On Valentine’s Day I am always challenged to think of something new to say for that year’s blog entry. I could say nothing, of course, but I’m a romantic at heart, so I always want to throw something into the mix. This year I’m thinking about something that is a challenge for many–the human soul. What is it? Is it anything at all? And if the soul does exist, how does one engage with it?
In the spirit of Valentine’s Day, we might ask What makes a human being beautiful? What is it that we love when we love someone? These are questions that Marilynne Robinson explores in her 2020 novel Jack through a very unlikely romance.
Both Jack and Della are preacher’s kids, but there the similarity ends. Jack is a classic “black sheep of the family,” with years of wandering and vagrancy, as well as a few years in prison, in his past. Della is a grade school teacher. Jack is white, Della is black. In 1940s Missouri, their relationship is suspect and scandalous, and any possible marriage in the future would be illegal. Both have tried to break off this apparently doomed relationship on more than one occasion, but they keep coming back to each other.
Toward the end of the book, Jack asks Della why she keeps coming back, despite her family’s resistance to the relationship, and despite their agreement that it was over the last time they saw each other. “I thought we ended this,” Jack says. Della replies that “We did end it . . . It just wouldn’t stay ended.” As she tries to explain why, she asks Jack if he believes that everyone has a soul. Jack, who tries to be an atheist, grudgingly agrees for the sake of argument. Della continues:
We know this, but just because it’s a habit to believe it, not because it is really visible to us most of the time. But once in a lifetime, maybe, you look at a stranger and you see a soul, a glorious presence out of place in the world. And if you love God, every choice is made for you. There is no turning away. You’ve seen the mystery—you’ve seen what life is about. What it’s for. And a soul has no earthly qualities, no history among the things of this world, no guilt or injury or failure. No more than a flame would have. There is nothing to be said about it except that it is a holy human soul. And it is a miracle when you recognize it.
This gives me chills and puts tears in my eyes, not just because of the beautiful writing. It transports me back thirty-five years to Thanksgiving Day at my parents’ condominium in Jackson, Wyoming. Fresh off a divorce six months earlier, I was there with my sons, ages eight and six, at a time of transition and uncertainty in just about every area of my life.
Also visiting my folks for Thanksgiving was a friend of my parents’ who was finishing her Masters’ degree in Santa Fe. I had heard them talk about her before, but we had met for the first time in person the previous evening. I had been exhausted from the 500-mile drive to Jackson that night with little kids in the back seat, so she hadn’t made much of an impression.
But as I watched her chatting with my mother in my parents’ tiny condo kitchen that Thanksgiving as I sat on the living room couch, I saw beauty. Not primarily physical beauty—although that was certainly there—but a beautiful soul such as I’d never encountered before. Exactly what Della is describing to Jack in the passage from the novel. Somehow, I knew that my life had just been changed, although I could not have possibly known just in how many ways that would turn out to be true. Jeanne and I treat the day before Thanksgiving as our real anniversary, but it was the next day that I first saw her for what she really was and is: A glorious presence, and a holy human soul.
Jeanne is special and unique, of course, but so is every human being. There is a divine beauty about each of us; it is sad that we truly “see” it so seldom. But when you do see it, in another person or—even more rarely, perhaps—in yourself, there is no longer any doubt that the soul is real. The soul is not a “thing,” nor is it an idea or assumption to turn into doctrinal or dogmatic commitments and agendas. It is enough, for me at least, to believe that the soul is real, a mark of the ineffable and transcendent in each of us. It is the truth.