Chicken Soup of the Soul


A Homily for the Second Week in Ordinary Time, Year A

John the Baptist saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”

–John 1:29–


In our Gospel today, Saint John the Baptist identifies Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”  However, as far as the human soul is concerned, Christians down through the ages have affirmed that, for most of us, this taking away of sin is a gradual process.  In other words, it happens in stages.  Jesus’ cleansing of the human soul is not something that occurs overnight.  It requires an ever-increasing cooperation of the soul with God, and it takes place throughout a lifetime.

Way back in the twelfth century, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux taught that as the soul is purified, its love for God is purged of self-interest.[1]  In the sixteenth century, Saint Teresa of Ávila likened the soul’s progressive cleansing to a royal subject passing through various mansions in the King’s palace.[2]  In the twentieth century, Father Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange laid out the classic scheme in which the soul, on its journey to heaven, passes along the Purgative, Illuminative, and Unitive Ways.[3]  Finally, closer to our own day, Professor Peter Kreeft insists that the soul’s progress in purification corresponds with that soul’s growing ever more comfortable with the idea of death.[4]  However, for my money, the best way to understand the gradual purification of the human soul is to compare the soul to a pot of chicken soup.  Here’s what I mean.

When I was a kid, I used to watch my mom make chicken soup.  She’d take a pot of perfectly clean water, add the chicken parts, and turn on the stove.  As the pot simmered, all sorts of gook would come out of the chicken and rise up to the surface, and all the while Mom would be skimming it off with a little strainer.  I think it’s that way with the human soul as we grow ever closer to Christ.  In the beginning, we can imagine ourselves as pretty good and wholesome specimens of humanity, but as we allow the Holy Spirit to set us on fire, we become increasingly aware of the sinfulness that lurks in our hearts.  Again and again, we bring this gooky sinfulness to confession, and the priest skims it off.

Now if, as I think, the soul undergoing progressive purification is like a pot of chicken soup, then there are three important points that must be considered.  First, sin is not a mere superficial sullying that happens to us as we interact with the world.  On the contrary, sin is something that comes from deep within ourselves.  It’s like the gook hidden in the chicken.  It bubbles to the surface of our consciousness only to the extent that we allow the fire of the Holy Spirit to burn within us.

Second, just as Mom diligently used her strainer to rid her chicken soup of floating gook, so we must be diligent in going to confession to rid our soul of sin.  We must be searching in making our examination of conscience, and we must be frequent in our recourse to confession.  Confession is, after all, what keeps our souls simmering with the fire of the Holy Spirit.  Persons who go to confession only rarely barely bring the warmth of their souls above room temperature!

Third, just as Mom was patient in all the aspects of making chicken soup, so we too must be patient in the long and sometimes frustrating process of soul purification.  We must be patient with ourselves, and, above all, we must be patient with God.

Saint John the Baptist is right.  Jesus is indeed the Lamb of God who takes away our sins, but Our Lord never promised to take away our sins all at once.  Sanctification—that’s the theological term for this process of purification—sanctification is an on-going affair.  It’s a kind of soul simmering that lasts a lifetime.

[1] On Loving God by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux.

[2] Interior Castle by Saint Teresa of Ávila.

[3] The Three Ways of the Spiritual Life by Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange.

[4] Love Is Stronger than Death by Peter Kreeft.