The Truth of the Soul

“Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving, forever?”

In the classic film, The Third Man, Harry Lime, a racketeer in post-War Vienna, quizzes his old friend, Holly Martins, about the value of an individual life. They are standing in the carriage of a Ferris wheel, looking down on the city scape. From Lime’s perspective, the distance provides a detachment that makes morality obsolete. “Have you ever seen one of your victims?” Martins asks him. His own experience has carried him through a children’s ward in a hospital where the victims of Lime’s scams are on view. He has also fallen in love with Lime’s girlfriend who has been callously betrayed to the Russians. It is a deep conflict regarding the nature of human life.

Who I am cannot be separated from what I am. If I am nothing more than a tiny “dot” in the distance, who I am is of little or no significance. It is also true, however, that the meaning of who I am asks questions of “what I am.” What is it about any of us that belongs to the category of “who I am.”

The same question is presented in graphic form in CS Lewis’ novel, The Great Divorce. There, a bus-load of people make a journey from the shadows of hell (the “grey town”) to the edge of heaven. They are allowed to stay, but every case involves some matter of change, or “loss.” Most of the changes involve strangely cherished habits or matters of identity. An Anglican bishop finds that his “theological” work will be of no use and balks. A mother whose identity seems bound to a child actually demands to have her son (now in heaven) returned to her so she can take him back with her. The injury (murder) of another person has established a grievance. However, the grievance needs to be given up. It has no place within heaven itself. Some things seem rather trivial – a woman’s grumbling, another woman’s sense of embarrassment. But every case poses the question of the truth of a person’s identity. What is it about us that continues into eternity?

A man enjoys a great academic career. Will it matter or be remembered? A woman struggles with a mental handicap. Will it follow her beyond the grave? What can we identify as the truth of our being?

The traditional word for this identity is the soul.

Parsing through the patristic definitions of the soul, its relationship to the body, the functioning of the nous and such things, we easily lose sight of the simple fact of the soul’s existence and its reality as the truth of our being. The soul is an answer to the “what” of my being, and we rightly ask, “What of me belongs to that answer?”

I find an intriguing suggestion in Lewis’ Great Divorce. He offers a character who is enthralled to a besetting sin. In the story, the sin is portrayed as a small lizard that sits on the man’s shoulder. To every suggestion offered by an angel to destroy the lizard, the lizard protests and whispers fearful pleas into the man’s ear. Anyone who has ever known the power of an addiction can relate to the pitiful scene Lewis describes. In the end, in exasperation, the man cries out that the angel can do what it wants. The lizard is seized and killed. And this is where the genius of Lewis comes in. The lizard collapses in a heap of ashes on the ground. However, within moments, something comes forth from the ground. What was once a hideous lizard is now a mighty steed. The newly liberated man mounts on its back and gallops into the greater, deeper realms of heaven. It is the only image of a completed transformation in Lewis’ collection of vignettes. It contains something important in the question of our identity.

Lewis does not treat the sin, or at least some aspect of the sin, as utterly external and extraneous to the soul of this man. He could have let the story end with the destruction of the lizard. I suspect that most of us would like our relationship with sins, particularly those that are most familiar and repeated, to end in such a manner. I frequently hear it said in confession, “I keep doing the same things.” I usually reply, “It’s what it means to have a personality.” Our “besetting sins” are very likely what they are because they belong to us in some particular way. But they are not whole or complete. They are distortions of the self, or, are rooted in distortions of the self.

Sin, like evil, is never a thing-in-itself. It is always a misuse, or disfigurement of something good. Everything created by God is good, only its misdirection and distortion makes it evil. Evil never creates anything. We generally do not and cannot see this about our own sin. The shame that it engenders blinds us to its deeper reality.

I think of the difference between person and personality. “Person” is a theological term that belongs to our completeness, “who we shall be in the fullness of all things.” “Personality” describes that set of tendencies, behaviors, quirks, habits and reactions that shadow us throughout our days. Personalities are largely a collection of neuroses, that set of things we often hope that others do not notice or remember. We long to be persons, only to find ourselves as personalities.

