“To Grow a Soul”
by Lynn Ungar, Minister for Lifespan Learning, Church of the Larger Fellowship
There are a whole lot of words from poets and preachers and wise folks of various types that have changed how I understand the world, but there’s one quote that has maybe shaped what I’ve done with my life more than any other. I was already a minister when I read these words from Unitarian minister A. Powell Davies: “Life is just a chance to grow a soul.”
Life is just a chance to grow a soul. I guess I’d always assumed that whatever a soul was, it was something that a person just came with. But this understanding of soul struck me as both right and helpful. Maybe a soul is not something we just have—maybe it is something we create. Maybe soul is the part of us that is mature and kind and connected to other beings. Maybe our soul grows when we are filled with wonder. Maybe the soul is the seat of our creativity, our ability to contribute something to the world that is uniquely our own. Maybe soul is the spark within that moves us to act, to try to build a better world.
What came to me as a kind of revelation is that this was the best understanding of church that I had ever heard—or at least the understanding of church that felt closest to my own sense of what I was called to do. The point of the church is to help us grow our souls. Whatever happens at church—preaching or teaching or singing or marching or praying or meeting or chatting together over coffee or the internet—the point of it is that we grow our souls. Which is to say that church life, all of church life, is religious education. Or, as people have come to call it more recently, religious growth and learning. Or faith formation. What church does, or at least what church should do, is to help us to expand that part of us that cares and wonders and creates and connects.
So I went back to school to get a Doctor of Ministry (D.Min) degree in religious education, not because I had any intention of leaving the parish ministry, but rather because I wanted to follow this flash of insight that all of what we do in church is supposed to be religious education—growing our souls. Now, it so happened that I did end up leaving the parish ministry to become a religious educator, and my title at the CLF is minister for lifespan learning. I think of myself as a religious educator and I think of myself as a minister and I can’t really see that there is particularly a difference between the two.
My work at the CLF includes writing materials for families to use for religious exploration, and my work at the CLF includes being part of the worship team that plans and leads our online worship services. And both, as I understand them, are simply part of our ongoing efforts to help people find ways to grow their souls—to understand more deeply and more specifically the ways in which we can live out our best selves and experience our essential connectedness to all beings.
So, how does one go about growing a soul? Plants need earth and air and water and sunlight in order to grow. What do souls need? How exactly does one go about tending a soul? Souls, it seems, are complicated and contradictory. I have watched them grow through times of deep sorrow but I’ve also seen them expand through experiences of joy. A friend of mine talked about how the death of her father led to her feeling connected with all others who had experienced such grief—and the recognition that each and every person she talked to had their own experience of grief. But with this very same friend I have experienced my soul expanding in the joy of shared singing and dancing.
Time alone in meditation or reflection or study or prayer can grow a soul, but so can times of intense connection with other people. We might feel our soul expand as we sit alone under a tree, but we are just as likely to experience that sensation of the soul stretching in deeply honest conversation or in marching together with thousands of other people in pursuit of justice.
The soul grows when we stay true to our own unique selves, refusing to simply go along with the crowd, but the soul also grows when we experience the ways in which we are inseparable from other people—and, indeed, from all the beings of this planet, whether or not they are human. There is no great art without personal freedom of expression, but it is also true that art is only great when it connects us to something larger than our own small selves.
I’m not sure that there’s a simple, straightforward answer to what grows a soul, any more than there is a simple, straightforward answer to what exactly a soul is. But maybe soul is the part of us that experiences yearning for something more, and the way to grow it is to follow wherever that yearning might lead us.