SuperSoul Question #1: “What is the Soul?” (Part one, of an eight-part series of posts, based on interview questions Oprah typically asks on her SuperSoul Conversations Podcast.)

Recently, at my daughter’s encouragement, I’ve been listening to Oprah’s SuperSoul Conversations podcast.

I describe my spirituality very differently than Oprah and many of her guests.  Though I’m open-minded, and deeply respectful of other faith traditions, I define myself, specifically, as a Christian.  Whereas, Oprah draws from a broader variety of religious and spiritual traditions.

Undeniably, Oprah places a high value on spirituality, and seems to have a deep respect for spiritual teachers. And, there are few better interviewers than Oprah!  She’s interviewed some of my living spiritual heroes and teachers.  She’s introduced me to some new sources of spiritual inspiration.   And, I’ve listened to a few interviews I completely disagree with.  But, that’s ok.  I’m glad I listened to all of them.  You can’t learn if you aren’t open and willing to receive new and different ideas.

As I said, Oprah is the master interviewer.  I’ve noticed there are a few recurring questions she asks of her guests …

  • “What is the soul?”
  • “What is your definition of God?”
  • “Have you always considered yourself a spiritual person?  Or did you have an aha! moment when you recognized your connection to something bigger than yourself?”
  • “What do you believe is the purpose of life?”
  • “What is the secret to a happy life?”
  • “What is your personal prayer?
  • “What do you think will happen when you die?”
  • “What do you know for sure?”

As I listened, yesterday, to several SuperSoul podcasts, I wondered how I might answer her questions.  An idea came to me.  As I’ll not likely be appearing on Oprah’s podcast, any time soon, why not write about it?

So, this is the first of eight SuperSoul blog posts.  Today: “What is the Soul?”

I understand the soul to be my deepest, truest self.  My soul is the core and center of who I am, and always have been, and always will be.  My soul is not separate from any other aspect of who I am, but is not limited to my physical, material being, either.

My soul is eternal.

Though I’m not aware of any comprehensive, biblical definition of the soul, the Bible seems to distinguish the soul from the human body, heart, mind, and spirit.  Yet, the Bible never draws sharp distinctions, always understanding the human being as a unified whole.

The Psalms describe the soul as…

  • sometimes, in anguish. (Psalm 6:3, 31:7)
  • refreshed. (Psalms 19:7, 23:3)
  • potentially, taken away. (Psalm 26:9)
  • sometimes, grieving. (Psalm 31:9)
  • rejoicing in the Lord. (Psalm 35:9)
  • thirsty for God. (Psalm 42:2)
  • poured out. (Psalm 42:4)
  • sometimes, downcast. (Psalm 42:5-6, 43:5)
  • needing to be awakened. (Psalm 57:8)
  • finding rest in God. (Psalm 62:5, 116:7)
  • yearning for God. (Psalm 84:2)
  • praising the Lord. (Psalm 103:2,22, 104:1,35, 146:1)
  • making music. (Psalm 108:1)
  • occasionally, consumed with longing. (Psalm 119:20,81)
  • sometimes, weary with sorrow. (Psalm 119:28)

Jesus also talked about the soul…

  • “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28)
  • “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11:29)
  • “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” (Matthew 16:26, Mark 8:37)
  • “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” (Matthew 22:37, Mark 12:30, Luke 10:27)

Dallas Willard defines the soul as, “The soul encompasses and organizes the whole person, interrelating all the other dimensions of the self so that they form one person functioning in a flow of life.”

Thomas Merton writes, “The soul of man, left to its own natural level, is a potentially lucid crystal left in darkness. It is perfect in its own nature, but it lacks something that it can only receive from outside and above itself. But when the light shines in it, it becomes in a manner transformed into light and seems to lose its nature in the splendor of a higher nature, the nature of the light that is in it.”

Thus, the soul is both vital to who we are, and completely dependent on God.  Only God, truly, can refresh the soul.  Only God provides the divine and holy light shining in and through the human soul.  Apart from God, the soul withers, and “possibly” dies.  The soul, though essentially and uniquely our own, ultimately belongs to God, who gives it to us on loan, and alone can provide for its deepest needs.

Though my mind needs intellectual stimulation, and my heart needs to love, and my body needs food, work, and rest, I’m increasingly aware of the soul’s unique need for care and nurture.  When I’m tired, I sleep.  When I’m curious, I read.  When I’m hungry, I eat.  When I’m lonely, I call a friend.

But, the soul requires a different sort of care, a different kind of rest, a different kind of food to live on.  And, the soul is so easy to forget and neglect.  In fact, how often do we misinterpret the soul’s needs for physical, emotional, or psychological?  I wonder how much consumption, or distraction, or numbing behaviors are cheap substitutes for adequate soul care?

How many donuts have I consumed, as my soul cried out for better care?

I’m learning – slowly – that my soul needs both specific care, as well as the care of my whole being.  My soul is healthier when I am physically well-rested.  My soul is nurtured, when my mind is stimulated.  My soul is deeper when I am loving and being loved.

My soul, itself, seems to be blessed by…

  • riding my motorcycle, especially along the coastline.
  • working on my bonsai trees, especially when they’re in bloom.
  • listening to Bob Marley.
  • Indian food.
  • great stories.
  • singing, especially in worship.
  • Scripture, and  other inspired, inspiring texts.
  • searching for and finding treasures for my miscellaneous collections.
  • movies, or books, or songs, or TV commercials that make me cry.
  • beautiful, old churches.
  • art.
  • sunrises.
  • a good cup of coffee and a great conversation.
  • silence and solitude, especially in beautiful places.
  • prayer.

As I write this, I’m thinking about the culinary category, Soul Food.  In the Deep South, poor, rural African-Americans developed a cuisine consisting largely of foods rejected by more refined tastes – greens, beans, pig’s tails and feet, chicken necks, corn-meal, mullet and catfish, small game (possum, raccoon, squirrel), etc.

Soul Food was born of necessity, and affliction.  People have to eat, even if they have to settle for what other’s reject.  Soul Food, for many, is an acquired taste.  But, Soul Food is both rich in flavor and an nutrition.  And, for many, Soul Food is a delicacy!  While Soul Food isn’t always “health” food, it embodies a deep culture and heritage, as well as God’s faithful provision in affliction.

So, how’s your soul?  Had any good soul food lately?

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