Are we too busy to tend to the garden of our soul?

Father John A. Kiley

No word has fallen on harder times in present day Roman Catholic circles than the word soul. Think of how common expressions containing the word soul were in Catholic life just a few short years ago. Catholics struggled to save their souls; Catholics were earnest to cleanse their souls of sin; Catholics worked to fill their souls with grace. Now the word soul is rarely heard from preacher or teacher. This Sunday’s Gospel passage is a good case in point. The passage from St. Luke concludes: “By your perseverance you will secure your lives.”

Honestly now, are these words an improvement at all over the older translation, “By your patience you will save your souls”? What does “secure your lives” mean? Is the reference to life in this world? In the next world? And what does “secure” imply? St. Jerome originally phrased it: “By your patience you will possess your soul….” The thought of taking charge of one’s soul, possessing it, makes nice sense. Securing it sounds too mechanical, too technical. The older English phrasing, “By your patience you will save your souls” is clear and rich and inspiring.

St. Jerome was not alone in choosing the word soul (he used the traditional Latin word for soul, anima) to express the Savior’s idea. St. Luke also thought along similar lines since he places the Greek word psyche on the lips of Jesus. Psyche means soul or spirit in Greek. The English word life unfortunately does not have the religious connotation, the spiritual orientation, the suggestion of piety that the word soul has. While the word life is used richly in St. John’s Gospel, it is much too bland, too featureless, too ordinary, in this passage from St. Luke.

For generations the word soul was synonymous with the individual’s spiritual life. The Blessed Virgin Mary chose the word soul to express her full inner being: “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”

Jesus himself used the word soul to convey his inner life: “My soul is sad even unto death.” Some religious writers, now alas quite dead and dated, looked upon the spiritual life as tending the garden of the soul. The soul was a spiritual garden which could be beautified by prayer, by virtue, by sacrifices, by the sacraments, by spiritual reading, by acts of charity. The soul truly could be tended, cultivated and eventually harvested. Conversely, the garden of the soul could be wilted by impiety, ravaged by sin, destroyed by vice.

Clearly, the garden of the soul school of spirituality had minimum community orientation. It was a classical “God and Me” expression of the spiritual life. It was probably too individualistic. But the quiet garden of the soul spirituality has been sadly replaced by a busyness that views religion simply as projects, events and services. Religion has become what the Christian does rather than what the Christian is. The cart has been placed before the horse. Action flows from being, the philosophers taught well.

The modern Catholic tends to skip being and to move directly into action. He is too impatient to tend the garden of his soul, too impatient to take possession of his soul. Traditional works of the interior life are neglected: private prayer, self-denial, repentance, and growth in virtue take a back seat to community involvement, liturgical celebrations, discussion groups and parish committees. The cart has almost replaced the horse.

The greatest names of the modern church are persons who have drawn strength from time spent tending the garden of the soul and who have directed their energies toward the betterment of the church and world community. Pope John XXIII, the darling of the post-Vatican II activist church, prayed all 15 decades of the rosary every day. Mother Teresa never ventured out into the streets of Calcutta until she had spent an hour before the Blessed Sacrament. Edith Stein was fortified by the thought of Christ himself whom she pictured “praying alone in the silence of the night, on open hills or in uninhabitable deserts.” Dorothy Day often turned to the great saints of prayer — Teresa of Avila, Therese of Lisieux, John of the Cross, Francis of Assisi and Catherine of Siena — for inspiration in her own spiritual life. Certainly Pope John Paul II was the visible embodiment of an intense interior life.

The authentic Christian cannot choose between cultivating the soul and serving the church. The interior life and the active life nourish one another. But in the current religious environment, the garden of the soul is in painful need of cultivation.