The Imperialism of the Human Soul


In his autobiography, Nikos Kazantzakis shares how in his youth he was driven by a restlessness that had him searching for something he could never quite define. However, he made peace with his lack of peace because he accepted that, given the nature of the soul, he was supposed to feel that restlessness and that a healthy soul is a driven soul. Commenting on this, he writes: “No force anywhere on earth is as imperialistic as the human soul. It occupies and is occupied in turn, but it always considers its empire too narrow. Suffocating, it desires to conquer the world in order to breathe freely.”

We need to be given permission, I believe, to accept as God-given that imperialism inside our soul, even as we need always to be careful never to trivialize its power and meaning. However, that is a formula for tension. How does one make peace with the imperialism of one’s soul without denigrating the divine energy that is stoking that imperialism? For me, this has been a struggle.

I grew up in the heart of the Canadian prairies, with five hundred miles of open space in every direction. Geographically, that space let one’s soul stretch out, but otherwise my world seemed too small for my soul to breathe. I grew up inside a tight-knit community in an isolated rural area where the world was small enough so that everyone knew everyone else. That was wonderful because it made for a warm cocoon; but that cocoon (seemingly) separated me from the big world where, it seemed to my young mind, souls could breathe in spaces bigger than where I was breathing. Moreover, growing up with an acute religious and moral sensitivity, I felt guilty about my restlessness, as if it were something abnormal that I needed to hide.

In that state, as an eighteen-year-old, I entered religious life. Novitiates in those days were quite strict and secluded. We were eighteen of us, novices, sequestered in an old seminary building across a lake from a town and a highway. We could hear the sounds of traffic and see life on the other side of the lake, but we were not part of it. As well, most everything inside our sequestered life focused on the spiritual so that even our most earthy desires had to be associated with our hunger for God and for the bread of life. Not an easy task for anyone, especially a teenager.

Well, one day we were visited by a priest who gave my soul permission to breathe. He gathered us, the eighteen novices, into a classroom and began his conference with this question: Are you feeling a little restless? We nodded, rather surprised by the question. He went on: Well, you should be feeling restless! You must be jumping out of your skin! All that life in you and all those fiery hormones stirring in your blood, and you’re stuck here watching life happen across the lake! You must be going crazy sometimes! But … that’s good, that’s what you should be feeling, it shows you’re healthy. Stay with it. You can do this. It’s good to feel that restlessness.

That day the wide-open prairie spaces I had lived my whole life in and the wide-open spaces in my soul befriended each other a little. And that friendship continued to grow as I did my studies and read authors who had befriended their souls. Among others, these spoke to me: St. Augustine (You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.); Thomas Aquinas (The adequate object of the human intellect and will is all Being); Iris Murdoch (The deepest of all human pains is the pain of the inadequacy of self-expression); Karl Rahner (In the torment of the insufficiency of everything attainable, we ultimately learn that here, in this life, there is no finished symphony); Sidney Callahan (We are made to ultimately sleep with the whole world, is it any wonder that we long for this along the way?); and James Hillman (Neither religion nor psychology really honors the human soul. Religion is forever trying to save the soul and psychology is always trying to fix the soul. The soul needs neither to be saved nor fixed; it is already eternal – it just needs to be listened to.)

Perhaps today the real struggle is not so much to accept sacred permission to befriend the wild insatiability of the soul. The greater struggle today, I suspect, is not to trivialize the soul, not to make its infinite longings something less than what they are.

During the World War II, Jesuit theologians resisting the Nazi occupation in France published an underground newspaper. The first issue opened with this now-famous line: France, take care not to lose your soul. Fair warning. The soul is imperialistic because it carries divine fire and so it struggles to breathe freely in the world. To feel and to honor that struggle is to be healthy.

An Honest Prayer


Recently I received a letter from a woman whose life, in effect, had imploded. Within the course of a few months, her husband divorced her, she lost her job, was forced to move from the house she had lived in for many years, was locked down in her new place by Covid restrictions, and was diagnosed with a cancer which might be untreatable. It was all too much. At a point, she broke down in anger and resignation. She turned to Jesus and with bitterness, said: If you’re there, and I doubt it, what do you know about any of this? You were never this alone!  I suspect that we all have moments like this. What did Jesus know of any of this?

Well, if we can believe the Gospels, Jesus did know all of this, not because he had a divine consciousness, but because like the woman in the story he knew right from the beginning what it meant to be the one standing alone, outside the normal human circle.

This is evident right from his birth. The Gospels tell us that Mary was forced to give birth to Jesus in a stable because there was no room for them at the inn. That heartless innkeeper! The poor man has had to endure centuries of censure. However, that thought misses the point of the story and misconstrues its meaning. The moral of this story is not that some heartless cruelty took place or that the world was too preoccupied with itself to take notice of Jesus’ birth, though this latter implication is true. Rather the real point is that Jesus, the Christ, was born an outsider, as one of the poor, as someone who, right from the beginning, was not given a place in the mainstream. As Gil Bailie puts it, Jesus was unanimity-minus-one. How could it be otherwise?

Given who Jesus was, given that his central message was good news for the poor, and given that he entered into human life precisely to experience all it contains, including its pains and humiliations, he could hardly have been born in a palace, enjoyed every kind of support, and been the center of love and attention. To be in real solidarity with the poor, as Merton once put it, he had to be born “outside the city”; and whether that was the case historically or not, it is a rich, far-reaching metaphor. Right from the beginning, Jesus knew both the pain and the shame of one who is excluded, who has no place in the mainstream.

