The dark backpack of the soul

Even when the winds assail you and you’re lost out on uncharted sea / the compass of your heart won’t fail you now; your vessel was made for times like these. (Eliza Gilkyson)

CREDO 008A spiritual director once said to me, “Your body never forgets anything.”

This struck a chord in me, and even as a young woman, I appreciated the wisdom her years had given her. In the 30 years since that conversation, the high, clear sound of this wisdom has continued to reverberate, although its tone has deepened with the bass-notes of my own aging.

We know that survivors of trauma and threat often experience never-forgetting in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder. The natural fight-or-flight impulse, designed to protect one from harm, has been damaged, and one may feel stressed or frightened even when (no longer) in danger. This is the dark side of body-memory.

On the other hand, body-memory is not only traumatic. A bit of music, a smell, a sense of deja vu…anything can serve as a trigger. The roasting of beef, the smell of warm clover, the mix of bleach and sour milk: these can be a time-machine to far-gone places and times (along with their feelings.) Suddenly I’m in my grandmother’s kitchen (anticipating), or in a Missouri summer field (lazy), or in my grade-school “all-purpose room” (anxiously watching the clock.) H.G. Wells wrote, in The Time Machine (1895): “There is no difference between Time and any of the three dimensions of Space except that our consciousness moves along it.”

We carry everything we have ever experienced–every conscious and unconscious agony and ecstasy–in this weird, leaky, timey-wimey backpack. It has become customary to talk of the “baggage” we all carry, but I think the backpack is a better metaphor. Everything is all stacked in there, getting heavier on our shoulders as we trudge along. You can’t get to it at all unless you take the backpack off. Even then, you can’t get to the stuff on the bottom until you pull all the top stuff out. And, sometimes after we have been caught in a rainstorm, we have to stop everything and spread it all out in the sun or it will mold.

The compass of the heart knows God as True North. We always, always and regularly, must stop along the path to consult the compass in prayer and contemplation. Often we settle for grabbing a quick glance every once in a while (“Uh-oh! God help me!”) which can be very helpful, but it’s not enough. Stopping and listening to God, calibrating our heart-compass to God’s magnetism… this is the path of wisdom. This is waking up. This is where eternal life starts.

Furthermore (to stretch the metaphor to its breaking-point): when we allow enough time for prayer, the moldy stuff in that backpack can come out during contemplation and be spread out in the sun to dry and freshen. This is good for whatever we carry: memories, old tapes, stuff we picked up but no longer need. A backpack that is clean and dry is way easier to carry than that old moldy crap. Everything we carry, everything our body remembers, can be made clean and become lighter. Everything.

By the way, I’m not talking about going to church. I’m talking about opening our hearts and souls to the light of God. My friend Randall the priest, talking about the value of awakening to our true selves, said, “Mere association with a (severely) limited Christian institution or intellectual assent to dogma or doctrine or making conventional faith statements pale in comparison. Our vast, full and fully human experience is in God.”

The compass of your heart, the backpack of your soul, won’t fail you now.

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