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Echo of the Soul: The Sacredness of the Human Body

Echo of the Soul: The Sacredness of the Human Body

by Philip Newell

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An enlightening meditation on our physical selves and how they enrich our experience of spirituality.
Throughout the years, many spiritual seekers have considered the human body to be a hindrance to Divine illumination, an enemy to be suppressed. Yet the most ancient texts actually challenge those assumptions about love, beauty, sexuality,


An enlightening meditation on our physical selves and how they enrich our experience of spirituality.
Throughout the years, many spiritual seekers have considered the human body to be a hindrance to Divine illumination, an enemy to be suppressed. Yet the most ancient texts actually challenge those assumptions about love, beauty, sexuality, creativity, learning, and power. By unifying the wisdom of the Old Testament, Jewish mysticism, and the Celtic spiritual tradition, Echo of the Soul delivers a refreshing reminder: created as we are in God’s image, it’s okay to be human.
A minister and poet, J. Philip Newell explores how the flesh-and-blood vessel of God can bring us closer to the spiritual by understanding how our heads, our hearts, our limbs, and our sexual organs are all linked to a greater enlightenment. In drawing not only on the Bible and Kabbalistic teachings, but also the insight of such inspirational writers as William Blake, Edwin Muir, and Bernard of Clairvaux, Newell bridges the body/spirit divide for any reader who wants to understand what it means to be human. “As Newell says, ‘God has placed a holiness of desire within us,’ and his book represents a significant effort toward reuniting us with that desire” (Library Journal).

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ECHO of the SOUL

The Sacredness of the Human Body


Church Publishing Incorporated

Copyright © 2000 J. Philip Newell
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8192-2547-4


The Mystery of the Self

In the tradition of the human body as sacred text the crown of the head is associated with mystery. It represents our undefinableness. What cannot be said about each one of us is always greater than anything that can be said. Science, psychology, spirituality provide us with tools to move further and further into the mystery of our being but never do they exhaust the soul's depths. Our own being is rooted in the fathomless mystery of God's being. Our truest identity is deeper than name and definition.

One woman, in meditating on this theme, found herself looking into a well. It was bottomless. She realised that she was looking into the well of her own being. As William Blake says, within us is a universe 'increasing inwards, into length and breadth, and height'. It is of inexhaustible depth. If we begin to know the expansiveness of the mystery of our souls then we will begin to know the true nature of our beings, made in the image of the mystery of God. If we forget the unboundedness of who we are then we will live in a type of forgetfulness of our deepest origins. Deeper than anything that we can comprehend in ourselves is the mystery of our being. As the fourteenth-century Dominican mystic Meister Eckhart says, 'the soul is naked of all things that bear names'. The core of our beings cannot be labelled.

We are familiar with the crown of an infant's head at birth, and the way it is not yet hardened over in its bone structure. In its thin membrane covering there is a type of openness that is essential to the brain's expansion and growth. This part of a newborn's anatomy is known as the 'fontanelle', derived from the French for 'fountain'. The mystery of our lives is the fountain of our being for our own mystery streams forth from the mystery of God's being. As St Paul says, 'in God we live and move and have our being'.

In the Prophecy of Ezekiel there is the vision of a cloud with a brightness of fire at its centre. At the heart of the cloud's brightness Ezekiel sees the likeness of a human form. 'This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord,' says Ezekiel. It is the 'appearance of the likeness'. The divine essence itself, however, remains undisclosed, hidden in the brightness of the cloud. It is the cloud of 'unknowing', as the mystics say. The knowledge of God is forever wrapped in mystery.

We may say that God is father or God is mother. At the same time, however, we must also say that God is other. God is more than anything that we can think or imagine, and certainly more than doctrinal definitions and theological understandings. As St Paul writes, 'God dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see.' The Mystery can be contained by no image but only pointed to by way of analogy. The biblical tradition thus uses many names to refer to God, while recognising that none of them alone, or even all of them together, can define the Mystery. God is referred to as king and liberator, for instance, as midwife and judge, as fire and water, and as life itself. One image balances the other and throws light on the other, but always the Mystery is essentially ineffable, unutterable. As the twentieth-century kabbalist Abraham Kook says, 'All the divine names, whether Hebrew or any other language, give us only a tiny and dull spark of the hidden light to which the soul aspires when it utters the word "God".'

Despite the recognition that God is beyond description, and therefore that many images must be used if we are to avoid idolising one way of seeing, there has been a tendency in our Western religious tradition to focus on one type of imagery to the exclusion of others. Particularly we have allowed patriarchal imagery to dominate, with the result that God is portrayed as essentially male. This distorts our sense of the Mystery. It gives us the impression that God is somehow limited to a specific type of being, namely maleness. The image of father in the biblical tradition is not pointing to a particular gender in God. Both male and female flow forth from the mystery of God's being. Fatherhood imagery is pointing to the One from whom we have come, to God as our seed or origin of life. But as the Book of Genesis says, 'in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them'. Both masculine and feminine are born from the womb of the Maker.

