Essay Contest

Sighted Souls

By Jo Murphy

It was the year you could see souls. Revealed on exposed skin, pulsing, glowing, flickering, underneath T-shirts stretched thin. Hers was exactly eight peonies in a continual mode of blooming and closing. As she had gotten used to her peonies, she came to see them as eight giant pink eyes blinking at the world.

The year before souls became visible, she had been working on her application to the Island Nations Project, which provided support and rescue missions to the populations of the islands sinking as sea levels rose. Her great-aunt had been best friends with a woman who, as a political statement, built her house on the edge of the island of Tangiers to photo-document the sea rising, challenging everyone’s disbelief of climate devastation while her house sank off the coast of Virginia. She remembered her aunt showing her a photo of the woman when the water was knee deep, marshes swirling at her thighs, her house unlivable, her eyes staring straight and stern at the camera as the sea steadily rose. That was fifty years before the End Wars began.

Before her application was complete, the second wave hit and the third world storm began, the last surviving islands disappearing under water. Another End War began, as a variety of radical religious groups went to war with each other, some fighting for how the world should “properly” end, some committing acts of terror, others going on prolonged “soul cleanses,” forcing rituals and torture upon people in order to cleanse the soul before the end.

This was when the first souls were sighted. It was almost as if human bodies reacted to the fact that they needed to be “cleansed,” that they needed anything else at all in order to end their life in the bodies they had grown into and inhabited. She started to see her soul at the same time everyone else did, surprised when her side looked as if it was glowing through her worn pink T-shirt, embarrassed when her top got caught in her backpack and was pulled up to reveal peonies, blurry at first, then coming into their full existence as radical pink globes of petals. As underground soul cleansing missions took place, and buildings were targeted by religious End Groups, more and more souls appeared, giving color and light to threatened bodies.

Universities and colleges had already began to function more as think tanks than as learning institutions, gathering together students to combat the growing climate problem and respond to emergency situations, sending them off to work with other think tanks to try to provide solutions that one hundred years ago would have been hypothetical—solutions to problems presented to encourage discussion and critical thinking, urging students to hone their skills. There was no longer time for papers and presentations now.

Eventually, her peonies became the blinking pink-petaled eyes that she came to know as her soul, clearly defined in both shape and glow. She watched the news reports delicately appear in their air bubbles when she was outside her house watching as Divinity Think Tanks started to recruit the people who had visible souls. Most think tanks sent people to work as religious consultancy teams acting as advisors to other university projects involving climate emergencies and resource allotment conflicts. There was one Divinity Think Tank, however, that was sending peace teams to the End War zones. She glanced at her half-finished application to work with people relocating from their washed-away homes. As her peonies started lazily blinking, she grabbed her bag and headed to the library. She quickly snagged a seat and logged into the databases, leafing through the thin computer slices that hung from the wall offering her the full collection. She wanted to find more information on where the Divinity Think Tank base was sending peace groups.

Old brochures, articles, and past websites flipped quickly by as she took in the landscape of this school near to the coast, still maintaining its old buildings and its trees, whose leaves turned color in the fall. A decision had been made around twenty years ago to build a sea wall so that much of the East Coast could be preserved, but as she flipped through candid photographs of students studying before and then after the construction of the sea wall, she could sense a difference. The sea walls, of course, had caused more problems than expected, but there was also something about the way they altered the environment around them, something desperate and impermanent, that unnerved her. She paused on a picture of a young woman, her hands up, wearing a “Bulletproof” Black Lives Matter T-shirt. The image was from when schools still had websites and did not simply contact the students desired for their programs directly through the cloud. The woman’s eyes were still open though they were looking down, her brow was creased, her braids falling over her T-shirt.

She looked over the pictures of the leaves on the surrounding trees of the campus that appeared ready to turn into the oranges and reds that helped portray “a classic New England Fall.” As she was about to leave her seat in the library, a message buzzed through the screen, interrupting her searches: ”Interested in joining our Peace Team?” She paused as her seat quivered, unsure if it should get out of her way or stay in the area. She sighed, sat back on it, and replied ”yes” to the message. “Soul picture and signature, please” She rose from her seat and exposed her side as the main screen snapped a picture of the peonies in mid-bloom. She lifted her finger and stood up to sign her name on the bottom of the screen. “Would you like to submit signature and soul?” She clicked “yes,” grabbed her bag, and let her chair zoom off to another library patron. Before she had left the library, she felt her tablet vibrating in her bag as messages frantically pinged in. She glanced at it to see that instructions for departure and necessary books and documents were already downloading, giving off various vibrations as they filled her tablet’s memory.