When we look closely at the Gospels, we see that there was no human pain, emotional or physical, from which Jesus was spared. It is safe to say, I submit, that no one, irrespective of his or her pain, can say to Jesus: You didn’t have to undergo what I had to undergo!  He underwent it all.

During his ministry, he faced constant rejection, ridicule, and threat, sometimes having to hide away like a criminal on the run. He was also a celibate, one who slept alone, one deprived of normal human intimacy, one with no family of his own. Then in his passion and death, he experienced the extremes of both emotional and physical pain. Emotionally, he literally “sweated blood”, and physically, in his crucifixion, he endured the most extreme and humiliating pain possible for a human being to undergo.

As we know, crucifixion was designed by the Romans with more than only capital punishment in mind. It was designed as well to inflict the maximum amount of pain and humiliation possible for a person to endure. That was one of the reasons they sometimes gave morphine to the one being crucified, not to ease his pain, but to keep him from passing out and escaping the pain. Crucifixion was also designed to utterly humiliate the one being put to death. Hence, they stripped the person naked, so that his genitals were exposed and that in his dying convulsions the loosening of his bowels would be his final shame. As well, some scholars speculate that during the night leading up his death on Good Friday, he may also have been sexually abused by the soldiers. Truly there was not a pain or humiliation he did not endure.

An old, classic definition of prayer tells us this: Prayer is lifting mind and heart to God. Well, there will be low points in our lives when our circumstances will force us to lift our minds and hearts to God in a way that seems antithetical to prayer. Sometimes we will be brought to a breaking point where in brokenness, anger, shame, and in the despairing thought that nobody, including God, cares and that we are all alone in this, consciously or otherwise, we will confront Jesus with the words: And what do you know about that!  And Jesus will hear those words as a prayer, as a sincere sigh of the heart, rather than as some kind of irreverence.

The Triumph of Good Over Evil


A colleague once challenged Pierre Teilhard de Chardin with this question. You believe that good will ultimately triumph over evil; well, what if we blow up the world with an atomic bomb, what happens to goodness then? Teilhard answered this way. If we blow up the world with an atomic bomb, that would be a two-million-year setback; but goodness will triumph over evil, not because I wish it, but because God promised it and, in the resurrection, God showed that God has the power to deliver on that promise. He is right. Except for the resurrection, we have no guarantees about anything. Lies, injustice, and violence may well triumph in the end. That is certainly how it looked the day Jesus died.

Jesus was a great moral teacher and his teachings, if followed, would transform the world. Simply put, if we all lived the Sermon on the Mount, our world would be loving, peaceful, and just; but self-interest is often resistant to moral teaching. From the Gospels, we see that it was not Jesus’ teaching that swayed the powers of evil and ultimately revealed the power of God. Not that. The triumph of goodness and the final power of God were revealed instead through his death, by a grain of wheat falling in the ground and dying and so bearing lots of fruit. Jesus won victory over the powers of the world in a way that seems antithetical to all power. He did not overpower anyone with some intellectually superior muscle or by some worldly persuasion. No, he revealed God’s superior power simply by holding fast to truth and love even as lies, hatred, and self-serving power were crucifying him. The powers of the world put him to death, but he trusted that somehow God would vindicate him, that God would have the last word. God did. God raised him from the dead as a testimony that he was right and the powers of the world were wrong, and that truth and love will always have the last word.

That is the lesson. We too must trust that God will give truth and love the last word, irrespective of what things look like in the world. God’s judgment on the powers of this world does not play out like a Hollywood film where the bad guys get shot in the end by a morally superior muscle and we get to enjoy a catharsis. It works this way: everyone gets judged by the Sermon on the Mount, albeit self-interest generally rejects that judgment and seems to get away with it. However, there is a second judgment that everyone will submit to the resurrection. At the end of the day, which is not exactly like the end of the day in a Hollywood movie, God raises truth and love from their grave and gives them the final word. Ultimately, the powers of the world will all submit to that definitive judgment.

Without the resurrection, there are no guarantees for anything. That is why St. Paul says that if Jesus was not resurrected then we are the most deluded of all people. He is right. The belief that the forces of untruth, self-interest, injustice, and violence will eventually convert and give up their worldly dominance can sometimes look like a possibility on a given night when the world news looks better. However, as happened with Jesus, there is no guarantee that these powers will not eventually turn and crucify most everything that is honest, loving, just, and peaceful in our world. The history of Jesus and the history of the world testify to the fact that we cannot put our trust in worldly powers even when for a time they can look trustworthy. The powers of self-interest and violence crucified Jesus. They were doing it long before and have continued doing it long after. These powers will not be vanquished by some superior moral violence, but by living the Sermon on the Mount and trusting that God will roll back the stone from any tomb in which they bury us.

Many people, perhaps most people, believe there is a moral arc to reality, that reality is bent towards goodness over evil, love over hate, truth over lies, and justice over injustice, and they point to history to show that, while evil may triumph for a while, eventually reality rectifies itself and goodness wins out in the end, always. Some call this the law of karma. There is a lot of truth in that belief, not just because history seems to bear it out, but because when God made the universe, God made a love-oriented universe and so God wrote the Sermon on the Mount both into the human heart and into the very DNA of the universe itself. Physical creation knows how to heal itself, so too does moral creation. Thus, good should always triumph over evil – but, but, given human freedom, there are no guarantees – except for the promise given us in the resurrection.