outwardly alike, but on the inside, where it really counts, world’s apart. 

 The girls are from the same family, have had the same background socially and educationally, but internally, one leans in one direction, one in another. 

 It’s a mystery perplexing for parents that, given much the same circumstances and opportunities, 'how is that one of my children goes off in that direction, while the other, chooses an entirely different path?’ One goes from strength to strength, another from pit to pit. Whatever is going on? 

 One possible way of relating to the mystery is to say that choices are being made by each, resulting in certain attitudes.

 Each child, indeed, each of us, is continually forming 'an attitude.’ For some over time an attitude of openness is being cultivated. It has become our habit continually to choose, regardless of what we come up against, that we will find a way to learn, grow, and forgive. We are determined to follow our highest and best impulses as a way of life.

 And then there’s the attitude of someone who continues to choose to be bitter for some reason. She nurses grievances. She hasn’t forgotten how she was slighted, ignored or wounded. 'Hell hath no fury,' as the saying goes, 'like a woman scorned.'  

 I got the idea a while back that when presented with a great work of art, say for instance, the writings of Shakespeare or the music of Bach, that if I show no interest, or can’t relate, or don’t understand, that my unresponsiveness is a revelation of a lack in me.

 I determined then that my attitude should be that upon learning of such a lack, that I could do something about it. I could educate myself to be able to respond to the masterpiece of literature or music appropriately and properly and not be the sort of person who gets twitchy and nervous and whose eyes glaze over in response to Mozart.

 I have not wanted to be like some ignorant, uncomprehending fellow who has perhaps gotten into the habit of a few too many hours wasted in his man cave, entertained and stupified by the world of shadows and appearances presented on a giant television screen.

 I would like to be known not as an 'entertained' man, but an educated one. As such, my task is to cultivate an attitude of openness and reverence towards high ideals and standards, always ready to learn and grow. What I think I know and understand is nothing compared with what could be known and understood. 

 Now it happens that the twin sisters I’ve mentioned are princesses. The story of  their differing attitudes and colliding visions, was told by Owen Barfield in his book The Silver Trumpet. C.S. Lewis called Barfield “the best and wisest of my unofficial teachers.”

 Barfield's story was read by J.R.R.Tolkien to his children who were so inspired by it that they begged their father to write such a story. In response he wrote The Hobbit.

 It’s a fairy tale about a knight named Prince Courtesy and his Silver Trumpet which has differing effects on people whenever it is blown. Thus the sisters hear the trumpet sound but exhibit entirely different responses to it. 

 The name of one princess is Violetta. She cares about music, dance, traditions, mothering and courtliness, that last word indicating a concern to be dignified, polite and elegant, suitable for the court of a king. You get the picture - she’s an impressive class act, indeed, a magnificent soul.   

 Gambetta, her sister, tends to be unimaginative and quite humourless. She likes a book about black magic but has no desire to change or to work on herself.

 It’s society, Gambetta rages, that has to change! Thus her vision is to organize an insurgency. She’s become a member of a rebel society known as The Amalgamated Princesses, the title of which says it all.

 The former princesses have come together to support that attitude of defiance that got them banished from their various domains. They did not like the behavioural standards for princesses and so had broken the rules. They shared a contempt for tradition and disdained courtliness. They were now fallen princesses. In such a condition, they fail to impress! 

 In contrast, Violetta, impresses. Hers is an open spirit. She is open to dream and to imagine. When the magic trumpet plays her whole being responds. The result is a magnificence of soul. Our world needs more awakened souls

 James Hillman, the psychologist, called soul "the imaginative possibility of our nature.” Soul is something we are capable of. We are not, however, born with it.

 Soul is not an already formed entity or substance within us. Soul is created when the imagination is ignited. Soul forms when we allow ourselves to dream dreams and to see visions. Thus soul is the imagination ignited and fired up. 

 What I wish to say about soul here is that its creation is a higher attainment than to be in that state of equilibrium sometimes called 'peace of soul.’

 I am all for 'peace of soul,' but understand that there’s something higher than mere ‘peace of soul,’ just is there is something higher than mere happiness or contentment. 

 What’s higher is the Biblical idea of "an experience one has with all of one’s soul and all one’s might, regardless of how mortifying, discordant or pathological such an experience can be at times.” (James Hillman, We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy - And the World’s Getting Worse, p. 26 of 197

 Thus it strikes me that you can be someone who has been terribly wounded, someone who remains haunted and disturbed in this way or that, and yet is still a magnificent soul, someone possessed by a high purpose and determination.

 You don’t have to have ‘worked everything out.’ You can, for instance, be a wounded healer - able to heal because of the pain you’ve been through and which you may continue to feel.

 The lie we’re up against today in its various forms is that suggestion that you’re supposed to get to the point in your life where everything is all right - that 'you’ve worked it all out!' 

 Hillman calls this assumption of needing to iron out all of the wrinkles something of a fantasy. And what usually accompanies the fantasy is the idea that we need to process things sufficiently. It is thought that we need to process so well that "we’re going to level things out so completely that we don’t have strong, disturbing emotions and events.” (Hillman) 

 The poet, Rilke, protested that he did not wish to be levelled and smoothed out! "I don’t want the demons taken away because they’re going to take my angels, too.” 

 Why is that? Because “wounds and scars are the stuff of character,” just as in the case of St. Paul whose thorn in the flesh remained in spite of all his prayers. Paul came to understand that the development of a Christ-like character depended less upon demonstrations of impressive strength than upon the acceptance of weaknesses. 

 All of Paul’s prayers to be freed from his disability made no difference. The thorn remained, just as the scars remain for many of us. No amount of processing is going to get rid of the wounds.

 And it may be (anyway) that even after months or years of processing that only a processed psyche will result, like processed food. You become after all the therapy (and expense) like "nice thin slices of yellow cheese.” You become packaged and labelled, spouting forth formulas and cliches with a goony smile on your face, evidence that the soul has been knocked out of you.

 The challenge in life is not so much to become a skilled processor but an inspired creator, a person with an inspired imagination

 The breakthrough is to imagine a why so that you can bear any how. It is to find a purpose or meaning to your life, far greater than yourself. It is to find something or someone you can live for and give yourself to.

 Hillman asks about what great men did with the pain in their lives: "What did Jonathan Swift do? He wrote the most incredible satires. What did Joyce do with his feelings about Ireland? What did Faulkner do with his feelings about the South?” Each of these men ignited their imaginations by creating works of art.

 Like them, we need to become artists or creators in some way or another. It is therefore a creative endeavour of some kind that will save us from meaninglessness and despair. "Turn to the imagination”, Hillman implores,"to work with things.”

 Which is why, says Hillman,"one needs to read the biographies of artists, because biographies show what they did with their traumas; they show what can be done by the imagination with hatred, with bitterness, with feelings of being useless and inferior and worthless.”

 What’s needed is for the imagination to be ignited. We need to enter the realm of imaginative possibilities.

 To imagine is to re-enact the creation of the world through your own particular creative endeavor, whatever that might be. It was Coleridge who said that the imagination acts as "a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation."

 You don’t so much need therapy as to find a reason to live, a dream to fulfill, a task to complete.

 What are you here for? What were you born for? Surely for something that demands your life, your all.

 To love with all of one's soul and strength. The result - a soul of magnificence.


                                                                                      Owen Barfield

Ave, Verbum Incarnatum, Benedictines of St Cecilia’s Abby