Get Your Soul Back

When was the last time you heard someone express concern for their soul? When was the last time you listened earnestly as a friend lamented a psychological or emotional struggle? The reason for the difference is simple: we have become a “soul-less” psychologized society. The classical concern for the soul has been replaced by an overwhelming interest in psychological and emotional “health.” We are becoming a “well-adjusted” society.

The soul has always been something of a mystery. In Greek, soul (psyche) simply means the “life” of a person. Psyche is derived from a word that meant “to cool” or “to blow,” and had a meaning similar to spirit (pneuma) which meant “breath” or “wind.” A body that no longer had breath was no longer alive. In Genesis, God breathed into Adam, and “he became a living soul” (nephesh).

The psychologized self is a very modern concept. Freud’s foundational work only appeared at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries. His concepts swept into popular culture after the First World War (1918). The “Roaring 20’s” saw a fascination with Freud’s psychological narrative. His suggestion that moral (sexual) inhibitions were possibly “dangerous and unhealthy” were especially popular (surprise). It was a decade that witnessed the first blush of the coming sexual revolution.

Modern, psychologized people are enthralled with themselves. We analyze, categorize, type and treat every aspect of the self that can be identified. “Self help” is our generic term for arm-chair psychology. And like its Freudian predecessor, the goal of the psychologized self is a vaguely perceived state called “health.”

Contemporary Christianity has taken up this world-view and adapted the gospel to its requirements. The various versions of the prosperity gospel all presume a psychologized world-view. And even popular evangelical Churches presume that a born-again life will be a happier life. Jesus has become a means to a happier, healthier self.

The psychologized self includes our modern fascination with “how I’m doing.” Reports that “I’m doing better” in confession may be completely beside the point. “Is it well with my soul?” would be a more apt question. And the soul might be doing extremely well while we outwardly struggle with anger, frustration, temptation, and failure.

Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward is being renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal. (2Co 4:16-18 )

Saints are not necessarily “well-adjusted” people.

The psychologized self is uniquely suited to our consumer culture – indeed it might even be rightly described as the “consumer-self.” Just as we shop for our comforts and pleasure, so we “shop” for the self and the latest version of its “health.” I offer no complaint here for the work that has been done to relieve mental suffering. Such relief, however, should not come at the price of our souls. The modern self is a poor substitute for the classical soul.

So what is the soul?

The soul is our life. It is immaterial, and yet it is everywhere within us. St. Gregory of Nyssa offers this definition: “The soul is a noetic essence that imparts to the organic body the force of life by which the senses operate.” Our life is more than a description of the aggregate metabolic processes of our cells. The soul, our life, carries our meaning and purpose and reason for existence.

Much of what we describe as personality and upon which we lavish such interest and care, is itself largely the work of the body. It is subject to medication and alteration, even disappearing in the face of certain conditions. Memory and desire and our “style” of interaction are not our identity nor our life. My brain might have ADHD but this does not touch the soul. The brain is an instrument through which the soul expresses itself (in the words of a modern Athonite elder), but the brain and its artifacts are not the soul itself.

I have found it interesting to reflect on the experience of persons who have undergone great suffering for the faith – and their witness to the nature of the soul. One notable example is given in the writings and conversations of Fr. Roman Braga, a Romanian monastic who spent over 10 years in Communist prisons, some of which were marked by extreme torture and psychological pressures. He said:

Not having anywhere to go, or even the possibility of looking out a window because there were no windows in those cells of solitary confinement, you had to look, to go somewhere.  And so you go inside yourself—inside your heart and your mind—to examine yourself, to see who you are and why God brought you into this world. You questioned whether God even exists, and wondered about your relationship with God.

When we were free, we did not have time to ask ourselves these questions. Our faith was superficial, because you can learn a lot of things and can have a mind like an Encyclopedia, full of all knowledge, but if you don’t know yourself and who you are, even if you know everything in the world, you are superficial if you don’t ask “Why do I exist?” and “What is the destiny of my life?” and “Why did God create me?” and, “If I believe in God what does God want from me?”

