How Well is All With My Soul?
I am a big fan of the television commercials produced by a local fast-food chicken franchise with a rhyming name that is neither Portuguese nor from the south of the United States.
You and I may see hundreds of adverts in any given week, but to me these ones stand out. It is not because they are inviting patrons to buy hot wings or sliders that these commercials attract my attention but rather because there is humour that is relatable to South Africans.
More importantly to me, at the end of each advertisement is the chain’s slogan: “Soul Food”. I don’t think they’re suggesting that there exists within the human soul a cavity that is filled by fried chicken. But I think they intend to suggest that there is something about comfort food — whatever that means to us — that soothes the ache in the soul.
If you’re like me, you may have thought of the soul as an entity separate from yourself. In Christian circles this idea is perpetuated by the words of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane: “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41).
In the original Greek of the Gospel text, Matthew uses the word pneuma, which in this passage refers to the soul of person. In truth, the soul remains hidden from us. We cannot see it, at least not in this life. And yet in some way many of us can imagine what it means to “feed the soul”. We know that it is part of us.
Singers like Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson or John Legend certainly know how to be a channel for the stirrings of the soul. Popular culture provides many examples of caricatures of the soul. I’m thinking here of old cartoons like Casper the Friendly Ghost (a pale and slightly transparent blob with arms and a face) and The Addams Family.
Rather poetically, St Teresa of Avila in her famous work The Interior Castle describes the soul as follows: “I thought of the soul as resembling a castle, formed of a single diamond or a very transparent crystal and containing many rooms, just as in heaven there are many mansions. If we reflect, sisters, we shall see that the soul of the just man is but a paradise in which, God tells us, he takes his delight.” This is very different from Casper indeed.
God dwelling within us
I have often found myself bored at hearing that God dwells within us. Maybe it has been said too often, or perhaps it was out of fear of the implication of those words that I have chosen to gloss over it. It’s very convenient, I suppose, to limit thinking about this only to Christmas Day or the Easter Triduum. But rarely is it fun to ponder God dwelling in us on a social Friday night or a chilled Sunday afternoon. I think I know why.
The world around us seems comfortable with separating the soul from the body — or more accurately, living in a manner which suggests that the soul does not exist. In some ways we, as Christians, are guilty of this. We piously receive Communion on Sunday, but on Monday we are being judgmental of people or slanderous, or — here I might have to raise my hand by way of confession — ceaselessly uttering profanities.
But if I dare to be honest with myself, if my soul is to be the place where the Lord may “take his delight”, I fear he may find it not to be a gilded palace but a dusty room with a cracked mirror and old socks. It is no surprise, then, that at times it feels as though God has departed from me. In my folly, I have starved my soul of the nourishing milk of virtue and stuffed it with the bland margarine of sin.
Draw the curtains, polish the silverware, let all be at its best that Christ the King may in your soul take his rest.
This column by Nthabiseng Maphisa was published in the November issue of the Southern Cross.
Subscribe to receive more content like this. There is a range of options – 3,6,12 months and print, digital or a combination subscription to both (for the same price!). Order latest editions or back-copies at R30 (plus R12 p&p) from email@example.com, or order online for your parish