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In Hamlet, our droopy Dane laments, “O, that this too too solid [to drive home the theme, this should be pronounced to sound like ‘sullied’] flesh would melt!” I’m with you, Hamlet. When I am forced to look at myself — really look at myself — I see a fleshy mass of undesirable traits. Too much here, not enough there. A face that requires (to quote Sylvia Plath), “Soap, water and good Christian charity.” A pile of parts as mismatched — one leg longer than the other, one shoulder rounder and less broad — as Frankenstein’s monster.
And yet, we are made of the same stuff as the stars. “Little less than angels,” the Bible contends. Really? From the mites in our eyelashes to the sloughed-off skin bits we leave behind us like a crumb trail, human bodies are really pretty gross. But we are also formed in the image and likeness of God. I find it hard to imagine a God with ingrowing toenails or knobby knees. God ought to look like Paul Newman in his prime. Or like Lupita Nyong’o. What does God have in common with a common slob like me? (Not that I am, in any way slobby or sloppy. I give myself that much credit.)
These are the thoughts that plague me when I am forced to contemplate the link between humankind and God. Wouldn’t God do better to have the image and likeness of a graceful swan or sleek gazelle? If you could look like anything, why would you want to look like a doughy, clumsy, mostly hairless biped? There are better options out there.
Of course, the first Homo sapiens didn’t look exactly the way most of us look today. They were more hirsute, for a start. What if God looks more like that? What if God looks like a Bigfoot? (Author shakes head vigorously.)
What God is made of — what we are really made of — is more eternal than an ordinary body. Bodies wither, decay, are riddled with diseases. Ultimately, they do not stand the test of time. But something in us does, and that is the way in which we resemble God — in the speck of eternity that, in the end, defines and antecedes us. God is everything and forever. We are a little piece of that forever.
Maybe that’s the piece we should focus on. Oh, not that I’m advocating allowing one’s self to go to wrack and ruin. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s — that is, try to keep your body well and safe. But give to God what is God’s — your soul — and make it the most beautiful soul you can. Beauty, even interior and hidden beauty, must be cultivated by hard work and consistent effort. And it doesn’t require the services of a high-priced plastic surgeon, either.
A new and more beautiful me! I won’t see it in the mirror. As long as God sees it, I’m good.
I saw a new doctor last week, and while I was being poked, prodded, and otherwise probed, it dawned on me: We regularly have a professional check out our physical well being, but seldom (if ever) do we inquire into the health of our souls. But how does one go about doing a soul-check? Here are a few ideas. Please feel free to contribute your own!
- Examination: How is your conscience feeling? Any lingering guilt? Are there issues, addictions, emotions you’d like to put out of your life? Who help you with these problems? Perhaps a member of the clergy or a psychologist would be of benefit. Or maybe you just need a good listener to bounce ideas off of. Maybe you can find someone who struggles in a similar way and make a deal to work on yourselves together. There is strength in numbers, after all!
- Resuscitation: Is there someone whose forgiveness you badly need? Contact them immediately! Is there someone who you need to forgive? Do so, whether in the quiet of your heart or in person. Let go of past hurts. Breathe out the bad and breathe in a new start.
- Everyday Health Practices: What can you do to give your soul greater sustenance? Maybe you could set up a time for quiet prayer or meditation. Perhaps reading a good spiritual book (the Bible, for instance) every day, when you first wake up in the morning or before bed at night, would be a way to bring energy to the day or closure before rest. I appreciate the hour I spend in our church’s chapel every week. I read, pray the rosary, recite prayers. Sometimes I just listen to my own heart. It’s a peaceful practice, and couldn’t we all use more peace in our lives?
- Setting up a Problem List: My doctor created a list of my major health issues, including allergies, asthma and osteoporosis. Where are your weak points: Charity, mercy, forgiveness? Are you open-hearted, embracing of others who differ from you? Do you judge or condemn others? These are all problems of the spirit. Don’t dwell on them; just make a list and start to work on the places you fall short. Awareness is the key. You can’t fix what you don’t acknowledge.
- Give Yourself a Gold Star: Don’t just concentrate on your failings. Pat yourself on the back for the things you get right. I am a big fan of water; I seldom drink anything else. Good for me! What are your particular talents? What in your spiritual life comes easily to you? These things are important. God made you as you are, with your particular strengths, to serve good in the world. Knowing your talents can help you identify ways to do this most effectively.
The health of our souls is every bit as important as that of our bodies. But we often ignore our sick souls; they don’t cause us to limp or cough. They don’t itch or ache. All the more reason for us to check in our spiritual selves from time to time! An undiagnosed disease can kill you. An undiagnosed soul-problem can wreak havoc, too — mentally and physical, socially and personally.