The earliest self-disclosure of God in the Old Testament occurs in the story of Moses encountering a bush that is on fire with the divine presence. When Moses asks by what name he is to call God, the response is 'I am who I am'. The answer is not 'I am this' or 'I am that', 'I am liberator' or 'I am lord', but simply 'I am who I am'. This always is who God is. This is eternally the divine name. No matter how much we may grow in our knowledge of God as creator and redeemer, or as father or mother, the essence of God remains the same, 'I am who I am'. Everything else that we say about the Mystery needs to be said in the light of this foundational truth.

In each moment and in each place God is present to us as the One who is and who allows us to be. Without God nothing in the whole cosmos would exist, even for a second. The 'I amness' of God is the very ground of being. If taken away, all things would fall into non-existence. The great Mystery is not something that we can set alongside the mystery of our own beings or the mystery of creation's being, as if God were just one other type of being among many. God is the One through whom all things exist. Nor can we reduce the mystery of God into something that can be communicated by ideas and words. Our only true knowledge of God is our experience of God. The great twentieth-century Jewish teacher Martin Buber calls this the 'I-Thou' relationship. 'Thou' is not an image to refer to God. It is the way of expressing our immediate experience of God. It is the way of giving voice to our encounter with the One who is beyond all names.

Just as the essence of God is a mystery that defies definition and can be expressed only as 'I am who I am', so the essence of each one of us is undefinable and can be expressed only as 'I am who I am'. We are made in the image of God. Therefore the mystery of our being is beyond explanation. To explain something means to make something plain, yet the roots of our being are hidden in the mystery of God's being. They are not plain to view. They stretch deep down into the invisible depths of God's mystery. No description captures these depths.

Like the fontanelle at the crown of an infant's head we are not closed in. We are like the Pantheon in Rome, the sanctuary that was designed with an opening in its roof. The building's aperture opens the sanctuary to the lights and the infinity of the skies. We too are like a temple that is open to the infinite. Our life is part of the Mystery that is greater than us. The dimensions of us that defy definition are closer to the essence of our being than any outward characteristics of our lives. As Martin Buber says, the known aspects of who we are are only 'the outside of an unknown Inward'. The known and the unknown are like the two sides of a crescent moon. Our inner self is the dark and hidden side. We know of its existence but it is not visible to us. As Abraham Kook says, our inner world is 'concealed, linked to a hidden something, a world that is not our world, not yet perceived or probed'.

Our deepest identity is found in these unknown dimensions of our being. Martin Buber makes a distinction between what he calls 'personhood', on the one hand, and 'individuality', on the other. Personhood finds its roots in the hidden realm of God's mystery within us. Individuality finds its identity in terms of what is outwardly known and observable in our lives. Personhood says 'I am'. Individuality, on the other hand, says 'I am such and such'. These represent two poles within each of us. I can say of myself, for instance, that I am a father and a husband or that I am a blend of nationalities, Canadian and Scottish. None of these, however, captures the essence of my being. They are observable and known features of who I am, but, no matter how dear to me, they do not define my essence.

To be made in the image of God is essentially to be mystery. We may choose, of course, simply to live in terms of our outward characteristics. We may choose to view ourselves and one another primarily in terms of gender and race, for instance, or religion and vocation, but this limits us to the surface of life. It imprisons us to outward categories and to the ways in which others view and treat such categories. It denies us the rich stream of unbounded mystery in which our truest identity lies. If we deny the Mystery in which we are rooted, our inner self leads a type of 'cancelled existence', says Buber, but it is forever waiting to be 'recalled'. This is the longing at the heart of our lives, to be truly ourselves.

The fact that we even are is a marvel. It is a source of constant astonishment. The gift of conception and birth is almost unbelievable. Too often in our religious traditions we have focused so much on the gift of grace that we end up downplaying the holy gift of nature. Both are of God. We have been so conscious of our need for healing that we lose sight of the extraordinary gift of life itself. God is the Maker as well as the Remaker. Theologically, most of our attention has been directed towards the mystery of redemption without a corresponding emphasis on the mystery of creation. The Psalmist says, 'You knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.' An awareness of the gift of conception in our mother's womb should be a focal point of spirituality. It is an awareness to which we need to be recalled again and again in absolute wonder.

Something of the mystery of God's image is present in every human face. It can be glimpsed amidst the layers of meaning and experience hidden in our countenances. At times in our lives the depths of the mystery are so covered over as to have become almost entirely lost to consciousness. Yet deep in each human face is a unique reflection of the holy image, despite the great compulsions that drive us towards superficiality and conformity in our cultures. No two faces are exactly alike. As the twentieth-century Jewish teacher Abraham Heschel says, each one of us is 'an original, not a copy'. There is something unprecedented in the depths of each one of us that has never been expressed before. No one can be considered average or ordinary in their place of deepest identity. It is our outwardness that conforms to sameness with others. Our inwardness is absolutely unique. It is to these inner depths that we are being recalled.

