“And the soul felt its worth. A thrill of hope / The weary world rejoices…”
It may seem strange, this first day in Lent, to quote this line from the Christmas carol “O Holy Night.” But this season, despite its emphasis on humility, is an opportunity for our souls to feel their sacred worth.
There is something almost mystical about the weaving of words with music. Hildegard of Bingen wrote that “Singing summons the Holy Spirit.” It can uplift the soul in a way naked words cannot. As much as we need to change the bad theology of old hymns, there are times when old phrases that resonate positively may be used as a kind of mantra, a form of lectio divina in which the phrase repeated over and over may descend, as the fourth century contemplatives described it, from the mind to the heart. For me, such is the phrase “and the soul felt its worth.”
What illustration could I use to get across the meaning of “the soul felt its worth”? Seeing love in the eyes of someone you love. Receiving praise from a person or group you respect. Being part of a good and just cause.
Yet what too often comes to mind are the many ways in which the soul does not feel its worth in today’s world: the maiming and killing of terrorism and war, the oppression of injustice and religious shaming, the hatred of prejudice, the violence of assault or bullying, the violation of theft, unfaithfulness or abuse or exploitation in a relationship, whether in the home, the workplace, the marketplace, politics, or religion. These are obvious examples when the soul doubts its worth.
But there are less obvious examples: when we are unemployed or underemployed, when we can’t afford food or healthcare, when we don’t have shelter or education, when slighted by society or religion. And less vital but no less devastating examples: a cutting remark by a family member, an impatient look from a sales clerk, the failure of a loved one to phone. All of these occasion times when the soul does not feel its worth.
A publisher once asked me to write a book entitled, “Why I Am a Christian.” I replied that all of my books attempt to answer that question. But what he meant was, despite everything, why I still valued my Christian identity. Now I realize it is because as I draw close to Jesus, to God, to all that I hold sacred, my soul feels its worth. “We are God’s work of art,” the apostle Paul assured the Ephesians (Ephesians 2:10; NJB).
“O Holy Night” is not just a sentimental song that describes Jesus “born to be our friend” who “taught us to love one another,” whose “law is love” and whose “gospel is peace.” More than such sweet generalities the song proclaims:
Chains shall he break / For the slave is our brother;
And in his name / All oppression shall cease.
The reason I follow Jesus is that I believe he somehow “got it right” about what true spirituality is, recognizing and reminding every soul of its sacred worth. I want to be like him when I spiritually grow up.