How do you know if your soul is healthy? If you’re willing even to entertain the question, if it strikes you as a sensible one to ask, then the good news is that your soul is still sentient, still alive and aware of God. Those come down to the same thing, because a soul that doesn’t stand before God doesn’t stand at all. It withers, dies, and blows about, like a prairie tumbleweed, frenetic but unaware of its own death. But knowing that your soul still lives isn’t the same as knowing whether or not it’s healthy.
There are three signs of a healthy soul, and each is evident in the journal of a great American writer—and great soul—Flannery O’Connor. Great authors express our own insights, truths we didn’t even know we knew until they found the right words for them. In 2002 William Sessions, an O'Connor scholar and professor emeritus of English at Georgia State University, discovered a Sterling black-and-white-covered, spiral-bound journal of prayers that the young Flannery wrote, in January of 1946, while studying at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. They’ve just been published.
What can Flannery O’Connor teach us about the nature of the soul? First, there is a sense of gratitude in a healthy soul. We realize that who we are, and what we have, did not have to be. We find a wonder and a delight in both. We may not even be ready to enunciate a belief in God, and yet we feel a surge of gratitude—to the universe if nowhere else—for our lives. In her prayer journal Flannery wrote,
When I think of all I have to be thankful for I wonder that You don’t just kill me now because You’ve done so much for me already and I haven’t been particularly grateful. My thanksgiving is never in the form of self sacrifice—a few memorized prayers babbled once over lightly. All this disgusts me in myself but does not fill me with the poignant feeling I should have to adore You with, to be sorry with, or to thank You with.
The second sign of a healthy soul is sense of sinfulness. A dying soul no longer realizes that it is ill. It is so detached from God, the light of truth, that it no longer recognizes sin for what it is. On the other hand, the closer a soul comes to God, the more it realizes how much of its own self is still not of God, is still sinful. A healthy soul does not dread sin out of a sense of extrinsic punishment. It knows that separation from God is punishment enough, simply because of who God is. Flannery beautifully recognizes that her sinfulness lies in her distance from God:
Contrition in me is largely imperfect. I don’t know if I’ve ever been sorry for a sin because it hurt you. That kind of contrition is better than none but it is selfish. To have the other kind, it is necessary to have knowledge, faith extraordinary. All boils down to grace, I suppose. Again asking God to help us be sorry for having hurt Him. I am afraid of pain and I suppose that is what we have to have to get grace. Give me the courage to stand the pain to get the grace, Oh Lord. Help me with this life that seems so treacherous, so disappointing.
The third sign of a healthy soul is a sense of mission. We understand that we exist, that we live on this earth, for a reason, one that only reveals itself in the rhythms and rhymes of our days. Flannery wrote:
How can I live—how shall I live. Obviously the only way to live right is to give up everything. But I have no vocation and maybe that is wrong anyway. But how eliminate this picky fish bone kind of way I do things—I want so to love God all the way. At the same time I want all the things that seem opposed to it—I want to be a fine writer. Any success will tend to swell my head—unconsciously even. If I ever do get to be a fine writer, it will not be because I am a fine writer, but because God has given me credit for a few of the things He kindly wrote for me. Right at present this does not seem to be His policy. I can’t write a thing. But I’ll continue to try—that is the point.
A healthy soul is centered outside itself; it looks at itself and sees God. It’s thankful to God for who it is; it seeks God forgiveness for who it hasn’t yet become; and it knows that its mission, its meaning in life, comes from God. Flannery drew an apt and beautiful metaphor, and a lovely close for me.
Dear God. I cannot love Thee the way I want to. You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon. The crescent is very beautiful and perhaps that is all one like I am should or could see; but what I am afraid of, dear God, is that my self shadow will grow so large that it blocks the whole moon, and that I will judge myself by the shadow that is nothing. I do not know you God because I am in the way. Please help me push myself aside.
2 Kings 5: 14-17 2 Timothy 2: 8-13 Luke 17:11-19