When I was little, I mistakenly thought that a picture of a smoker’s lungs from my first grade textbook was showing a picture of the soul. To this day, when I hear the word soul, my first mental image is of a purple lung-shaped thing. But of course the soul is invisible. We use this term to talk about a reality of the human person and identity which does not have a specific location in the same way that a body organ does.
I have been reflecting on St. John of the Cross’s description of the Dark Night of the Soul, and on the feeling of spiritual emptiness that often accompanies it. What follows is simply my own thoughts. I am drawing on Christian sources, but my conclusions are not authoritative in any way. I am merely putting them up for discussion.
When a person passes through the “Dark Night,” they shed everything that is false: all idols of themselves and of God, all sense of themselves that is based on the ego. It is an intense process, and leaves the soul feeling vulnerable, naked, empty.
It reminds me of what my allergist told me when I first began treatment years ago: his patients usually complained that when their sinuses were finally clear for the first time, the air actually burned. It can be an intensely uncomfortable sensation to breathe freely when you are not used to it! Some of them even stopped taking their medicine when that happened.
So when all that is false in the soul is gone, what is left? How can the soul still commune with God when it is seemingly reduced to nothing, stripped bare of all the (false) ornamentation that it had identified as its own? If the ego, so grand and expansive, is stripped away and discarded, what does the soul look like underneath? Is it tiny like a nut? Is it empty like a cup that has been poured out? At the Last Supper, Christ uses the image of a cup to describe His life and offering, the pouring out of His blood, a libation for the life of the whole world.
What is the shape of the soul? Perhaps the naked soul is shaped not like a kernel, but like a vessel. Though it is empty, this very emptiness is what makes union with God possible. For a musical instrument to play, it must have an open space to allow it to vibrate. If we stuff a drum or a violin full of sand, they will no longer make any sound. When our lives are filled with chaff like distractions and false idols of God and most of all, our own egos, we limit our ability to see the true God who is beyond any image. We would rush to fill up the emptiness, but if we can rest in that utter nakedness of heart, God will meet us in that place.
Thinking of the soul as a cup, the focus is no longer on “What is left that is me?” but on “What flows out of me?” A violin is beautiful in its own right, but it is the music that comes from it which really makes it magnificent. As a cup, the soul can be filled and overflowing. “He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water” (John 7:38). This living water is another image for the overwhelming love that springs from the heart. God is Love, and we are united to Him when we allow ourselves to love. “My cup runneth over,” says King David in the 23rd psalm.
Or to borrow a favorite quote from The Secret Garden, “Where you tend a rose, a thistle cannot grow.” When the soul is filled with love, there is no room for fear or bitterness. The bare earth in a winter garden, after it has been cleared of weeds and prepared, seems empty. But it is not truly barren. The cold ground is only waiting for spring to reveal its secret flowers.