On Saving Our Souls


[Written in Phoenix, Arizona, at the diocesan Parish Life Confernce.  No rain in sight.]

Recently someone wrote and asked me this Questions: “How many functions of the soul are there and what are they?” This is a questions that many great saints of the Church have devoted pages and pages to answer. Basically, the five volumes of the Philokalia are a kind of anthology of holy Fathers from the fourth to the fourteenth centuries, all of whom are answering this question in one way or another. But to give a simple answer, a beginner’s answer, an answer that stretches me to about the limits of my own understanding of these things, I will say the following.

All of the passions of the soul, or just about all of the passions of the soul, grow out of the two primary movements, or sometimes called aspects, of the soul. These two are the desiring aspect and the inscensive aspect of the soul. The inscensive aspect, which we have talked about before, has to do with zeal, but in it’s passionate form becomes anger or one of her sisters. By the way, that’s often how the fathers talk about passions, as sisters–not because they couldn’t be referred to as brothers, but the soul (whether a man’s or a woman’s) is always referred to as feminine, as her, in relation to God who is always referred to as masculine, as He.

Some of the sisters of anger are bitterness, wrath, and foul speech. These generally come from misdirected zeal, and thus are called sisters of anger. Other passions, such as jealousy, envy and self pity can come from either misdirected zeal or misdirected desire–often both playing off one another. For example, If my desire is directed toward my bodily impulses and toward possessing what is outside me, then–like Eve in the Garden of Eden–I reach out my hand to take what is not given to me. But if I can’t reach what I desire, for example, if I can’t afford to buy it or if my social situation makes it impossible for me to obtain what I desire, then anger kicks in. This misdirected desire combined with misdirected zeal produces sometimes envy, sometimes self pity, sometimes it even moves us to lie or cheat or steal, or maybe even kill. The anger and desire drive us, sometimes even drive us crazy, until we obtain by any means we can what we want.

Just as the inscensive aspect of our soul burns within us driving us to act and speak and is almost impossible to quench, so also the desiring aspect of our soul is almost impossible to satisfy. No matter what we desire–when the desiring aspect of our soul is misdirected–no matter what we desire, it is never enough. If I desire a fancy car, soon after I obtain it, I will begin to desire a fancier car. If I desire a beautiful or romantic or sensitive or athletic lover, soon after I acquire him or her, I will begin to desire a lover who is more beautiful, more romantic, more sensitive, or more athletic. The desiring aspect of our soul can never be satiated, never satisfied because human beings were created with an infinite capacity to desire. Why is this? We were created with an infinite capacity to desire because we were created to desire God. Only God’s infinite love can satisfy the human soul.

Now as we begin to repent and call out to God for help, for salvation, for mercy, and as we begin to be quiet and pay attention to what is happening inside ourselves, we can start to see in ourselves how these two basic movements or aspects of the soul morph into driving passions. The very holy fathers, such as St. Isaac the Syrian or St. Maximus the Confessor and the other fathers of the Philokalia, describe this morphing of the God-given good, natural motions (desiring and inscensive) into sinful thoughts and actions in a series of steps. Various father give slightly different names to the steps and/or offer a slightly different number of steps. But basically, as far as I have come to understand these things, the steps are these.

First, something from outside the deepest part of our soul, something from our memory or from our five senses (something we see or smell or hear, etc.), or perhaps even a demonic thought, a arrow shot at us by the evil one, something occurs to our mind and at some very deep level we make a choice. Most of the time, most of us are not even conscious of this step taking place–I certainly am not. For most of us, our responses to thoughts or sensual input or memories is rather habitual, knee jerk if you will. For example, all that has to happen is for the memory of some past insult to come to my mind–even if I don’t want it to come to my mind–and suddenly I am angry. I don’t even notice myself choosing to become angry. I don’t notice because it has become habit for me, and I don’t notice because I have not quieted myself in prayer enough to pay attention to my own soul.

The same process can happen with desire. Instead of having my desire focused on God in my heart at all times through inner prayer and stillness, I let my mind, and with my mind my eyes, wander. And when I do that, I inevitably encounter something that my mind finds beautiful, and instead of seeing that beautiful person or thing as an icon, as an image bearing something of the divine for me to contemplate, instead of that the desiring aspect of my soul reaches out in some way to possess it, to possess what I see or even what I just imagine. This is where both lust and envy come from. But again, like misdirected zeal, misdirected desire is often undetected by us beginners at this early stage. Usually, we don’t realize that we have chosen or accepted this misuse of the desiring aspect of our soul until the process has moved to the next step.