Of course, if everything we think of as personality were removed, many think (perhaps rightly) that what would remain would be unrecognizable – nothing short of a new identity. Lewis’ image is therefore very suggestive. He looks at a personality, complete with the struggle that marks its besetting sin. It has perhaps been dogged and shaped by that sin for years. Its resurrection (for that is how we must understand what takes place) represents not the destruction and loss of personality, but its glorified and radiant new existence. Weakness has become strength – perfected.

In the resurrected Christ the prints of the nails do not disappear: they are marks of His glory. The agony is gone, but He is forever united with those wounds. Christ is forever hailed in heaven as the “Lamb that was slain.”

This, I think, is one of the great difficulties of knowing the true self. St. Paul says that our life is “hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3). The daily struggle that marks our lives – the battle with the dogged details of personality – is accomplishing something within us that remains hidden. St. Paul offers this: “For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.” (2 Cor. 4:17) That glory is revealed in the fullness of personhood, conformed to the image of Christ.

The “dots” that we see at a distance were created to become gods. Viewing them from a distance creates a delusional vision. By the same token, the weakness and shame that marks our sin, that burdens us with all the baggage of personality is also delusional to a degree. It bears within itself a struggle working an eternal weight of glory waiting to be revealed.

It is in such a light that we are frequently told in Scripture not to lose heart. Be patient – with others as well as with yourself.



  1. Father Bless, Interesting. I must chew on this to absorb it. I totally agree with your point of view, I now need to meditate on how it refers to me, the personality.

  2. Nicholas,
    Yes. I’ve used this as well. I recently had a set of several days in which “personality” seemed larger than normal, or, more bothersome. It triggers shame, most commonly. As I wrestled with things, I wondered what any of that might look like in the resurrection. How could it be redeemed. If we were to write it off completely, it would seem to make this life of very little importance.

  3. Father Bless,
    I too feel the shame and hope that the Lord has a very good eraser. I know He is at work in me because I notice that things are changing but being old and closer daily to the judgment seat I am concern to get the job done before that day as I pray in Liturgy and in my private prayers for a good defense before the Judgment Seat of Christ. The phrase is Dread Judgment Seat but my Eastern friends tell me that Dread to them means awesome, glorious, amazing. Coupling that with the definition I was taught of Judgment in Hebrew I may see a ray of hope.

  4. After I got divorced, I called a friend to tell her. Based on some past conversations, I feared judgement from her. Instead, she said: Nothing is wasted with God.

  5. I’m posting this although this sounds a bit like ranting…

    I think about this distinction EVERY DAY. On the one hand, I’m sure that Christ had a personality. On the one hand, I would hesitate to say that Christ’s personality represented the aggregate neuroses acquired over his life. On the other hand, I’m also very sure that Christ’s personality reflected his genetic inheritance from Mary, it almost certainly reflected something of what it meant to be a Jew living under Roman rule in the first century C.E., and I would think that his personality was masculine.

    I typically think of personality as the most superficial aspects of who we are. In mathematical terms, personality traits are like the parameter values of a set of equations that determine how we interact with the world. Yet, the experiences that determine these parameter values sometimes cut deep–not just into the mind, but into the soul. Ans all of this is deeply connected to a time and a place.

    “Who am I?” If we ask this from an implicitly Cartesian perspective…we’re back to marbles in a box: Things that are only loosely associated together and bumping willy-nilly into one another. I would suggest that I am who we are. I cannot be disassociated and abstracted away from my time and place in human history. I am MY time and MY place in OUR history. We western people keep committing the Cartesian fallacy of thinking of identity as something I have apart from everything else. That is not at all true.

    God is not in the business of collecting marbles. Cartesian gods collect marbles. We have to have a non-marble, non-Cartesian understanding of our identity. God saves YOU (a point of interaction between God and the world) in order to have a place from which he can save US which is part and parcel of who YOU are.

    In many ways it makes sense to me to say that our sins and mistakes represents our life HERE and NOW. This is a mortal existence in which we live. And, here’s the point, God redeems our sins not just for our sake, but for the sake of all those to whom our sins and mistakes connect us.

    The upshot of my rant is this: The church is important because the church reveals our true self and our true identity. Apart from a context human identity makes no sense. The church provides the context in which our identity as human beings makes the most sense.