We are both body and spirit. Let’s remember to take care of both.
Remember that scene in “A Christmas Story” when Ralphie looks out the window on Christmas morning? He’s greeted with a snow-cloaked, icicled fairyland. Indiana winter has transformed his oft-seen backyard into something new and magical. That’s what it looks like outside my window right now. I wouldn’t recommend going out in it, but there it is. The streets, where you can see them, are empty, silent. We have retreated to our 21st century igloos, there to sip soup and watch our day planners empty courtesy of snow day cancellations.
There’s something so beautiful, so pristine about new-fallen snow. It makes me wish my soul looked that way — peaceful, pure, undisturbed by my moral journey. Wishing won’t make it so, however. Just as the snow will eventually become trampled, muddy, slushy, plowed into dirty piles and shoveled into ugly lumps, so do our souls wear ever thinner with use. There’s no way around it. Just as there’s no way to preserve the pristine snow other than staying indoors, looking but not touching, there is no way to preserve the innocence of our souls other than by not engaging in life at all. You go out of the house and into the world, you’re gonna get grimy. It’s the human condition.
Which brings us to the much-beloved sacrament of Reconciliation. Some call it Penance or Confession. Same rose, different name. I confess; I love this sacrament. There is nothing so fortifying, so soothing to heart and soul than forgiveness. To be forgiven of one’s sins may not restore one’s soul to a newborn’s tabula rasa, but it does, absolutely, make everything better. When Pope (the poet, not the pontiff) said, “to err is human, to forgive divine,” he wasn’t kidding. That washed-clean feeling is as near to heaven as I’ve ever felt on Earth.
Unfortunately, our church’s Lenten Penance Service was cancelled due to the current Snowpocalypse. I miss it. I miss that feeling of coming clean, of becoming, for a moment, like new snow. I can hardly wait for it to be rescheduled. My well-trammeled soul will be renewed. I expect a new car scent to waft off me like cologne.
Do me a favor: Forgive someone today. Maybe it will be that snarky girl in high school who made fun of your figure. Maybe it will be a more recent hurt — a snub from a friend or a rude driver. Just do it. They may never know it, but you will have given them the greatest gift that you can give. And if I’ve ever wronged you, please forgive me. Today, envying the snow, I need it.
What is it about the new year that makes us long for reinvention? How does a trick of the calendar subject us to so much self-reflection, in which we inevitably come up short? Turn on the TV, open a magazine, and you’re bombarded with ads for gyms and facial resurfacing and cellulite removal. Make a resolution! Get fit in 2013! Be a whole new you!
What I find most interesting about this phenomenon is its emphasis on externals. Don’t get me wrong; I’m just as guilty as anyone of daydreaming what-ifs: What if I had a smaller nose, better cheekbones, a thinner waistline, a whiter smile? And of course the aspiration to a new you is often bound to a longing for better health — something all of us should subscribe to. Yet I can’t help feeling that even if I woke up tomorrow in a body that featured a tiny waist, cheekbones that could cut diamonds and full, pouty lips, I wouldn’t be very new at all. Because changing the outside means very little without a change to your insides.
Interior beauty isn’t quite as easy to define as exterior beauty. It comprises kindness, charity, wisdom, honor, loyalty and love, certainly, but there’s more to it than just that. My friend Maria, one of the most beautiful people I know, isn’t beautiful simply because she’s fit, although she is. Her beauty radiates from a kind and committed heart that she expresses in her everyday life though acts of love, mercy and justice. She doesn’t talk the talk at all. She merely walks the walk, and in doing so, colors her entire being with the kind of beauty that starts inside and radiates out to everything she does and everyone she meets. Now, that’s real beauty.
Of course, if I measure myself against my friend, I will come up just as lacking as when I measure my exterior against the latest super-hot 20-something actress. And that’s the rub. We are not all meant to be beautiful in exactly the same way. All the cellulite-removal and facial re-contouring in the world won’t make us Halle Berry. Nor should it. What would be fun or interesting about everyone looking stunning, yet exactly the same? The same applies to our interiors. I can’t be exactly like my friend; I’m too shy and retiring. But I can do things only I can do. Things I’m particularly good at. The things that make me, me.
So in this new year, let’s concentrate less on a new outside and instead make ourselves new inside: Us, only more so. Us, only more understanding, more forgiving, more humble. Forget about beautiful skin. Let’s have beautiful souls. It will cost less money, and the returns will be amazing. A beautiful new soul can have a far greater impact than any nose job.
I’d love to hear your “soul resolutions” for the new year. Mine is to focus less on being “right” and more on being kind. What’s yours?