Nurturing a permeable soul inch by inch


by Joni Woelfel

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When my husband and I decided to build a small addition onto our house, I learned a new term: permeable. Permeable means capable of being penetrated, especially by water. It refers to the amount of square footage a property is required to have that is not cement or a solid, impenetrable surface.

According to code, there has to be a balanced amount of earth for rain to permeate the soil, in order to prevent excessive water runoff. Of course, this reminded me of what it means to have a permeable soul. In order to sustain the life of our inner landscapes, we, too, require receptive space for love, patience, optimism and gratitude to soak through.

However, while adhering to property building codes is mandatory by law, when it comes to having a permeable soul, we have the freedom of choice. If we allow ourselves to have a hardened or brittle veneer, we become unable to take in the spiritual elements that bring healing, generosity and a sense of well-being to our souls.

Trials and setbacks, common in building projects, occurred as we built our addition. Some mornings, we woke up with dread, thinking, "What have we gotten ourselves into?"

Historic rains and flooding in our state of Minnesota caused our construction site to become a giant muddy mess and we got water in our basement three times. I kept thinking, "Keep perspective, detach from the frustrating, temporary upheaval, and go with the flow of this process."

When health problems prevented me from being able to pitch in and help, I recalled what it means to have a permeable soul, paying attention to the lessons of letting go and understanding the practicality of honoring limitations we can't change. I adopted the slogan "Inch by Inch."

It is said that remodeling and building can be disastrous for a marriage, but it drew us closer. At 62 years of age and married for 42 years, my husband, Jerry, and I had a seasoned relationship that has weathered and survived much, including the suicide of our youngest son. Our souls have become permeable through grace, wounds, forgiveness, maturity, grief and encouraging each other.

The gift of this age is that we know more fully how fleeting love and life are and what a privilege it is to be best friends who work together as a team.

Spiritual masters write of the permeable soul being able to not only receive but to give, with the energy mutually going both ways. We certainly experienced the goodwill of this through true friendship and the camaraderie of friends helping friends.

The dedication and help of Jerry's good friend, Bill, and others were a godsend. Bill was there from the beginning, measuring in deep snow with his wife during a stormy winter and helping shingle the roof on a blistering hot summer's day for 12 hours straight. He sacrificed a tremendous amount of time and energy for many months to help us.

No wonder 1 Thessalonians 5:11 reminds us to build each other up, and Proverbs 24:3-4 reminds us, "By wisdom a house is built, and by understanding it is established; by knowledge the rooms are filled."

Finally, one day after much time, sore muscles, dealing with pounding, hammering and falling into bed in exhaustion, our project was nearly completed. As we opened the door to the new room, I announced, "Things are looking up!"

The whole house seemed as if it had room to breathe, and as the sun poured in, I exclaimed, "Look what we have done!"

This time, I was not referring to the grueling ordeal, but to the beauty and usefulness of a new space in which to live and create happy memories with our family, neighbors and friends.

When I hung my wrought-iron sign that spells faith, I realized that the process of adding on to our house paralleled the desire we all have to expand our souls. As I set out child-size chairs, a table, rug and box of toys in anticipation of our three grandsons' next visit, I thought about how building something new from scratch that never existed before is a wondrous thing. It takes a lot of hard work, sweat, setbacks and diligence.

Spiritually, whether we are building new relationships, our faith, peace, unity, a new way of seeing, the future or even the church, to build something new and hopeful in the world requires a visionary, creative spirit that seeks to receive joy and give joy back.

As my husband and I sat with our feet up eating strawberry popsicles in our new room, I mused, "Having a permeable soul is about being receptive enough to take in God's blessings and generous enough to pass them on."

[Joni Woelfel is a longtime writer for the Catholic press, including Ministry & Liturgy magazine and NCR. You can find all of the Soul Seeing columns online at]

A version of this story appeared in the Dec 4-17, 2015 print issue under the headline: Nurturing a permeable soul inch by inch.

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