  6. Sin, like evil, is never a thing-in-itself. It is always a misuse, or disfigurement of something good. Everything created by God is good, only its misdirection and distortion makes it evil. Evil never creates anything. We generally do not and cannot see this about our own sin. The shame that it engenders blinds us to its deeper reality.

    In describing a long series of struggles in my recent days to my Priest, he pointed out that I had noted a day in the midst of the almost constant, overwhelming fight (and failure to fight) where I awoke in the morning free from all trial and trouble. It was a day of true Grace and I was not touched by temptation or trial during that time. The following day, the trials returned, seemingly overwhelming again.

    His advice was to point out that God was never far from me and gave me His Grace in order to not be overwhelmed by my trials. But even though I had recognized His Grace at that time, I honestly could not see it. I was blind to what was actually happening and only considered the reprieve as a “break” for which I could give thanks. I can, in hindsight, now see there there is more to note not just in the Grace that I received, but also even in the struggle that so overwhelmed me. Many thanks for this writing, Father. Glory to God!

  7. “We long to be persons, only to find ourselves as personalities.”
    Thank you Fr. Stephen!

  8. In every “christianized” personality test I’ve seen, they always put Jesus at the center with apparently no tendencies toward any of the types. I’ve always thought that was dumb because it was basically saying he has no personality at all. But maybe there was more accidental truth there all along. Jesus doesn’t have a definable personality because he is complete Person.

    No wonder men were willing to just drop everything to follow him. It must have been very powerful to be in his presence.

  9. I don’t buy that Jesus didn’t have a personality. If anything he had an enlightened, fully formed, fully integrated personality.

  10. David,
    We are using “personality” with different meanings. I am suggestion “personality” as a lesser term, something that is, more-or-less, a caricature. It is a caricature that points to something else. That something else is the fullness of personhood. The little experience I’ve had in encounters with “saints” (possibly), I would describe them as something “larger” that I would have a hard time describing. They certainly had identity, but not so much marked by the “little things” that are often the hallmarks of our personality.

    I can only suggest reading fiction as a means of getting at this. Lewis, in a number of places, has a way of describing such a person – there is always a transcendent, apophatic aspect in those descriptions – a reaching to say what can barely be said.

    This is fully human. What we encounter on a day to day basis is not yet fully human –

  11. No real person, therefore no real personality, without communion. Right?

    There is no such thing as an autonomous person. Try to live autnomously and madness follows.

    Saints are larger because they have become smaller.

  12. Fr.

    If I understand the distinction that you’re making , then I find it problematic. We are not fully human. Got that. We have a tendency to substitute depth of personhood and soul with fashions, name brands, and zeitgeists. Got that. But, when we equate personality with the accretion of neuroses…that’s lost on me. I’m not seeing it.

  13. David,
    An example. Bob is high-functioning on the spectrum. He is awkward socially and often says inappropriate things. He is brilliant but speaks loudly and is not aware of why people seem to walk away in the midst of a conversation.

    We could describe this as part of Bob’s personality. But, it is a wiring problem (or something like that). Bob himself is not able to be “fully expressed” because of his handicap. Who is Bob?

    I think that Bob is something greater – something that is hidden because of his handicap. He will not be awkward in the resurrection.

    Jack has a very anxious personality. He is easily distracted. He talks too much (he has ADD). His inner life is a confusing noise of conflicting thoughts. The noise often causes him to react poorly in social situations and to make bad decisions. People like him, up to a point.

    Jack is something greater – something that is hidden because of his issues. He will not be anxious or distracted in the resurrection.

    But neither are these things wasted. Both Bob and Jack often have greater struggles. Their efforts to be faithful to Christ frequently bring them up against their handicaps. These very things often are the source and cause of sinful behaviors – and they push back. The cooperative work in their lives is aided by grace. But, no matter how they struggle in this life, Bob will be on the spectrum until the day of his death. Jack will struggle against anxiety. On his death bed, his mind will still dart about here and there.

    What neither of them can see is the deeper work their struggles have wrought. The perfection and fullness of personhood has been hidden – even from themselves. Anyone encountering them after the resurrection would immediately recognize them – or recognize in them someone whom they had only glimpsed before.

