How do you gain your soul? To start with, you have to know you have one. Our culture views us as units of productivity not as holy people. There is no talk in the public arena of souls. Every spiritual value is recast as a commodity.
- Love is trivialized into something that depends on physical appearance and sex.
- Peace is what you get when an appetite is satisfied. To achieve Peace you go shopping, or eat something, or drink something. The desire for Peace can be further distorted and lead to addiction.
But you are not an economic unit. You are not your job, your address, or what you own. You are a beloved child of God. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus told the disciples that “not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.” Not a hair of your head will perish. Earlier in Luke’s Gospel, we read that “even the hairs of your head are all counted.” We all know from looking at our combs and brushes that the count of hairs on our head is an ever changing number. God must be keeping a running total—checking in on us all the time. Who we really are, beyond all of our cultural descriptors, is defined by that relationship to the Holy One. We are not merely our bodies, we are also our souls.
Jesus was in the Temple in Jerusalem, speaking to his disciples. They were clearly astounded by the grandeur of the Temple. It was one of the wonders of the ancient world. Imagine walking through the National Cathedral, or St. John the Divine, or one of the great cathedrals in Europe; imagine being awestruck by the massive scale, richness and beauty of the place. The disciples, mostly fishermen from rural Galilee, were overwhelmed, and Jesus pointed to the gorgeous columns and said: “the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” Not how you get a job as a tour guide! He continued to tell them about wars, natural disasters and violence—which is more like how you get a job on the Evening News. We hear about war and violence—and whole communities reduced to rubble—on a regular basis. We are constantly surfing wave after wave of anxiety. And yet, Jesus offers a message of comfort after the litany of disaster. What I hear is that he was warning his followers not to rely on the status quo; saying that buildings and empires would pass away. And his prophecy was accurate: Jesus stood in the Temple around the year 30, and by the year 70—just forty years later—the Temple was completely destroyed by Rome as they put down rebellion with such brutality that the streets were red with blood. All that remains of the Temple is the Western Wall, called the Wailing Wall, where people still gather for prayer and worship.
So how do you gain your soul? If you ask anybody how to get better at something—any soccer player, any musician, any artist—they will all tell you the same thing: practice! It is practice that improves your strength, your skill and your agility. There are ways to practice that help you develop your spiritual “muscles,” that help you gain your soul. Prayer is one way, and so is reading Holy Scripture. There are many other ways. One of my favorite books by Episcopal priest, writer and professor Barbara Brown Taylor, is called An Altar in the World; it is a book about spiritual practices. One practice that I find helpful is what she describes as “The Practice of Walking on the Earth,” what you and I would call walking a Labyrinth.
A Labyrinth is a path on a floor, or outdoors, that people walk on in a prayerful, meditative way. It is different from a maze, which has dead ends and is designed to be a puzzle. A Labyrinth is a continuous swirling path that you can walk to the space in the center, and then walk out the same way you went in. It was created in the Middle Ages for people who wanted the spiritual benefit of going to a holy shrine—one of the great pilgrimage sites—but were too poor or sick to make the journey. The spiritual practice of walking the Labyrinth was only rediscovered in the last few decades, when people moved the chairs covering the one inlaid in the floor of the Cathedral in Chartres, France. In her book, Barbara Brown Taylor tells a remarkable story that took place there.
A friend of Taylor’s went to Chartres on pilgrimage, and her group was walking the Labyrinth. An older couple entered the cathedral and stood watching them walk in from the opening to the center and walk out again—something that can take about half an hour. After a while, the couple walked straight to the center and bowed their heads in prayer. Then the woman took off her shoes and handed them to her husband. Then she handed him her purse. She began to walk the path out of the Labyrinth, and he stood in the center. Sometimes she cried. Sometimes he cried. Afterwards, when they had composed themselves, the woman who had been watching asked them: “What happened?” They said they had come to celebrate the end of her treatment for breast cancer. They had never even heard of a Labyrinth before that day. As she walked she began to feel peace—she had been so angry at her body for letting her down. As she walked, she thought of all the people who had walked with her during her surgery and treatment. “This is why I came here today,” she said. Solvitur Ambulando—it is solved by walking—said Augustine of Hippo, one of the earliest theologians of the Christian Church. What is “it” you ask? If you want to find out, you have to do your own walking.
So prayerful walking, among other spiritual practices, can help you gain your soul. Walking, prayer, reading Scripture, Communion, singing—if you think about it everything we do in our service of worship is a spiritual practice. You are already doing an hour of spiritual practice every time you go to church—and I invite you to consider what other spiritual practices are helpful to you. It—what ever “it” is for you— is solved by walking, but it is not necessarily solved by walking alone. We are gathered in community, and it is a blessing that we are able to walk together. What we do as a Christian community—whether walking, prayer, study, or singing God’s praises—helps us gain our souls. Thanks be to God.