I could not resist using the title from the R.E.M. hit of a few years ago for this post, though it’s really not about losing one’s religion: it’s more about losing your soul.
In one of my favorite C.S. Lewis novels, That Hideous Strength, Lewis tries his hand at the description of a soul in danger of being lost. His friend, Charles Williams, had, years before, masterfully done the same in his book, Descent Into Hell. There could be many pages written and discussions had about the exact meaning of “losing one’s soul.” But I know what I mean – and I cannot define it in a few words.
In Lewis’ That Hideous Strength, his character, Mark Studdock, is pictured being tempted to lose his soul through a long string of seemingly inane choices (engineered by the infernal regions), no one of which in itself seems all that bad. He is making his way through the ranks of an institution, imagining himself becoming an “insider:” the bait that would take his very soul.
The world in which we live is, of course, no different. There are a thousand little things across the day or a week – small decisions we make on which turn very little – or so it would seem. Being Americans, we think of the “big decision” when it comes to religious matters. Thus, we easily think that “conversion” means a decision to join a Church or something similar. Of course, the definition of conversion should include such large decisions, but the process of conversion is quite the opposite: it is a composite of a thousand-thousand small decisions and actions.
Our hearts are formed and shaped in a very small crucible. The large decisions frequently come as the fruit of many much smaller. A decision to act and live with integrity, for instance, will yield many smaller results, even surprising results.
I had opportunity to preach last Sunday on the relationship between our inner life and our outer life. Integrity would be for these two aspects of our life to act in union, not only with each other, but with God as well. St. Maximus the Confessor, in theology that is not very easily penetrable, teaches of the “natural will,” a will that exists in us unfallen. It is an affirmation that although much within us is disordered, there remains, nonetheless, something that has not turned from God. For this same reason St. Augustine could write, “Our hearts are restless ’til they find their rest in Thee.” Within this understanding there can be no integrity that is not also union with God. We cannot act as an “integer” a “whole” until we can act in union with that within us which longs for God.
The host of smaller decisions that draw the soul away from God are a turning moment by moment away from this integrity. It is learning to live with an aspect of “deafness” in our lives – learning not to hear the voice of God that calls to us from the depths – a voice that leaves everything disconcerted until it is heeded.
It is interesting that the Latin roots of the word for “obedience” mean to act out of “listening” (it is related to the word audience). By the same token, the Latin word for its opposite, to act out of “deafness,” is the word absurd. The life lived without heed to the voice of God is a life lived in absurdity.
Christ tells us that “he who is faithful in small things will be made steward of larger things” (if you’ll pardon my paraphrase). The salvation of our soul – in whatever respect affected by our decisions – consists primarily in very small decisions, made moment by moment. Today I will not speak except in kindness. Such a small decision – one that would require a host of other smaller decisions (and discipline) is the sort of decision which requires efforts of integrity. It is a very small thing to say, and a string of very small things to do. But how will we ever reach the heights except we climb these lower reaches?
By the same token we are told that in “patience possess ye your souls.” Patience is almost invariably the bearing of very small insults – waiting for someone else or something else. It consists in doing almost nothing, when doing something would itself be sin.
Whatever we lose or gain today in terms of our soul – will be lost or gained largely in the smallest of matters. And yet these smallest of matters is, indeed, what matters.