By Sheri Hostetler
First Sunday of Lent — “Soul Journey: Joyful is the Dark”
I was 32 and deeply unhappy. I was working at a soul-sucking job as a medical writer and editor at a publishing house in San Francisco. It wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life, but I had no idea what else to do. I had finished a seminary degree three years before and had been floundering ever since, trying to figure out some course of action that would lead me to the holy grail of career happiness. I tried this, I tried that, but I walked into a closed door every time. Nothing would open for me. By this time, I was quite depressed, frozen in my unhappiness and despairing that things could ever change.
And then my good friend, Anita Amstutz (whom some of you know) invited me to a celebration of her graduation from the Pacific School of Religion. About 12 women hiked to a labyrinth in the East Bay Hills, and what I thought of then as an older woman, who was about my present age today, started to lead a ritual, which began with us walking into the center of the labyrinth. It wasn’t what I was expecting, and it all seemed a bit woo-woo, a bit “California,” but I liked this older woman and I loved my friend Anita, so I told my cynical self to be quiet and go along.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been to the labyrinths at Robert Silbey Regional Preserve, but they are amazing — especially the one we were at. Set in a slice in the hills, with towering walls of earth on every side, the labyrinth was a place apart. It was a wild place, with wind whooshing down into the canyon as we walked the labyrinth, rearranging our clothes and hair.
Once in the middle of the labyrinth, we held hands in a circle, and the older woman asked each of us to get in touch with what our soul needed and either step into the middle of the circle, stay in the circle, or step out of the circle — and say why we made that choice, if we wanted. It was a really simple ritual, but there was something powerful about it. I saw some women step into the middle of the circle and drink in the sense of being seen and surrounded. I saw some women stay in the circle, enjoying its solidarity and belonging.
I, however, had no idea what my soul needed and no idea what I was going to do or say when it came my turn, which made me quite anxious. But as all eyes shifted to me, I found myself dropping the hands of the people to either side of me and stepping as far away from the circle as I could and still be heard. In that windy, wild place, tears I didn’t even know were there started flowing, and I heard myself saying: “I love you all, but I just need to be far away from you right now.”
Until that moment, I had no idea what my soul needed. In fact, I’m not sure I knew there was a soul in me, this self who seemed to know exactly what she needed and said and did things that surprised my conscious self — who said and did things that my conscious self would have found somewhat offensive, like telling a group of people that I wanted to be as far away from them as possible. That ritual ended up being the beginning of a soul journey that eventually led to my claiming a vocation as a pastor. The journey was not a quick one — it took several years — and not a direct one — it looped and twisted much like a labyrinth. It taught me that there was a deeper, more wild part of myself that I could not control, that was not rational or practical, and that needed to have her say. She spoke most clearly through dreams and poetry and intuitions or hunches, and she seemed to almost always show up when I was in nature.
So, what is soul? Why, when I tell this story, do I talk about my soul and not my spirit? How is soul different from spirit or how is ego different than either?
Let me just briefly define ego: our ego is our everyday conscious self. Our “ordinary” self. Our ego is absolutely essential and is something we work on developing and strengthening, especially in the first half of our life. We need to know who we are; we need to learn to regulate ourselves and control our impulses; we need to have self-esteem and a “sense of self.” But the mature ego understands the “necessity of surrendering to — or being defeated by — a force greater than itself.” (Plotkin, 39) And that is where soul and spirit come in.
In his book Soulcraft: Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche, depth psychologist and wilderness guide Bill Plotkin talks about the distinction between soul and spirit. As a young man, he received training in Western religion and in college, he began exploring the spiritualities of the East through meditation, yoga, etc. “But something essential seemed missing” in all these religious traditions, he writes. “Although these disciplines opened (my) consciousness to the peace and joy of the eternal present — to God’s love — they seemed dry and austere, too distant from the full human experience. In addition to peace of mind, I sought something more wild, earthy and sensual, something spiritually fulfilling in a juicier and more personal way.” Plotkin wanted to “find out not just about God but about what was uniquely meaningful and essential” to himself, he writes, “what I would be willing to die for and ‘how to melt into that fierce heat of longing,’” as our poet said. (23)
Through years of study and experience, Plotkin became convinced that there were actually two realms of spirituality, two realms that lie beyond the commonplace and open our awareness to ultimate levels of existence. One was the realm of Spirit — that “single, great and eternal mystery that permeates and animates everything in the universe and yet transcends all,” as he says. Most religious traditions, whether of East or West, focus on this spiritual realm, this realm that turns upward toward the light, toward inner peace and transcendence and wholeness. It is a realm that emphasizes the unity of humanity, the Oneness in which we all share. Spirit isn’t about the individual so much as the collective, and it “encompasses and draws us toward what is most universal and shared.”