Such questions, particularly asked in the apparent dead-end of a hostile solitary confinement, can produce deep madness. Or, as in the case of Fr. Roman, they can yield true knowledge of the soul and reveal the wonder of existence.

The question, “Why do I exist?” cannot be answered with the superficial answers of personality. What is the personality in a solitary cell?

These questions direct our attention towards the soul itself. When St. Gregory writes about the soul, he begins with an “apophatic” approach, recognizing from the beginning that the soul belongs, like God, to things that cannot be known by pure rational observation. To ask the question, “Why do I exist?” brings us first to silence and mystery.

That silence is the preferred sound of the soul. The noise of the mind is the chatter of distraction. Such a description is frustrating to the modern mind, for we want to observe, weigh, measure and compare. We even doubt that there is such a thing as a soul, or whether it is just a name being given to something else, some other aspect of the brain. What we want of the soul is self-awareness – we require a selfie of the soul – the ultimate reassurance of the modern world.

The soul is created for the awareness of God and its attention is properly directed towards Him, not towards itself. We become more clearly aware of the nous (the soul’s faculty of perception) when we enter into true prayer, when we are aware of God. Self-awareness in the nous is found in repentance, when we “return to ourselves.” True repentance is not a matter of feeling bad over something we have done, a sorrow that may simply be confined to our emotions. It is instead a profound awareness that apart from God we are nothing. The monastic tradition calls this the “remembrance of death.” It is the soul’s knowledge of its true condition. And it is in that condition that the soul’s desire is turned to God. There is a hymn sung early in Great Lent that points us in this direction:

My soul, my soul, arise.
Why are you sleeping?
The end is drawing near,
and you will be confounded.
Awake, therefore, that you may be spared by Christ God,
Who is everywhere present and fills all things.

The soul is our life and is the proper anchor of our existence. The consumer-self is ill-equipped for true existence. The loss of choices and its incipient narcissism plunge the consumer-self into despair. People in the modern world often shop in order to treat their depression.

But the soul is our true life. It is only in the soul that the inherent suffering of the world makes sense. The consumer-self cannot bear suffering and supports every false hope that promises relief from suffering. But listen again to Fr. Roman:

Suffering is good not only for Christians but for everybody. Because if you do not suffer you do not understand anything. Suffering is a good experience.

This statement comes from a man who was subjected to a prison regime that Alexander Solzhenitsyn described as the “most terrible act of barbarism in the contemporary world.”

Christ Himself specifically states that the salvation of the soul entails suffering. He tells those who would follow Him that they must “take up their cross.” This is not a description of the road to self-fulfillment – it is the path of self-emptying.

The modern world has lost its soul. Fortunately, there is always enough suffering ready at hand to help us find it.

Awake, my soul.

42 comments:

  1. Yes, yes, yes. Thank you, Father.

    Fr. Roman’s observations remind me of the quote from one of the Fathers saying in effect we only know ourselves truly in sorrow, not in times of elation and happiness. Initially, that baffled me. Now I understand what it means, and I find it to be one of the most profound truths of our existence.

  2. Beautiful, such needed wisdom for us in today’s world.

    It was only in stillness and silence that I, who was an atheist, came to the awareness of the true existence of God. Yet, who is still and silent in the “entertain me” culture of society?

    Having a debilitating disease, I am often asked, if someone learns a particular pain or ailment associated with my disease, “Can’t they do something about that?” Modern medicine can do some very good things, but it naturally has limits, so, often, the answer is, “No.” And that’s okay. Not every “broken” thing needs to be fixed. Jesus rose from the dead with Glorified Body and, yet, the holes of his wounds remained. I wonder on that, sometimes, an awe-filled pondering that has no words….

    When I did come to awareness of God’s true existence, the Spirit gave me the thought that this awareness was not something that I felt I wanted or needed– it is what I AM. Reading your words in this piece, years later, I’m given a better understanding of what that means. Thank you!

    Pax Christi

  3. “Saints are not necessarily “well-adjusted” people.

    Indeed. “Well-adjusted” to what? A diseased, corrupted world? No. Well-adjusted to Christ and his kingdom? Why, yes.

