Forever Ahead of Our Souls

Ronald Rolheiser
March 11, 2024
Reproduced with Permission

Sometimes there's nothing as helpful as a good metaphor.

In his book, The God Instinct, Tom Stella shares this story: A number of men who made their living as porters were hired one day to carry a huge load of supplies for a group on safari. Their loads were unusually heavy and the trek through the jungle was rough. Several days into the journey they stopped, unshouldered their loads, and refused to go on. No pleas, bribes, or threats, worked in terms of persuading them to go on. Asked why they couldn't continue, they answered: "We can't go on; we have to wait for our souls to catch up with us."

That also happens to us in life, except mostly we never wait for our souls to catch up. We continue without them, sometimes for years. What this means is that we struggle to be in the present moment, to be inside our own skin, to be aware of the richness of our own experience. Too often our experiences aren't very soulful because we aren't present to them. I cite myself as an example:

For the past twenty-five years, I've kept a journal, a diary of sorts. My intent in keeping this journal is to record the deeper things that I'm aware of throughout each day; but mostly what I end up actually writing down is a simple chronology of my day, a daybook, a bare, no-frills, recounting of what I did from hour to hour. My diaries don't much resemble Anne Frank's diary, Dag Hammarskjold's Markings or Henri Nouwen's Genesee Diary. My journals resemble more what you might get from a schoolboy describing his day at school, a simple chronology of what happened. Yet when I go back some years later and read an account of what I did on a given day, I'm always amazed at how rich and full my life was on that day, except that I wasn't much aware of it at the time. While actually living through those days, mostly I was struggling to get my work done, to stay on top of things, to meet expectations, to carve out some moments of friendship and recreation amid the pressures of the day, and to get to bed at a reasonable hour. There wasn't a lot of soul there, just routine, work, and hurry.

I suspect that this is not atypical. Most of us live most of our days not very aware of how rich our lives are, forever leaving our souls behind. For example, many is the woman who gives ten to fifteen years of her life to bearing and raising children, with all that entails, tending constantly to someone else's needs, getting up at night to nurse a child, spending 24 hours a day on constant alert, sacrificing all leisure time, and putting a career and personal creativity on hold. And yet often that same woman, later on, looks back on those years and wishes she could relive them - but now, in a more soulful way, more consciously aware of how privileged it was to do precisely those things she did within so much tedium and tiredness. Years later, looking back, she sees how rich and precious her experience was and how because of the burden and stress how little her soul was present then to what she was experiencing.

This can be multiplied with a thousand examples. We've all read accounts wherein someone shares what he or she would do differently if he or she had life to live over again. Mostly these stories rework the same motif. Given another chance, I would try to enjoy it more, that is, I would try to keep my soul more present and more aware.

For most of us, I fear, our souls will only catch up with us when, finally, we are in retirement, with diminished health, diminished energy, and no opportunity to work. It seems we need to first lose something before we fully appreciate it. We tend to take life, health, energy, and work for granted, until they are taken away from us. Only after the fact do we realize how rich our lives have been and how little of those riches we drank in at the time.

Our souls eventually do catch up with us, but it would be good if we didn't wait until we were in assisted living for this to happen. Like the porters who dropped their loads and stopped, we need to stop and wait for our souls to catch up.

Early on in his priesthood, when Pope Francis was principal of a school, he would at a certain point each day have the public address system cut in and interrupt the work that was going on in each classroom with this announcement: Be grateful. Set your horizon. Take stock of your day.