Her aunt was making coffee when she came into the house, her sister inevitably in front of a screen watching an old movie about a safari trip in Namibia as she swiped her finger across a piece of chocolate cake lying next to her. Her sister looked up.

“Your tablet sounds as if it is downloading an entire library.”

“Yeah, I think it is.”

“I wish we had been able to rehabilitate lions,” her sister said, absentmindedly taking another finger full of frosting.

She looked up at the screen her sister was watching, where a mama lion and her cubs stared fixedly at the safari jeep, daring it to come closer.

“Lions were going extinct more than a hundred years ago. They didn’t have much of a chance,” she said, as she lowered herself down to the floor, sprawling out as her sister curled up next to her.

“Coffee?” her aunt called out.

“I’m leaving tomorrow,” she said, her gaze and voice drifting. Her aunt appeared in the doorway leading from the kitchen to the room where the sisters lay sprawled.

“What?” She sounded tired.

She and her younger sister had both moved in with their aunt when their parents had announced that they were heading off on one of the exploratory trips to Mars. The ship they were on had lost communication with the Exploratory Mars Mission (EMM) a month ago, and no one had heard from them since. She had been living with a group of friends, planning on joining the Island Relocation Project, when the ship lost contact. The project fell through, and she moved in with her aunt to be with her younger sister.

“I’m going to Syrika,” she said as she grabbed a mug from the cabinet.

“Mmmm . . .” Her aunt filled her mug. “Are we going to lose communication with you too?”

She sighed. Her aunt had been angry with her mom since she left for Mars; they had made a pact that they would stay close to each other ever since the first wave and storm hit. All of her mother’s other siblings had died in a rescue team mission during an earthquake, unprepared for the aftershocks. After that, her mother and aunt had agreed to stay together—until her mother broke that pact following a huge campaign by the EMM.

She showed her aunt the train ticket that detailed her journey, both underground and in the sea shuttles, that would get her to Syrika in a day. Her aunt put the coffee down and grasped her hands, tightening her grip as her sister came to sit at the table.

“I will,” she said, “I will come back.”


She hadn’t written anything for a long time. The assignment was to compose a newsletter that both defined religious literacy and demonstrated through the created news articles how this concept could help people relate across religious and cultural divides in her current mission. She had six hours to complete the assignment before her next training session, which included a “ritual grounding,” where trainees experienced divinity school in two days. She would attend a convocation, three classes, a multireligious ceremony on the environment that would start at noon, a meditation circle, a Buddhist-led labyrinth walk, an early-morning ecumenical Eucharist, and, finally, a multireligious commencement service in which all the trainees were asked to present. After these two days, she and the other trainees would sit with a group of professors and activists from the Divinity School and discuss six hypothetical problems created by the professors and activists that would cover many of the issues that were currently arising among warring religious groups.

She sat in one of the chapels that had been beautifully preserved. It was a “clouds-free” space, barring the electronic clouds that dealt with devices. She was early and sat waiting for a Buddhist monk to give them an introduction to the labyrinth walk they would soon embark upon. She was exhausted, and, if she was being honest, she was ready to cry at any moment. The monks were chatting among themselves, swathed in their robes, one in the midst of picking up a singing bowl to take outside. One of them must have cracked a joke for, within moments, the whole room exploded with zealous laughter. Though the laughter bounced off the rafters, it had no trouble filling the room, providing every nook and cranny with a reason to give off a sense of joy and lightness. As the laughter filled the room, she smiled, then exhaled, letting her tears flow in the safety of six Buddhist monks laughing. Some of the other trainees filtered in, finding spaces in the chairs or on the floors, relief flooding their bodies as the laughter gently curved around them, cushioning their anxieties with hope and levity.

Her relaxed self was fleeting as she prepared to meet with the professors and activists, skimming over old publications from the Divinity School and reading about the history and current conflicts in Syrika. Story after story of the horrors occurring filled her mind and heart as she studied and read about both the present and the future of the place she was about to embark for. Another trainee popped into the room and told her they had ten minutes before their meeting. As she flipped through more stories, she tried to remember the feeling of the monks’ laughter that had enveloped her, but then she put the stories from Syrika down and flipped through the Divinity School papers and old publications. She came across a publication called ConSpiracies and noted that, under the title, it said “Breathing Together the Breath of Life.” She took a deep breath, letting herself breathe. As she let herself breathe, she soon fell into a pattern of breath that felt, just maybe, as if it was catching hold of the one breath, a breath that through it, beneath it, over it, and under it was a breath of life.

