O Luminous Soul

Orlanda Brugnola, © 2006 The Tibetan Buddhist tradition addresses a person in the bardo state before rebirth as “Nobly born.” This means that we humans are gifted in some particular ways—that we can reflect on our situation, envision a future, be generous, experience gratitude, act reciprocally, be compassionate, make and keep promises, think about things we have never experienced, to mention but a few. Some other animals share some, but not all, of these gifts. At the same time, we know all too well our failings, actual and potential.  When I was called to enter the ministry over a quarter-century ago, I was greeted with a quotation from James Baldwin. I paraphrase: “One wakes up one day and finds that the self one has created with such care is all a pile of dirty rags—and with what will one create a self again?”  Little did I imagine that quotation was not meant just for that last portion of a terrible, deathful century, but that it would tremble at the beginning of the 21st Century as a call to our common humanity. Socrates believed that the “soul” was that core of a person that was made healthy by just actions and sickened by unjust actions.  There need be no spectacular metaphysics here—that’s good enough for these times.  This is likely to be another Axial Age.   The first one was some 2500 years ago, when the Greek philosophers, the Hebrew prophets, Zoroaster, Gautama Buddha, Lao Tze and Confucius were thinking and speaking and writing—imagine that they could have met one another!  At any rate their lives and work changed the world, as we know. This is such a time again, although those persons of such spiritual brilliance remain yet to be revealed to us. Why is it so? Because it must be so, else all that we think we know and all that we think we value will run to ruin. We, as a species, must learn new ways to be or life on this earth will become unendurable both environmentally and socially. We know this at a superficial level, but as yet we are not psychologically, emotionally, or politically equipped to make the needed course corrections.   We are, however, a species that responds to greatness. So, what do we do while we are waiting for inspiration? We roll up our sleeves, so to speak.  There are things we do know how to do and we know that they need doing. For a start, we can no longer convincingly maintain for ourselves those clear distinctions of old about our near and far neighbors—the internet, video, etc. have brought our distant neighbors onto our computer screens.  We do know what is happening on the other side of the planet, often in distressing detail, virtually instantly. And that plays a trick on those called “nobly born.”  We have empathy and most importantly we can experience regret—that prime indicator William James noted, that something else would have been preferable and thus at least theoretically possible.   Once we feel regret, we wish we could do something about it and that is the gold in the proverbial dung heap.  Now we can ask, “What is it that any one of us might be able to do?” And further. “How is it that we do not do it?” Lest we think this daunting (a frequent rationale for procrastinating) just reflect on the Millennium Development Goals  coming out of the United Nations and affiliated groups.  The MDG’s are likely the touchstone of the 21st Century, as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was for the 20th.   But these are concerns about the “far neighbor.” How do we make a new self with our near neighbors as well? First, I would suggest that we are all acutely aware of things affecting our own bodies.  We know that we respond viscerally to knowledge of someone else’s physical distress.  In all the centuries since the Axial Age, religious and philosophical traditions have urged us to pay attention to the physical well-being of others, to feed, shelter, and heal.  What would happen if philosophers and religious leaders committed themselves to addressing healing in a very direct way that immediately linked their understanding of their own bodies with the bodies of others?  A very simple way exists. Registering as a bone marrow donor requires a simple blood test. The database of potential matches needs to be much larger than it is. Whereas organ donation (with the occasional exception of part of a liver) happens after death, bone marrow links living being to living being.  So does blood donation.  Being part of the database and donating blood on a regular basis are disciplines that heighten our awareness of our obligations to both near and far neighbors. This is obviously only one possibility. Now it might be said that this is just a new form of charity—part of many traditions for millennia.  Though it may appear to be such, it is really part of a methodology to “grow a soul.”   But at the beginning of this new century, we need to grow luminous souls! What is a luminous soul? It is a soul which can be seen from afar as a beacon of affirmation—it is a soul which catches up the souls around it with enthusiasm, eagerness, generosity—it is a soul which navigates the treacherous waters of systemic racism, and other oppressions and is not deterred. It is a soul that seeks to learn every means of communication that might be used—it is a soul that does not so much begin by asking “Why?’ but “How? It is a soul that knows how deeply laughter can carry us through the greatest troubles—it is a soul that speaks and listens to truth though that truth be difficult. It is a soul that thinks always, upon hearing of distress, not “Oh, what a shame!” but “What are the ways I can help?” It is a soul that comes close to the edge and stays there with others.  This time is “soul size” as Chrisopher Fry once put it. The pile of dirty rags is about to become transformed. O Luminous Souls, come join in, do not be afraid—this is our hope and our salvation—that we may, together, tune ourselves to the new demands of this time and not allow the possibility of failure to deter us from the work that must be done. O Luminous Souls, be that company of lovers who make all the difference, be those generous hearts that beat steadily and strongly.  It does not take so many to tip the scales for creation rather than destruction. The time is now, we need to discover anew the many ways of being in this world. Find them and cherish them. They are surprising. They are powerful. Do not worry if others do this work in different ways—remember that “We do not need to think alike to love alike.”   All courage, all intellect, all heart, all vision is essential now. It is literally in our hands as never before. We will not fail. Footnotes: “Axial Age” (Achsenzeit) is a concept first used by the German philosopher Karl Jaspers. (Consultation for Interfaith Education) See work of Michael Gottsegen, CLAL—The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership See William James, “The Dilemma of Determinism,” an address delivered at the Harvard Divinity School in 1884. Phrase from the Rev. A Powell Davies (1902-1957): “A life is just a chance to grow a soul.” Paraphrase from a recent sermon by Gini Courter, Moderator of the Unitarian Universalist Association From Christopher Fry’s play A Sleep of Prisoners: “Thank God our time is now when wrong/Comes up to face us everywhere, / Never to leave us till we take /The longest stride of soul men ever took /Affairs are now soul size.” Dávid Ferencz (Francis David), d. November 15, 1579 in prison.  See Barbara Pescan’s sermon: “Reason, Freedom, Tolerance…plus One More”  at

Email This Post Email This Post