Nothing makes me more aware of the power of language than raising a child. My daughter is in the very early stages of using words, but it’s already clear that the languages she’s surrounded by are becoming an essential source of interaction, pleasure, understanding, and communication. One song she is particularly fond of at the moment is ‘Peace Like a River’—a greatest hit in Episcopal chapels of all ages, which ends each verse declaring to have peace, love, or joy flowing “in my soul.”
I love language about the soul and the divine reality it provides access to. As novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson observes in her recent book What Are We Doing Here?, the soul has no modern parallel. It “uniquely invests each individual person with an absolute dignity and significance” and declares his or her life meaningful in cosmic and eternal terms.
For thousands of years, the soul has been foundational to a religious and spiritual understanding of humankind—from its repeated affirmation throughout the psalms, to Mary’s proclamation in the Magnificat (“my soul doth magnify the Lord’), to Augustine’s soul-centered wisdom (“love is itself the beauty of the soul”), to the festive remembrance of All Souls’ Day, to the egalitarian emphasis of English Reformer John Flavel (“the soul of the poorest child is of equal dignity with the soul of Adam”), to Walt Whitman’s democratic epiphanies in nature (“We found our own O my soul in the calm and cool of the daybreak”). Indeed, within the Christian tradition, the soul is inseparable from the qualities that reveal humans to be made in God’s image: conscience, freedom, beauty, memory, creativity, goodness, morality, and community.
As I sing about the soul, whether with students or my daughter, I am reminded that using this kind of religious language is increasingly absent in describing humanity. I am not alone in my sense of this decline. Robinson also ponders why references to the soul are often looked at with confusion, suspicion, or dismissal. She explores how civic and educational life is increasingly framed around a discourse that expresses our humanity in terms of competition, self-interest, and cost-benefit analysis—categories that become more dominant as language about the soul and its related qualities are further marginalized.
One of the great blessings of Episcopal schools is that the religious language of the soul is—or, at the very least, has the potential to be—taught, celebrated, and generously circulated. Our language is intrinsic to how we think, act, and learn. Within the broader cultural changes noted above, taking religious language and theological assumptions for granted risks allowing these foundations to unconsciously and gradually disappear from our schools. Aware of this ongoing risk, I believe it’s the ongoing responsibility of every Episcopal school to share the blessing we’ve been given by recovering, re-describing, and reanimating the religious, theological, and metaphysical language at the heart of Episcopal education. Such a bold undertaking would collectively draw a school deeper into the life of God and it would individually invite each member of the school to embrace the mystery, power, and intimacy of his or her soul. That alone is reason to sing.
About the Author
The Rev. Timothy Seamans is the Associate Chaplain for Service & Justice at The Episcopal School of Los Angeles in Hollywood. His book, Common Prayer for Children and Families (co-authored with Jenifer Gamber), will be released by Church Publishing in February 2020. He is in the midst of his Doctor of Ministry program in Educational Leadership at Virginia Theological Seminary and speaks regularly on how Christian spirituality intersects with social justice, interfaith relations, and liturgical creativity.