When I entered the furniture shop on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village that Advent afternoon, I didn’t expect to end up touching soul.
Nonetheless, as I ran my fingers along the lovingly fashioned oak armchair that had caught my eye in the window, the chair had a hint of ‘thou’ in it. I had stumbled into a store where everything I saw and touched was full of the soul of the person who made it. Like Michaelangelo evoking the statue out of the rock, the artisan had brought forth this creation from trees.
How did I know this? Ray Charles says that “soul is like electricity—but it’s a force that can light up a room.” I had just been in a shop with a mixture of machine-made and hand-crafted artifacts, and the difference between the two was like that between dullness and light. The machine-made birds and turtles and dogs were tangibly less alive than those that had been cradled and carved by human hands. They had soul.
Soul, not "a soul"
Soul is a quality of being, not some separate add-on—a dimension of reality that connects with the mysterious aliveness in what we encounter and creates a transformative encounter. This furniture touched me, enlivened me, quickened a sense of reverence for the living intelligence that crafted it and lingered in it.
So I ask: is the fact that we are so surrounded with machine-made stuff, rather than hand-crafted artifacts one of the many non-theological reasons for the eclipse of a lively sense of God in our world? Our forebears, after all, were surrounded by soul-saturated items: grandmother’s sampler on the wall, grandfather’s rocking chair in the corner, the local potter’s bowls and cups in the cupboard, mother’s hand-sewn clothes on their backs. Has the plethora of machine-made goods subtly helped to banish the subtlety of soul from our immediate environment?
Michaelangelo, a man “given as prey for burning beauty to devour” as he describes it, not only brought forth the figure out of the stone but infused the very stone with himself. Just compare the many copies of The David with the original — or rather realize that there is simply no comparison. The original is alive in an uncanny way. It has soul.
Embrace: an angle of vision
We have described aspects of the world in astonishing ways with our science, but, as Martin Buber tells us, the world can only be known by embracing it with our whole soul. This begins, he says, only by “embracing one of its beings” and sensing the ‘thou.’
Is the modernized soul starving in the midst of plenty by so much “it” and so little “thou” in its environs? And is that one of the many life-style reasons it’s hard for so many to have a sense of immediate contact with an all-pervasive Thou? The soul of the world, alive around us and in us is available to those subtle senses that know soul when we see it and are touched by it.
Is this the necessary state of mind, the required angle of embrace, in which to sense that world-embracing Aliveness so many through the ages have called “God”?
This is the second in a series of five or six Advent postings exploring some of the non-theological factors for the eclipse of God in ‘advanced’ societies, as well as presenting Christ as symbol and embodiment of deliverance from this state.
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