The next step is that our body and mind begin a feedback loop. (Now, the fathers don’t use this phrase, ‘feed back loop,’ but I have found it to be a very useful metaphor in understanding what is happening inside myself.) In the feedback loop, our mind and body start responding to one another so that the feeling of either anger or desire (or one of their sisters) increases in our body and the thoughts that are associated with the source of that anger or desire begin to take over our conscious mind. So, for example, if I see a beautiful person, I might experience one of the sisters of desire. Depending on the sickness of my particular soul, I could experience lust or jealousy or some other sister of desire. Soon, my body will respond to the choice made at some deep level of my soul, and my heart rate my go up, or adrenaline or testosterone or estrogen or some other natural chemical or hormone may start to be released into my blood. Then my mind will notice the change in my body and interpret my bodily response as a confirmation or encouragement of the original thought or impulse so that I will begin justifying or contemplating, fixating really, on the beautiful person I see. This then increases the bodily response and in return encourages the mind in it’s pursuit of the object of its fixation. And, by the way, notice that by this point in the process, I have already objectified the other person–in my mind the other person is no longer a struggling brother or sister in need of compassion and God’s help, he or she is now just an object of my lust or jealousy.

It it here, at the feed-back loop stage, that most of us, if we are actually trying to pay attention to our souls and trying to avoid sin, it is at this stage that we are able to realize that we are sinning in our mind. However, it does often happen that the feeling of jealousy or rage or self pity or lust is so overwhelming, and we have for so long just caved in to feelings such as these, that it is not until we start planning a course of action, until we actually start thinking about doing it, start planning what we might say if we get a chance, or might do if we can get away with it, or start an argument in our head with that person, it’s not until this stage that we realize that we have fallen into sin.

And, of course, then there is the point when we actually say or do something that we shouldn’t. Sometimes we don’t realize that we have been sinning in our mind–maybe even for days or months or years–until we actually say or do something obviously sinful. But this process of the soul is not complete yet. If after we have sinned with our mouth or in our actions we do not repent, if we do not confess and agree with God that what we have said and done is sin, but rather justify it in our minds, then habit begins: and habit leads to addiction. Just as we develop habits of sinful thought, so too we develop habits of sinful behaviour. We steal or lie or cheat or treat other human beings as objects for our own gratification, as slaves, as somehow existing only to please us or be pushed out of our way. Here is the place that St. Paul describes as having one’s conscience seared with a hot iron.

However, habit, even addiction, is no obstacle to the Holy Spirit, if one still wants to be saved. In fact, many of us start our journey toward a life in Christ terribly addicted to sins of various sorts. Unlike the holy saints who have purified their lives and their hearts through years of ascetic discipline and prayer and who can thus speak of the deepest levels of the soul and the earliest movements of the heart, unlike these holy men and women, we who are being saved from the pig sty, from the miry clay, from years of addiction and the habitual practice of sin, we begin on the outside. That is, we have to take the word of the holy ones, of the saints, about the inner workings of the soul. Nonetheless, we enter onto the very same path, just a bit farther back on the trail; we begin to climb the very same ladder of divine ascent, just beginning from the very bottom rung. Our salvation is to begin where we are, but it is the very same salvation that the saints are experiencing–just a mile or two behind them on the trail.

A very wise nun once said something like this: “If you have an evil thought, dismiss it; but if you can’t dismiss it, don’t dwell on it; but if you can’t stop dwelling on it, don’t speak it; but if you can’t keep from speaking it, don’t act on it; but if you can’t keep from acting on it, don’t do it again; but if you do do it again; seek help to find repentance.” The point she was making was this: salvation starts where you are. If you have an evil habit of thought or speaking or acting, start there. Get help to repent. Confess. Start where you are, and you will be on the very same road the saints are walking, on the very same ladder the saints are climbing. And once we are on the path, where we are going is already determined. All we have to do is stay on the path (or get back on when we fall off).