The field was what she imagined a war zone felt like. It was reminiscent of old zombie television shows she had watched, with fields that, though they may have been devoid of structures and people, looked particularly empty as bodies were continually mutilated and seemed to have no other purpose than to crash inevitably into each other. These types of sites occurred after two religious forces reached the end of their countdowns of when the end of days, previously calculated, were predicted to arrive. She stepped into the field, not knowing where the rest of her team was, unsure of what she was supposed to do now. A woman, filled with a rich anger, stepped toward her and raised her arm up, trying to decide if this woman in front of her with soul peonies was someone to destroy, someone to “save their soul” before the end of days.

Words came in and out of her mind: tolerance, pluralism, compassion, divinity . . . divinity . . . divinity . . . Where is the divinity? Right here, she said to herself. Shaking, she grabbed the woman’s hands, looked into her eyes, and saw the woman holding the hand of a small girl—a girl that looked like her sister—and she said:

“Remember when?”

The woman took a step back: “Remember what?”

“Remember when.”

“Why?” the woman demanded, her anger rising.

“Because we are breathing here together, and we are breathing nothing else but the breath of life. Remember when,” she said. “Remember when this type of breath was a type of breath you took.”

She repeated this softly, holding the woman’s hands, and, as she said this, she remembered when she could first see her own soul. She and her sister had been fighting when they learned that no one was receiving any communication from the Exploratory Mars Mission their parents were on. She could not remember what they had been fighting about, but she remembered the tears and how her sister had moved forward to kick the table but had tripped, and her pant leg got caught on a loose nail that tore her pants. She could see her sister’s newly visible soul buzzing on the surface of her skin, her lanky pine trees looking as if they were going to grow up her leg. She reached out to touch the trees with her hand, on which she could suddenly see tiny peony petals floating on her knuckles.

Her knees gave way, and she started remembering every memory she and her sister had ever shared. Her team members were around her now, and she felt each of their hands on her shoulders and back. Though she did not remember how, when the memories stopped, a memory of her sister remained with her, her sister in her arms, sleeping, nestled into her body, all the memories relived between them.

She looked back at the woman and could feel the woman’s memories rush into view. She could feel the hands of her fellow trainees still resting on her as the memories surged into being—the memories this woman had of her own sister—and then she started to see the woman’s soul. Limpid greens at first, then vines leaping everywhere on her body, her anger entrapped, encapsulated by greenery. And then there was a small light, a small light to greet the remembrance. Her own petals were fuming, fuming with a red pink rapidly blooming, contracting their blossoms at record speed. There was a rush, and she felt herself falling, and many different foggy images entered her mind. Her memories invaded her, different from when she and her sister had relived their own memories. The woman’s memories invaded her senses, but then commingled with hers in a way in which it felt as if she was living the woman’s memories, taking them on as part of her own, creating an instantaneous shared history. She could tell that the same thing was happening to the woman, the same living of new memories not her own. She saw that the woman was grabbing more hands, and very suddenly the air was filled, not with breeze, but with “Remember when?”

She saw the anger from the woman drain as the woman leaned over to hold the hands of a man beside her, igniting a sharing of memories and of souls as all three of them inhaled.

Her mind danced and filled with the memories, as all became one story. The air buzzed with the joining of memories. Soon the whole group was on their knees, connected through memory and the feeling of someone’s palm resting on one’s soul. She felt as if she was floating in and out of consciousness, growing weary from taking on so many stories and memories previously not her own. Days seemed to pass, floating in a haze, a never-ending movie in her mind of the stories around her linking up, darting in and out, as they became her own. She had lost contact with the outside world, lulled into a dream world, slightly anxious as she tried to find a way out, homing in on the stories she thought were her own. Growing more and more desperate, she tried to concentrate on what she remembered as hers. Outside of her, days passed, faster than one might expect, as everyone became linked together, soul to soul, glow to glow, all memories shared.

She was losing her grasp of what was hers until, all of a sudden, she was in someone’s memory. She could smell the woods as they jumped off their swings together, falling hard on the ground, her sister running off into the pine trees, whispering softly in her ear: “Remember when?”

“Remember when.” She took a breath, breathing as her peonies blinked ferociously and beautifully, breathing as her teammates in faith placed their hands on her back, feeling through their palms the peonies, wildly blinking and breathing with one breath.

“What will Harvard Divinity School, or the field of religious studies, look like in 2116?” This was the topic of the bicentennial essay contest the Bulletin sponsored for HDS students and recent graduates.

Jo Murphy graduated from HDS in May 2015. She is working as a chaplain resident at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and is a candidate for Unitarian Universalist ministry.

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