Thomas Moore sees flaws as being good for the soul Everything's not right -- and that's OK

December 09, 1992|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Staff Writer

On a drizzly Friday night in a Roland Park auditorium, 260 people grapple with the soul.

They sport earth tones and jewel tones, Birkenstock sandals and bulky sweaters, long, graying pony tails, coats and ties. They hold notebooks, journals and pens at the ready. It is a well-heeled, eclectic group, a number of them therapists, ranging in age from the 20s through 70s.

Thomas Moore, a man of gentle demeanor, with a precise salt-and-pepper beard and merry eyes, stands before them, taking questions:

What is the difference between spirit and soul?

What is the role of shame and guilt in our lives?

What does the soul have to do with love or hate?

At age 13, Mr. Moore entered the seminary, but left at 25, four months shy of ordination, having decided that the priesthood was not for him. He went on to collect degrees in religious studies, theology, musicology and philosophy and became a psychotherapist.

Yet, in a way, he has also fulfilled his original goal of becoming a priest; albeit an unorthodox one, with a congregation of thousands who read his book, "Care of the Soul," and flock to his lectures and workshops.

Perhaps he is just the latest in a long line of inspirational writers to identify and capitalize on a generation's particular needs and anxieties. But Mr. Moore, a witty intellectual with a popular touch, has surely hit a nerve with his wholesale rejection of the self-help movement, with its suggestion of such things as perfection in 12 easy steps.

We are not perfect beings, he stresses repeatedly in "Care of the Soul: A Guide to Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life" (HarperCollins, $22.50). Drawing on Plato, Cicero, Erasmus, Emily Dickinson, Oscar Wilde, Renaissance scholar Marsilio Ficino and James Hillman, the founder of archetypal psychology and Mr. Moore's mentor, he seeks to liberate us from the guilt and stress of never coming up to snuff: "Care of the soul is a continuous process that concerns itself not so much with 'fixing' a central flaw as with attending to the small details of everyday life, as well as to major decisions and changes."

He freely admits that his philosophy is a synthesis of many others. "There is nothing new I'm saying: 'Live your own life. Don't blame your parents. Goodbye'.

"It's very embarrassing," Mr. Moore says, to take credit for the wisdom of others.

This fall, "Care of the Soul" appeared on the New York Times non-fiction best seller list for five weeks. The book is in its eighth printing and nearly 100,000 copies have been sold.

Mr. Moore came to Baltimore last weekend to lecture and lead a workshop on "soul work," under the auspices of the Chesapeake Convivium, an offshoot of the Institute for the Study of Imagination, founded by Mr. Moore in 1987 "to foster imagination and the care of soul in all areas of life."

As he speaks, Mr. Moore's comments bring evident relief, yet confound listeners accustomed to the more literal measures of self-improvement. He describes the soul as some mysterious, big, brooding, imperfect thing that cannot be known or healed by thinking the right thoughts or learning to forgive one's parents.

It is as if he is asking the audience to solve a cosmic riddle, guided by a series of puzzling, abstract clues: "The soul doesn't like to be understood and it doesn't like to understand," he says. "Preserve the mystery of marriage . . . don't communicate so much. Protect what we don't know as an important part of self-knowledge."

The soul revels in the pleasure of just being, he says. "Don't pilon new ideas and experiences, chew on the ones you've got. The soul loves to ruminate on anything. You ruminate and chew and chew and chew . . . you get all the flavors out of it."

And Mr. Moore offers latter-day parables for the soulfully challenged: "Take care of your home, that's soul. Neglect your home, more therapy."

Lorraine Hunt is a Baltimore psychotherapist who attended Mr. Moore's lecture and workshop. "I have shared for a long time his view that a therapist should not be in the business of fixing things," she says. "What clients most want is to be heard and to be understood."

And though Ms. Hunt says that Mr. Moore's brand of therapy would not work for everyone, she sees "an increase in the number of people who might be called spiritual seekers coming to therapists with questions of meaning and purpose. To respond to people at that level requires the kind of therapeutic listening and response that Tom Moore is all about."

Earlier in the week, by phone from his office in western Massachusetts, Mr. Moore spoke of the misdirected energies of the self-help movement. That "feeling of urgent need to make everything right . . . how to live longer, how to feel better . . . use

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