  1. Love reading your articles. Absolutely soul challenging. But what I’ve discovered is that it takes a lot of scrupulous self knowledge, awareness, focus and then the humility to seek the help. One thing I really like about Orthodoxy is, that the becoming a disciple to the saving grace is participatory horizontally and vertically and it requires will and effort. Otherwise it would be the pain without the knowledge that would drive you.
    These saints you speak of were introverts and studying the workings of their own souls. Not too many have this luxury today, so thank you for the help all along the way, where ever you are…..hop on.
    Thank you, thank you, thank you for the encouraging thoughts.

  2. Dear All:
    Thanks so very much for your posts and podcasts Father Michael Gillis!
    Your post about saving souls is very encouraging as it includes us all… so accepting of every one at every stage of the spiritual journey. For Orthodox who belong to a parish, seeking help might be easier, because the priest can be asked as can others in the parish or other church workers. For Christians of any denomination, this can apply too. I am not sure about the non-Christian paths, but I am sure if a person wants to be clean(er), he or she will be able to learn from this too.

  3. Hi Father,

    All the time I hear people telling me that God is personal and that the knowledge you get from a book or a sermon does not compare to what you get in prayer. Unfortunately, I find the opposite to be true. I struggle to feel a personal touch with God in prayer (I am familiar with many books in prayer that discuss its many forms) and yet cannot truly say that I feel He is personal with me. Yes, I do let out my heart… Yes, I do shut my mouth to leave “room” for Him to speak but I cannot recall a single moment in which I experienced Him on a personal level. I am struggling with the thought that any good experience, any peace that I received from participating in praises (I am a cantor in church), or even partaking of the Holy Mysteries was just “in my head” or that any “holy thought” was just my subconcious mind and its recollection of a few verses. I cannot objectively say that I have experienced God partly because I cannot rationalize if it’s all in my head so to speak. I am going through a crisis of faith and seek your guidance (despite the fact that I want God to be the one to intervene-funny thing is that now I am stuck in a self fulfilling prophecy). I very involved in the church and I have not given up all hope but it is so frustrating that He refuses to reach out to me after all these years! You’d think He would throw me a bone or something! Sorry for rambling…

    1. Dear Tony,
      Truthfully, I too do not have much of a “personal experience” of God in prayer. Most of my experience is not mystical like you read about in the lives of holy elders. Nonetheless, when I say the Jesus Prayer, I sometimes feel calmness and peace and a sense that whatever happens, I will be in God’s hands (or whomever I am praying for will be in God’s hands) and that being in God’s hands is the best outcome possible. Maybe it is merely psychological. Certainly it has a strong psychological aspect because the feelings and thoughts are happening inside me. However, I know from personal experience that when I don’t pray, I don’t have this calmness and hope in God’s mercy.
      For me, it seems mostly I feel closest to God in books. Thinking about theology and various images and metaphors that somehow enlighten my mind most make God seem real to me. Again, maybe it is merely rational. Certainly it has a strong rational aspect. But maybe because I am soul (psyche) and mind and body whenever God is helping me in some small way it will always be experienced or felt as something largely rational or psychological or emotional— because I am a rational, psychological, emotional being. But the place where faith comes in is that these thoughts and feelings are not merely rational, psychological and emotional. Here, good spiritual fathers and mothers can help us a lot. Here the wisdom of holy saints who talk about such things, about noetic (“intellectual” is the misleading word used in the English translation of the Phiokalia) perception which takes lots of practice even to notice and is often hidden in or hidden by the rational, psychological and emotional experiences.
      Don’t Give Up! Hang in there. My spiritual father tells me never to seek experience, but to offer to God your life without experience. It’s those who do not see that actually have the greater blessing Jesus said.

  4. Tony,
    I would also like to encourage you about hearing from our Lord. Since I was a child, I believe I have heard the Lord’s leadings in my life many times and sometimes in other’s lives. What I have learned is that the Lord is as near as our breath. He gives us each breath, and whispering inwardly to Him brings us into that awareness. Yesterday I sat in a comfortable chair and simply gave Him heartfelt thanks for big and small blessings that He has provided recently. Peace came over me and I knew He was listening and present. I quickly fell into a deep sleep. He doesn’t always speak, sometimes He touches us with peace, love, healing, faith, etc. I don’t completely understand Him, but I do know He is always near and listening. I would say the awareness of his presence usually comes from the eyes and ears of the heart, not the natural eyes and ears. Blessing to you as you seek the Truth.

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