    I’ve always liked Solzhenitsyn’s prose poem “At the Start of the Day” on the topic of the soul.

  4. I am reminded of Acts 14:21-22 ‘After they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.”’

  5. Thought provoking post Father. I had to stop stop and ask myself what I was concerned about and I am assured by the answer. I may not really, scientifically, know what a soul is but I know my eternal fate is what really matters to me. I also know my very existence depends on the Lord remembering me which makes the Lenten Hymn: “Remember me O Lord” so poignant to me. I do not know what the outcome of Judgment will be for me but I know that the Lord will make a perfect decision and on that all my hope rests. Thank you for the wake up call.

  6. Why do I exist? To love and be loved.
    The older and more restricted I become the more I ask myself:. Why am I doing this? For love? If so for love of whom? Myself? Someone else? God?
    Why am I not doing something?

    Usually the real answer is not for God or others.

    I have seen people over the years who’s life became brighter and stronger as their bodies failed.

  7. A very timely wake up call, Father! Thank you.

    We should not fear what kills the body, but rather the soul. Which we often confuse with the feelings towards situations.

    How can one know the state of one’s soul? Is confession a mirror? Reading the gospel, the lives of the saints?

    Personally, I find my soul benefits from the unrelenting struggle of Christians who are close to me. It is of great consolation to my soul, although I suspect that my ignorance only adds to their suffering and bearing of my lack of catechism. Forgive me, brothers and sisters, Fathers!

  8. What an insightful article! Recommendations for reading that work with this understanding will be appreciated.

  9. “True repentance is not a matter of feeling bad over something we have done, a sorrow that may simply be confined to our emotions. It is instead a profound awareness that apart from God we are nothing. ”

    What a good and profound way to see what true repentance does to the spiritual life of the believer! This is a life-transforming realization that one must strive to never be apart from God.

  10. The description of the nous as the soul’s faculty of perception is very, very helpful.
    Dana

  11. I returned home yesterday from a conference of classical Christian educators, a remarkable time with others who share a somewhat desperate concern for the state of our own souls and those of our children. Your timely post eloquently brings so many thoughts together, encouraging me greatly.

    I find with many of my friends, mothers teaching their children, there is great suffering as we seek to do our best for the sake of our children’s souls in the face of our great limitations and sin. Yet in Him we have hope. I find looking to Mary also gives me great comfort knowing she endured more suffering as a mother than I will ever know.

  12. Fr. Stephen,
    Yes, the paragraph that Paul references on repentance speaks to me. Without God, as Christ says, we are nothing but a withered branch without life. When I was a fireman, among many other things….didn’t know what I would do until I was 40! on off days I would sometimes drive the family car for a local mortuary. The car would be filled with deep despair in those families who did not know Christ, realizing that they would never see their loved one again. There would literally be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Contrast a Christian family. The family would be filled with sorrow and tears from death’s separation but not despair. In the auto was an atmosphere of hope and even peace.
    What we experience of God now, hopefully repentance and remembrance of death, but also peace and joy from being united with Him, is a foretaste of what we will know of Him at our death. What we hunger and thirst for now, in our soul, is what we will hunger and thirst for in eternity, but there hunger satiated and thirst quenched at the great marriage banquet of the Lamb.

  13. All I can do is repeat what others have said. Thank you, Father, for the wake up call. I have not thought about my soul in months. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

  14. ………. Soul Searching

    Thank you Father for this piece, so often a mystery to those of us who think we can gain from intellectualizing the subject.
    Often, in moments of prayer or a response to questions about what a particular scripture means, I will struggle in searching for what only the calmness of my heart, not my mind, is telling me about Truth and Faith.
    The noise of ones mind, the chatter, exposed to the secular world we live in is calmed by a knowing that we can always
    Trust in the LORD with all your heart
    and lean not on your own understanding;
    in all your ways submit to him,
    and he will make your paths straight.

  15. Thank you, Father. This piece resonates with a thought I’ve been meditating on the past few months, namely, how we look at suffering upside down. Perhaps God in His mercy gives us the challenges and sufferings He does because it may be the most expedient, “easiest” path into holiness for us. Looking at suffering that way, it seems much easier to be grateful, at least for me.