    Both Bob and Jack are married to wonderful women. Those women, very well aware of these limitations, nonetheless have seen this greater person for years – or at least a larger portion of it than others. Indeed, in both cases, these women are more aware of this greater person than either Bob or Jack. Love reveals what would otherwise be hidden.

    The personality is not just an accretion of neuroses, handicaps, etc., but they are there in a very large measure. They distort and limit the full expression of the truth of our being. Sometimes they are exaggerated by certain choices that we make or by circumstances. Occasionally they can so overwhelm a person that they are almost all that can be seen.

    In that sense “personality” represents something of a distortion or caricature of the true person. Person has identity – indeed, the true identity. Personality is more like mask, even if much of it is involuntary. It is a mask that “resembles” the person, but limits it and hides it.

    I will use myself as an example. People who only know me through my writing are often surprised when they meet me. My writing seems rather serious, sober and such like. When they meet me, they discover that I’m a typical ADHD kind of guy who talks too much, is something of a jokester, etc. (you’ve seen me enough to know what I mean). I’ve even had people who see me in both “roles” and actually speak about two different people. “Your blog self” and “your parish self.” I would add to that my “family self” and my “private self.”

    For what it’s worth, when I write, I am doing something that quietens all the noise, distraction and joking. I much prefer spending time with that “self” than others. Of course, it’s all one guy. My “public” self is much more confronted with handicaps and the like. My work on a Sunday morning is among the hardest thing I do all week. I swim upstream against the waters of personality – keeping in check things that would make the work problematic. When I’m done, I’m exhausted.

    My case is little different than others, mutatis mutandis. The “eternal weight of glory” is a hidden matter. “It does not appear what we shall be” St. John says. “Who we shall be” is, in some great measure, equally hidden. Those who have the eyes to see it – glimpse more of it now than others.

    Hope that’s of use.

  14. Fr,

    Tell me how you might correct the following statement. Jesus’ personality not only resembled his true self, but revealed it. In contrast, in our present state, our personalities are at best a resemblance and as such personalities do not reveal, but limit and hide our person.

  15. Father I heard a story on the radio recently about a man who was high functioning. He could not understand emotions at all. He was not wired the way most of us are. He was married to a woman who loved him and understood him. He had a good job that he performed well in. But he had been told all of his life he was missing so much.

    Then modern science offered him a cure. He took it. Suddenly, all those human emotions he has missed all of his life became available to him. Not just his own, but devastatedly the emotions of others. He had none of the experience or context to process them.

    It broke his marriage, his work and left him struggling without the tools to really cope. He pushed on but has a real struggle he did not have before

  16. David,
    I would probably say that in Christ personality and person coincide. This is not entirely true for us. We have only ever known fallen personalities. It is likely a misleading term.

  17. Michael, I agree viz. the film. I’ve always thought it to be far superior to Citizen Kane – despite the fact that CK has always carried the sentiment of “greatest movie of all time.” The Third Man tops it in every way.

  18. My late wife was a tragic case of what you describe. She was a woman of immense creativity, warmth and caring. Brilliant in every way. Unfortunately her upbringing, the deficiencies of her own body her own shame and my own failing caused her to collapse in on herself and lash out at others. When she died I almost did not recognize it as her–so different

    After her repose though I was graced to understand that in the Resurrection what most saw and experienced of her on this Earth will not last.

    God forgive me.

  19. The script was written by Graham Greene.-a spinner of excellent Catholic morality plays and directed by Sir Carol Reed. Welles just acted in it.

  20. Hard for me to entirely separate “personality” from “person” or “persona.” And yeah, we are a bag of all kinds of things — but love or empathy can also be a part of the personality. How about kindness? To struggle to reveal true personhood may also be a struggle for authentic personality, who knows? I may lash out in anger, but then again what I’m angry at may very well be something harming others…. so many things to separate out. Sometimes there’s a sweetness in people that you know belongs to the child they were, is that not also part of the personality?

  21. “…not to lose heart. Be patient – with others as well as with yourself.”

    this is a good word Father Stephen!

  22. Fr. Stephen,
    Sometimes your comments, such as the one to David, are as good or better than the article. 🙂 Thanks!

  23. Father Stephen,
    That was a very helpful explanation (using Bob and Jack as examples, and especially yourself). I now have a more peaceful outlook. I thank God for your work here.

