Defining the soul is as easy as defining love. But just because it is difficult to define something, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Sometime in the middle of the last century, the communist scientists of the old USSR boasted that they had dissected every part of a human being and found no soul. They probably didn’t find love either.
The word “soul” is used slightly differently in different discourse communities (that is people who talk with each other and know basically what each other means by the words they use). Sometimes soul means the life force. This is what the Latin word for soul implies. Sometimes soul refers to the whole life of a person, which is what the biblical Hebrew word generally means. In the Christian tradition in the west, soul has referred to that part of a person that lives on after the body dies. In the Orthodox Christian tradition, according to Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos, “the term ‘soul’ refers both to the spiritual element in our existence and to life itself.”
So what is “spirit element”? I think what Metropolitan Hierotheos means is that which is not strictly physical. Of course, the physical and spiritual interact and influence each other. If I don’t get enough physical sleep, my spiritual attitude can get very grumpy. And happiness, a spiritual quality, can have a salutary effect on my health. And when I am at peace, a quintessentially spiritual quality, I sleep like a baby. There is no clear line between soul and body, which is why “soul” often refers to the whole life of a person.
When we speak of someone’s heart in the Orthodox Church, we are not referring to the seat of the emotions–which is a common dictionary definition of heart (as in “I love you with all my heart”). Both in the New Testament and in Orthodox Christian teaching, heart refers to our inner self, the self that ideally (in a healthy human being) monitors and guides what happens in the mind and body. The mind is the place of both the thoughts and the feelings (including emotions). People who live in their minds–and that is most of us most of the time–are usually scattered in several different directions, propping up more than one different persona, and telling a story (or stories) to themselves which they consider to be their lives. Life in the mind is generally driven by strong feelings that the Church calls passions.
Passions are natural, healthy impulses and feelings that have gotten both sick and out of control, so out of control that they drive us to do and say things that we would not do or say if we were at peace. Fundamental to salvation, if salvation means returning to the likeness of God in which we were created (not just going to heaven when we die), fundamental to salvation is the return of the mind into the heart; or the submission of the mind to the heart, to the inner person of the heart.
Returning the mind to the heart is simple, but not easy. The bulk of the ascetic tradition of the Church, at least as it is practiced by most people, is all about learning to control passions and pay attention to the heart. One of the clues to finding the heart is peace. When peace rules our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus (to quote St. Paul), we can manifest a spiritual life, a life full of the virtue (fruit) of the Holy Spirit. Like I said, simple but not easy.
What is easy is self deception. Because we so easily deceive ourselves, humility is essential. It is possible to think yourself advanced, making good progress in the spiritual life when in reality you are merely going in circles, slowly slipping away from Christ. The voice of experience is speaking! This is why we need spiritual mentors. We need men and women with a little bit of spiritual experience who will speak the truth to us. Unfortunately, it is often difficult to find a woman or man whom we feel safe and confident to speak to about our spiritual life. Nevertheless, I have found that just about anyone can speak to me (even when I haven’t asked for it) humbling words. I have found that most of the time my weaknesses are so glaring and I am so blind to them that just about anyone with the courage or obligation to tell me plainly what they see can bring me a saving revelation. Of course, I have to be willing to receive it–which is where the humility part comes in.
I have often thought that God purposely waits to give us a mature spiritual father or mother. God is waiting for us to receive the words given to us by all of the weak ones who speak truth in our lives. If we cannot hear them, what makes us think we will hear a holy father or mother who reads our mail (spiritually speaking)?