By Stephen W. Smith
The discovery that the sun was the center of the universe changed everything! Nicolaus Copernicus was an astronomer who discovered, in the 16th century, that the sun was at the center of the universe, not the Earth. This discovery changed centuries of thinking. It impacted the way people saw the world. People experienced a shift in their understanding, and it radically altered the way people thought about life. And the ripple effect of this discovery continues to this very day. It continues to remind us of the truth that we are not at the center of the universe. And that everything doesn’t revolve around us. In short, Copernicus gave us perspective with his scientific discovery.
My Personal Revelation
My Copernican revolution began in 1996 when I had the privilege of spending a month with Dallas Willard in a Catholic monastery in California. How I got there is a story I have told. But what happened to me in that monastery is what changed my life forever. Let me explain. My Copernican Revolution began when I heard that I was a soul. I was told I had an interior life that needed my attention and care. Prior to this time with Dallas, I had become an activist. I was trying to save people from their sins and get them into the walls of the church. I was busy. I was over-committed. I had no margins. I was running my life on empty and convinced myself that emptiness was the key to the abundant life. I had it wrong. I had it really wrong. I convinced my wife of this and led my family into a frenzied outer life. We were always “on”, always available to others. I was an activist without a core. I was busy without a soul, for I had annihilated my soul through my busyness.
It was not until Dallas Willard, ever so gently, began to teach me otherwise. I had to change my views, and these eventually change my life. It took a cloistered monastery for me to detox; for me to relax; for me to build trust with a man who, to be honest, did not possess a charisma for which I had grown accustomed to listening to in the modern church. I was used to flair. I was used to power. But in the end, his words–so attached to The Word–became a power that undid me.
Dallas lovingly opened the pages of the New Testament, which I thought I had mastered and showed me the error of my thinking. He spent time helping me to adjust my thoughts and my lifestyle, which I am still adjusting to this very day.
Living Outside Yourself
I have a soul. You have a soul.
The Apostle Paul tells us, “may he give you the power through his Spirit for your hidden self to grow strong” (Eph. 3:16). I came to understand that I have a hidden self, a self that is deep within me. I came to learn this is my soul—my true self.
Dallas showed me, “Oh, Lord, you search me and you know me…it was you who created my inmost self” (Psalm 139:13-14). I have an “inmost self”. I have a soul that needs attention, care, and nurture.
I read and re-read the words of Augustine’s own Copernican revolution when he penned, “O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, you were within me and I was outside of myself.” I had to understand that I, like Augustine, had lived many years “outside” of myself. I thought “outside” was where the action was. My “outside” was helping, teaching, working with, and helping other people not burn out.
Most people who come to me are living “outside” of themselves. They have a job. They do their job. They have a family. They “do” family. They have a church. They are busy at their church. But what of the soul? What are we learning today about the dignity of children, the soul of refugees, the inner life of leaders?
Dignity of Our Souls
I finally learned the dignity of my soul. I learned the sacredness of my soul and the dwelling place where Jesus lives. When I began to realize that my soul is actually the only “holy land” that there is, everything began to change. My Copernican Revolution affected my marriage and the soul of my marriage. I began to see my wife differently and with more tender eyes. I became curious of her shaping childhood and my own. Together, we knew we had a need for healing and re-orientation at how we were “doing” marriage. We shifted again.
My revolution affected my parenting. I began to realize that I needed to shift how I parented my sons to be obedient to me, to value their uniquely formed souls, and allow them to be their true selves as I was becoming my true self. I came to understand that our childhoods are the most important years of our soul’s existence and early wounds produce adult size challenges. What if we could practice “preventative care” for not only children, but youth and adults? This shifted my calling and passion to merge my inner life now with my activist self. This would be the partnership I needed, and most leaders need, to live a good life–a truly good life.
My shift in thinking greatly impacted my vocation. My true vocation came into existence when, in the midst of pastoring people, I realized that the souls of people needed something that the church I was pastoring was not offering them. I had to shift my work because the enormity of my new understanding shifted everything in me. The tectonic plates of my soul shifted and shook the foundations of everything I knew to be true.
In 2000, we moved our family, our work, and our geography to begin living out what had happened in our inner lives. Potter’s Inn is the result of that shift. To be honest, everything is still shifting. The shaking and quaking of grasping a small part of my own understanding of my soul is still causing me to shift, morph, and change. I am still learning, and as I take the time to nurture my own soul and the souls of others, I am seeing more and more that my Copernican Revolution is not over.
After 40 years of work, I am on the edge of repositioning and changing my work and my life—yet again. I am doing this because this shift, this repositioning, is something I cannot ignore. I want to shift. I desire another change. I want to go slower. I want more quiet. I need more time to live the life I have taught about and written about. So, we have drawn a line in the sand now. We know the exact date when our work will move from full-time to part time. This will allow us more time for ourselves, to give the richness of our souls to our grandchildren, and to pour into a few others who are thirsty. I know now that I cannot help everyone. But I can help a few. It is this “few” that I am hoping God will allow my path to cross in future days.
I believe, in my own awakening, I have found that I am a contemplative activist. I am someone who seeks to live out the inner life of Jesus and allow the ripples to flow out of me into the lives of a few others. That is my action. That is my calling. That is my life—which is truly life.
No one can sustain action and activity all the time. Those who work with refugees, those who work in famine areas, those who tend to the sick–all come to the point of realizing the key principle of caring for others is that we must care for our souls first. We cannot give what we do not have. Even Jesus did not do this. He spent time cultivating his own inner life so that from this place, and this place alone, renewed energy could be cultivated to go out, day after day, and give his heart away again. But here is the secret. We cannot give what we do not have. Tending to our inner life, our souls, is where we begin and it is where we remain if we are ever to have impact and ever really help others long term.
As I look back on my life now, I am realizing that I invited people to be activists like I was, but without a rich, meaningful, and soulful inner life. The work of soul care is first a revolutionary understanding of what the soul is and how vital the soul really is. No one will ever care for their souls without first understanding the dignity of the soul. I didn’t and you won’t either.