To live from the place of our unique mystery is to be a surprise, even to ourselves. Who can predict what will surge up from the unknown depths of our souls? As Abraham Heschel says, 'no person can write his autobiography in advance'. Creative passions for what is just and right in our world, and deep resources to imagine and to begin again in relationship, are hidden in the inner sanctuary of our beings waiting to be set free. This is not to deny that at times we will be surprised also by layers of confusion and fear in ourselves. These also suddenly surge up from unknown recesses, whether as individuals or as whole societies, and can express themselves unpredictably in destructive and violent ways. To be recalled to the true depths of who we are is not a journey that will take us around the fearful energies that are in us but through them and into a sharper awareness of them. Deeper, however, than the forces of death in us are the springs of life, forever seeking to rise from the limitless depths of our souls.

To say that we are made in the image of God is to say that the knowledge of our true selves is linked inseparably with the knowledge of God. As the fourteenth- century English mystic Julian of Norwich sees in one of her 'Revelations of Divine Love', 'I saw no difference between God and our essence, but it was all God.' At the heart of her soul she sees Christ, entirely at home, seated on a throne. It is the boundless and everlasting kingdom of God that is within us. Only in seeking the dwelling place of God will we find our true selves. 'Our soul is so deeply founded in God,' she says, 'that we cannot acquire knowledge of it until we have knowledge of God, its creator, to whom it belongs.'

In classical theological thought it has been understood that there are two paths of knowledge. These are spoken of as the via positiva and the via negativa. The positive or affirmative way of knowing the Mystery is to say that everything that has been created is an expression of God. The brilliance of the morning sun and the infinity of the night skies, the generosity of a friend and the passion of a lover's desire, the wildness of a storm and the fecundity of the earth all show something of the Creator. They are theophanies, or showings, of the Mystery. None of them, however, captures the essence of God. We can describe the expressions of the Mystery but not the Mystery itself. The negative way of knowing reminds us that God is not this and not that. God is forever more than the brilliant light of the sun and the self-giving passion of a lover. God is other than the strength of the waves of the sea and the new growth bursting forth from the dark ground.

This leads the mystics, like the ninth-century Irish teacher John Scotus Eriugena, to say that God is 'Nothing'. This, of course, is not to say that God is less than anything that we can conceive of but that God is more than 'everything' that we can conceive of. Whenever we attempt to describe God, as mother or father for instance, we run the risk of thinking that God is something that we know about and can define. The essence of the Mystery is forever beyond our descriptions. As Eriugena writes in one of his prayers, 'Thou permittest to be known not what Thou art, but what Thou are not; not what Thou art, but that Thou art.'

The via negativa corrects the tendency in us to think that we can describe the Mystery. God is always greater than anything we can imagine. The negative way of knowing does not deny the value of positive images of the divine. It ensures, however, that the images we use do not become idols and end up obstructing the mystery rather than shedding further light on it. In our pursuit of the knowledge of God our mind is to be like a door that opens onto what is boundless rather than like a wall that attempts to hold the mystery in. St Augustine liked to say that if we think we have understood the Mystery then what we have understood is not God but something of our own creating.

This, of course, is not to say that God is not meaning, but rather that the meaning is always enfolded by mystery. As Rabbi Heschel says, God is 'meaning that mystery alludes to'. Without a regard for mystery we turn meaning into fixed forms like stone. The biblical tradition has always been alert to religion's tendency to create idols, whether of stone or of thought. Later Judaism even abstained from using the name of God, lest it be turned into a type of idol of expression. Instead it used the sacred tetragrammaton YHWH as a symbol for the holy name. The parallel in Islam is the tradition of the ninety-nine names of Allah. The hundredth is believed to be the true name but it is never pronounced because it does not exist. The mystery of God is ineffable. Only silence comes close to truly expressing the sacred mystery.

The meaning within the mystery, however, is forever seeking expression. 'My tongue lacks words ... and I would be silent', says an eleventh-century Christian mystic, but the experience of God 'stirs up the soul and pries open my unclean mouth'. We are forever torn between silence and speech, between the realisation that we cannot capture in words our experience of God and the burning desire in us to try to say what is in fact unsayable. As soon as we try to put into words our sense of the Mystery we are limited by the boundaries of language and thought. As Eriugena says, what we are able to express is that God is but not what God is.

While we cannot express the Mystery, much more importantly we can experience the Mystery. God is immediately present to us in every moment of our lives. We may not be conscious of it but each one of us is constantly in contact with God. In fact, as George MacLeod, the founder of the modern-day Iona Community in Scotland, liked to say, we 'can't get out of touch with God ... for the simple reason that God is Life; not religious life, nor Church life, but the whole life that we now live in the flesh'. To have experienced life is to have experienced God. God is the Life of all life, without which nothing that is would be. The invitation is to grow into a fuller awareness of this moment-by-moment experience of Life. It is not God who is absent from us. Rather, we are absent from our true selves and from a sense of the Mystery that is at the heart of every moment.

Excerpted from ECHO of the SOUL by J. PHILIP NEWELL. Copyright © 2000 J. Philip Newell. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

J. Philip Newell was the Scholar in Spirituality at St. Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh. He is the author of numerous popular and influential books, including The Book of Creation: The Practice of Celtic Spirituality and Celtic Benediction: Morning and Night Prayer.

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