    I hesitate to verbalize this, though, because I can see so many ways it can be misunderstood. To all, please forgive if I offend.

  16. How do we discern the answer to “Is it well with my soul?” if we cannot look at signs such as whether “we outwardly struggle with anger, frustration, temptation, and failure.”

    It seems rather cruel to be asked to tend to my soul, if I don’t have any way to check if it is well or not. Like being asked to paint a picture while wearing a blindfold.

  17. gaudium the key to checking on your soul lies in the discipline of thanksgiving. The natural state of the soul is, I think, thanksgiving. One can give thanks in the midst of great grief, even sin, but the sin does not last as long.

  18. gaudium,
    I think the point that Fr is making is that our psychological state is not to be confused with our spiritual state. Thinking that the soul must be in disordered because one’s psychological experiences are disordered is to give the conscious experience more credit than it deserves as a surface phenomenon. To illustrate, the depths of an ocean may be at rest (still, quiet) even though a storm rages at the surface. It isn’t that the conscious mind can be neglected because it doesn’t matter, it does matter. But we should recognize that what happens on the surface at the level of the mind is not necessarily indicative of what’s happening in the depths of a person at the level of the soul.

  19. Gaudium,
    It’s not at all easy at first, and there’s no set formula. For one, we are “fascinated” with our psychological states. I put the term “fascinated” in quotes to draw attention – I’m using it in its original meaning – “to be bound to something.” We monitor those states with a steady gaze and are held captive by them. Learning to set them aside, somewhat, and gaze at the depth of self, is itself a spiritual victory. Consider the testimony quoted of Fr. Roman Braga. The tortures that the prisoners at Pitesti suffered were so hideous that I dare not describe them. And yet, it was well with his soul and he learned to go there.

    You do have a way to “check” it – but learning that “way” is itself a matter of spiritual growth and maturity – and it does not come easily. It’s not cruel – but it’s not trivial.

    The very process of observing and “fixing” is itself a trivial thing, life on the mere surface.

    Michael’s suggestion that one begin by practicing thanksgiving (always and for all things) is probably the best place to begin. You’ll encounter terrible obstacles. You’ll want to argue with the very idea. If you persist and work at allowing yourself to mean it, you’ll be surprised at what will likely unfold. Be patient. It is one of the greater forms of prayer.

  20. “You’ll want to argue with the very idea.”. YES. I did when I first encountered this blog back in 2008. I argued loudly in private, less loudly here a time or two but it’s a bit like AA. Keep coming back, it works.

    By discipline I mean the deliberate act of finding something, even if it is small and only one thing, to give thanks to God for each day.

  21. Father Stephen, is practicing thanksgiving appropriate when I have just failed or am in the middle of failing in my struggle with the passions? My thoughts demand some sort of proof of repentance before moving my vision towards God…

  22. Debbie,
    I certainly think that nothing should stand between us and giving thanks. Frankly, in certain struggles within my own life, I make a concerted effort to give thanks when I fail…our adversary hates the very sound of thanksgiving. To not give thanks even when we fall is to grant him a much greater victory than he had already gained. Inasmuch as St. Paul says that “[God] made [Christ] to be sin, who knew no sin, that we might become the righteousness of God,” (2Cor.5:21 or so), we have union with Christ even in our sin! This is generous beyond belief, but it is plainly stated in the Scriptures. We should avoid sin, but, nevertheless, “where sin did abound, grace did more abound!” And, thus, we can give thanks to the good God who does not turn from me even in my sin!

  23. To not give thanks even when we fall is to grant him (the adversary) a much greater victory than he had already gained….

    Thank you Father Stephen. It seems too good to be true and as you put it so gloriously “generous beyond belief” – this union that Christ has established for me and with me, continuing even in the midst of my sin. It makes me want to shout for joy which is absolutely upside down from where my thoughts/mind/intellect want to take me. I have believed wrongly that my sin cuts me off from God and that I am on my own until I get my act together, but that has made no sense whatsoever since self can’t help self and I am living proof.