For me, I discovered this realm most readily through learning how to meditate. That was part of my journey during those years. By focussing on my breath and my prayer phrase, my mind would quiet just enough so that I could touch into a sense of spaciousness and peace. Meditation taught me mindfulness, how to be present in the moment with openness and non-judgment, how to have compassion and lovingkindness towards all beings, especially myself. Through mediation and mindfulness, concepts like God, Spirit, Christ became real— something I could relate to my experience, not just something I could talk about.
But a big part of my journey also involved a dive into the second realm of spirituality, that of Soul— what Plotkin defines as the “vital, mysterious and wild core of our individual selves, an essence unique to each person, found in the layers of self much deeper than our personalities,” or what I would call our egos. Unlike the universal Spirit, “soul is individual and embraces and calls us toward what is most unique in us. It is a gift that is ours and ours alone.” That oft-quoted line from the Mary Oliver poem — “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” — is speaking to the realm of soul.
While spirit goes up, soul goes down. The journey to spirit has often been seen as an ascent — which is why so many sacred experiences happen on mountains in the Bible, why Jesus ascends into heaven, into the light. But, the journey to soul is one of descent, a journey into the underworld, into the depths and into death.
Most world mythologies point to places like Hades, Sheol, hell, the realm of the dead. Think of all those Greek heroes that so many of our children read about in Richard Riordan books — Hercules, Persephone, Odysseus all must travel into the realms of the dead in order to fulfill their heroic quest. Maybe, Richard Rohr writes, the underworld is not “so much the alternative to heaven as the necessary path to heaven.” (From Falling Upward.) Even though Jesus does eventually ascend into heaven, he first has to descend into hell, as the Apostles Creed says. Before he begins his one wild and precious ministry, he has to wander in the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights, without eating, close to death. While there, he confronts Satan or, what we call in soul work, the shadow.
In those dark, underground places, in those places of wildness and wilderness, we meet our soul and all that lives within it — most especially, our shadow. The shadow is those parts of ourself that our ego has repressed as “not me,” as “evil” or “bad.” Those parts of ourself that we often had to repress to win acceptance from our family and peers. The shadow also includes that parts of our collective self that live in us — including the “isms” and phobias (racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia), the will to power, greed. When the time is right, those parts of ourselves must be freed from their underground vaults and brought into the light. They must be seen. They must tell us what they need. This will often feel like a dying — at least to our conscious, ego self.
For me, I discovered this realm of soul most readily through dream work and through working with a spiritual director. But soul, when we are ready, can come to us in many ways: through “deep emotion, through romance and love (I think becoming a parent for many of us is a dive into soul), through the quiet voice of guidance, synchronicities, revelations, hunches… and at times through illness, nightmares, and terrors.” I have experienced the voice of my soul through all of these, most recently through my almost month-long illness in January. The message of the illness — a message so clear and necessary I was almost giddy even though I was sick — was that I needed to slow down and shut out external stimuli so that I could listen to my soul. My body helped me for a time by making me sick and unable to hear, and now my task is to follow that directive even though I’m back to full strength and full hearing. If I don’t, I have a feeling that I can expect another illness.
Through my own journey and the articulation of people like Plotkin, I have come to believe that a complete spirituality needs both paths — that of an ascent toward the light; and that of a descent toward the dark. As Plotkin says, “We can deepen our individuality and its expression while at the same time transcending our identification with that individuality; each process facilitates the other. As we deepen our understanding of our souls, we discover our unique place and value in our communities; we recognize our gifts that will make the world a better place. This reassurance helps us surrender our more limited roles and ego identifications and thereby eases our opening into the realm of spirit.”
Lent is a time of surrender, letting go, renunciation. It is the time for us to take our own journey of descent and letting go. In this, we follow in the footsteps of Jesus. He, too, took this journey of descent — in his plunge into the waters of the Jordan River at his baptism; in his time of trial and testing and shadow work in the wilderness; in his ongoing surrender to God’s way and will, a surrender that resulted in his literal death. As we descend during Lent, may we have the courage to follow in the way of the One who is the “pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). Amen.