  24. An additional question: Aren’t the struggles with the, let’s say, negative aspects of personality — like shame — often a key to engage in a search for God or an answer from God? I think shame often spurs me to seek some other answer than just that, which it seems the world offers me. Just musing aloud, but the tendency to talk too much or having conflicting thoughts — well, in your example, they are things that don’t sound like sins to me. Handicaps and weaknesses and afflictions don’t seem to mar spiritual perfection do they? I am thinking of St. Paul and his “weakness.” God’s love will see them differently from the social world I believe. Don’t mind me, I’m just struggling along here, but I do seem to see this from another POV or experience in some way, not sure.

  25. I remember thinking recently when I heard another sermon about god forgetting our weaknesses, blotting them away, etc…

    I didn’t want that.

    I want to remember where I was; the pain, the struggles, the joys too. I want Christ to look at me and share with me remembrances of my good days, and how he struggled with me on my bad days, and how, in some way, I finally ended up winning the race with his grace.

    It’s only in understanding where I have been, that I can truly appreciate where I am.

    Lord have mercy.


  26. Fr,

    Pardon me if this should be evident to me. In Eastern and other mystical religions there is a common thread of shedding away the layers of the false self. On further inspection these “layers” would be understood by secular folks as psychological in nature. I’m wondering if you would regard the false self of these other isms with the personality as you have used it here.

  27. Correction: I’m wondering if you would consider the false self, as described by other other isms, as analogous to personality as you have described it here.

  28. The post makes much more sense to me now. I see what you’re saying.

    I think that the drive behind much of spiritual endeavor is “Who am I?” The mystery of who we are is bound up with the mystery of who God is. The crucified God is the answer to that.

  29. I can understand logismoi as “false self.” But personality seems to incorporate more than that

  30. I understand from Fr’s writing that logismoi is like noise in the system, random thoughts percolating in the mind. But, the logismoi are not understood as identity. However, “personality” as it is used here is a set of behaviors and thought processes that are more or less stable over time and that a person eventually comes to accept as “who they are” and this is equivalent to what has been referred to as the false self.

  31. Thanks David. I guess we’re talking about words (like how we define personality) to a large extent, as Fr. has indicated. But I do think people mistake logismoi for true self or personality, and this is part of the great struggle. And the glimmers of self — I think perhaps even in the example from Lewis — seem to be also there in personality. I guess I am thinking from a “wholistic” point of view that even through a glass darkly there are elements of the person in the personality. Perhaps it takes true sight to see them like Christ as knower of hearts. What did Christ see in Simon, with all his faults, when he was chosen for discipleship? I don’t know. 🙂

  32. Janine,
    Personality, as I’ve used it here, is certainly larger than thoughts (logismoi). We could call it something else, I suppose. In theological terms, personality is not a term that is used. “Person” is the formal term. Modern speech, formed and shaped by the words of psychological sciences, has evolved the term to describe a certain set of attributes, behaviors, characteristics that uniquely shape an identity. The word only dates back to about the late 1700’s with that meaning and only becomes popularized in the 20th century.

    I push a bit on such terms, helping us think a bit about what they mean. It’s about understanding better the truth of our existence. The modern world mostly conceives of things in psychological terms, whose meaning often shifts and changes according to various fashions and treatments.

  33. Janine,
    I think that distinctions between the true self and the false self do not need to be rigorous. They are useful only in so far as they free the mind of its past so that it can move inward.

  34. Thanks, Father. That makes sense to me. I suppose I also think of logismoi as habitual patterns of thoughts, ways of thinking, things we absorb from our environment, temptations, etc. I suppose pertinent to the discussion would also be influence of the demonic or the pull of sin (that little lizard – or the eye or hand or foot we’re not ready to get rid of yet). Anyway, a huge great topic. I still struggle with calling that the whole of the personality, but again we’re probably talking about definitions. Would virtue as product of the work of grace be a glimmer of the true person?

  35. Hi Father,

    How would Romans 7 fit into this?

    Thank you,

    “If, then, I do what I will not to do, I agree with the law that it is good. But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me.”
    ‭‭Romans‬ ‭7:16-17‬ ‭NKJV‬‬

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