    Many, many thanks for your thoughts which lead me to peace, to God.

  24. Learning,

    That’s a great article you linked to. Unfortunately, per his wiki page, MH appears to be quite the activist, which seems to contradict what he wrote in that article. I’m just making an observation.

  25. Alan,
    Oh, yes. I agree! I was not recommending him as a spiritual master. I just thought it was a well written piece. I try to judge writing on its merits. Not the behavior of the author.

  26. My Protestant pastor is not a foolish man, and after many conversations with him, both in person and via email, I have heard him at the pulpit come off with some things that I think might be shareable.

    “I am never as free as when I want to do what I ought to do.”
    “God loves us more than we can imagine. He loves us so much that he died for us, ‘while we were yet sinners’, yet even so, he loves us not because of our sins and brokenness, but in spite of our sins and brokenness. He loves us too much to let us stay there wallowing in our failures, and constantly calls to us, where ‘I am lifted up… I will draw all men to Myself.’”
    “If Adam had asked for forgiveness in the garden, I have no doubt that he would have been forgiven.”
    “If Judas would have asked for forgiveness at the table, I have no doubt that Christ would have forgiven him.”

    For what its worth, I personally feel that repentance and thankfulness, even in very small things, can be calming, comforting, and a source of peacefulness. Lord knows that when I’m in traffic, or in a long checkout line in the grocery store, I can lose everything of value, but even so, as soon as I can calm down, I seek repentance, and I try to thank God that at least I survived, usually unscathed, in most cases only having lost a little time, and that the other drivers couldn’t hear me screaming at them, or that I didn’t show overt unkindness in the checkout line in the store. I try to celebrate the small victories, and try to remember to give glory to God when things in this world somehow go my way. I try to remember that love covers a multitude of sins, and try to make that a gift that I can offer others.

    I try to remember Fr. Sisois’s advice, and get back up again.

  27. Many thanks for this re-post, Father.

    “Memory and desire and our “style” of interaction are not our identity nor our life. ” What would be some other examples of how we confuse “memory, desire, or ‘style’ of interaction with the workings of our soul, besides Fr.’s example of ADHD?

  28. I try to remember that love covers a multitude of sins, and try to make that a gift that I can offer others.

    A very astute observation, Matthew. In the same way that God gives His love to us as a gift, we are to give love to others in this same manner. It interests me that I never thought of love as a gift before; more of an action. How wrong I’ve been! Thanks for pointing that out. Blessings to all.

  29. As I was reading, I was thinking our obsession with meyers-briggs types, introvert vs. extrovert, our Hogwarts houses, and all the facebook quizzes (“Which Gilmore Girl are you?”) are examples of our “styles of interaction.”

  30. Thanks Father. What I have found on the “faith journey” is that the cross I must take up includes my worst fears and the depths within me that psychology promises to address. (When I read of the disciples crossing to the other side of the Sea of Galilee and facing the fears of drowning — even these experienced fishermen of Galilee — it seems to teach us that this is so, in the development of our faith.) So, as with so many other things, the transcendent reality of Christ includes participation in seemingly everything, nothing is left out. The problem is when psychology (with its root meaning “soul”) is practiced without the fullness of spiritual life, IMO. Forgive my grasping for things I can barely scratch the surface of. But an examination of monastic life, it seems to me, has always yielded the primacy of psychology on the development of virtue, but with so much more to the self/soul/spirit and so much more to reality in which we participate and have help. Thank you for all the information in your post.

  31. Fr. Stephen,

    In the post you said, “To ask the question, “Why do I exist?” brings us first to silence and mystery. That silence is the preferred sound of the soul. ”

    I really like this. Incidentally it reminds me of this quote Fr. Anthony Musala: “The silence of eternity requires that the living should temper their speech.”

  32. Janine, look at what happened in that storm. Jesus came to them and despite the storm continuing around them they were fine. Peter could even walk on the water until he started paying attention to the storm.

    Psychology can help moderate the storm but not get you into the eye where God provides and there is no doubt of that.

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