Youth Conference 2004
The Nature of the Soul
What is a soul? You know we talk a lot about the soul, but did you ever stop and try to figure out what it is we’re talking about? We talk about saving the soul, but what is it that we’re saving. Earlier we talked about some of the theories developed by psychologists that try to describe the inner workings of the person, and probably that is the closest secular description of the soul, but even psychology doesn’t fully grasp what the soul is. The Church, on the other hand, has been given by the Creator a full and intimate knowledge of the soul. God having created the soul knows exactly what it is, how it is supposed to work, what has gone wrong, the various illnesses of the soul and how to heal it and restore it. There is nothing about the soul that is not already revealed and known in the Tradition of the Church and demonstrated in the experience of the Saints. What then is the soul?
The soul is that which enables an animal to think and feel. It is not equivalent with “life” in general (as we shall see in a moment) nor is it equivalent solely with “movement” (although the capacity for movement is closely identified with the soul). In the book of Genesis, where we are told that God says, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures” we find that a more specific rendering is given to us in the Septuagint, where the same text reads, “Let the earth bring forth a living soul”. Therefore we see that the soul is something created by God and which is associated specifically with the higher forms of life - animals and men (again we will talk more specifically about this in a moment.) St John of Damascus in his “Exposition of the Orthodox Faith” gives us a definition of the human soul: “The soul, is a living essence, simple, incorporeal, invisible in its proper nature to bodily eyes, immortal, reasoning and intelligent, formless, making use of an organized body, and being the source of its powers of life, and growth, and sensation, and generation, mind being but its purest part and not in any wise alien to it; (for as the eye is to the body, so is the mind to the soul); further it enjoys freedom and volition and energy, and is mutable, that is, it is given to change, because it is created. All these qualities according to nature it has received of the grace of the Creator, of which grace it has received both its being and this particular kind of nature.” Now this definition is pretty comprehensive and gives us a lot of information. What we will do now is to look at the soul in a little more specific, and hopefully understandable manner in order to answer the question, “What is the nature of the soul?”
First, we must turn our attention to the soul in its context as a part of the whole person. This takes us back to the creation of the world. When God created the heaven and the earth, everything was imbued with the “life force”, that is the ability to bring forth life. It is not therefore unexpected that some form of life would arise from what God brought into existence from nothingness. The Holy Prophet Moses was very careful in his account of the creation of the world for this knowledge was a special revelation from God. In this case the prophet did not foresee future events, but rather was given to see the events of the unknowable past. Moses tells us that “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth” and he uses here a very special word which means “created out of nothing”. Now we often miss this distinction because in English there is no separate word for this, however, in Hebrew as well as Greek, Slavonic, Russian (and other languages) there are two distinct words, one which means “to create from nothing” and another which means “to shape that which already exists into a new form” (such as an artist might also do). English translates both of these words as “to create” however in this case it is an important distinction which we must observe. In his original creation from nothing, God created the potential for life, for on the third day, God “shaped that which already existed” and brought forth living plants. Plants have a form of life that is only bodily life, their life has none of the attributes of the soul, and the potential for this kind of bodily life is inherent in all creation. On the fifth day of creation, the prophet again uses the word which tells us that God created out of nothing when he created the animals. What is different about the animals that required a new and special creation? While plants have only the life of the body, animals are a body combined with a soul. This is a new and important kind of life and has some different characteristics that we will discuss a bit later. Finally again, the prophet tells us, that on the sixth day there was again an act of special creation to bring forth something new that had never existed before - He created man. Again, how is man different from the animals? It is that while animals have a mortal soul - one that only exists as long as the body exists - man has an immortal soul, one that exists forever. The soul brings life to the body and so as long as soul and body are joined both are immortal. The immortal human soul is distinct from the animal soul in that it has a unique part. The highest part of the soul, that which is nearest to God and which in fact connects us to God, the part which makes our soul immortal, is the spirit. This type of life, the joined body, soul and spirit is unique to man - it distinguishes him from all other beings.
Now we went through all of this to place the soul in its proper context. The soul is ruled by its highest part, the spirit, which is the part of us that is of the same nature as God Himself (not the essence of God, but His energy - but that would be a different lecture). The spirit, touching on God, is the gateway for grace which pours out from God, transforming (transfiguring) us into the image and likeness of God. Thus through the influence, direction and rule of the spirit the soul is conformed to the image and likeness of God. The soul then rules the body, governing and regulating the life of the body, sanctifying it. This then is the divinely created order of the human person - the spirit, which touches God, rules the rest of the soul which in turn rules the body all moving together in union and communion with God.
Of course this divinely created order is spoiled by the fall and the body rebels, its needs, desires and passions gaining preeminence and the soul, instead of ruling the body, is ruled by it. Within the soul also, the passions run rampant, rebelling against the rule and direction of the spirit and ultimately of God. The spirit is smothered, barely surviving as a voice and influence in the life of a man. But God, in His love and mercy for us, did not allow this condition to remain unremedied. He, Himself, became incarnate, took flesh and became as we are. In His incarnation, He suffered, died, was buried, descended into Hades where He defeated death and freed those captive to it, and rose again on the third day. In doing this, He provided for our regeneration and restoration and when we enter into His death and burial and resurrection through the sacrament of Holy Baptism, our soul is restored to its created condition - the spirit again predominant, receiving grace from God, ruling over the rest of the soul and the body. But the body and the soul do not relinquish their rebellion easily, continually attempting to usurp the preeminence of the spirit and resume their former place, and so we have the struggle of our Christian life. This is the struggle that we all experience and about which the saints speak. Most commonly this struggle is called the “war on the passions” and its purpose is to bring the unruly parts of the soul and body back into submission to the will and grace of God.
Now before we get too far afield, let us return to the topic at hand, the nature of the soul. In order to “tame” the soul, it is helpful to understand its nature. St Theophan the Recluse draws a parallel for us between the soul and the body. The body, he reminds us, has various “systems”: the digestive system, the musculo-skeletal system, the nervous system, etc. Now we know all about this from our basic biology courses in school. The body, being something that is fully within the physical realm, is easily observed and has been subject to the investigations of science; thus it is that we are quite familiar with many of the various workings and systems of the body. The body functions as it does because all these systems are interconnected and they work together for their mutual well being.
The soul, likewise, is composed of different “systems” each that has its own function and all work together. Now in discussing the creation and nature of the person, we mentioned that the soul had a separate part, the highest and nearest to God, that is the spirit. However there are other “parts” of the soul as well. The fathers, in their writings call these parts the “aspects” of the soul and there are three which are predominant and which encompass all others. These three aspects of the soul are the “incensive” or feeling aspect, the “desiring” or wanting aspect, and the “intellective” or thinking aspect. Each of these three aspects has its own function and its own place in the soul and is associated with some part of the body as well. The incensive aspect is that part of our soul which encompasses sensations, feelings and emotions and which is associated with, or resides in, the heart. The desiring aspect is that part of the soul which encompasses our desires and the wants and needs of the person and it is associated with the will. The intellective aspect is that part of the soul which encompasses all the various aspects of thinking - ideas, memory, reasoning, rationality, and so on. It of course is associated with or resides in the head (brain). These three aspects of the soul each have their own function and they work together for the benefit of the whole person.
The function of the intellective aspect is to think. Sounds obvious, simple, almost not worth mentioning. However, it is important to consider what is involved in thought. When the mind first has an impulse from one of the senses of the body, thinking begins. The imagination and the memory begin to act. Imagination is the mechanism by which an idea or a sensation is “encoded” and given form and shape so that it might be manipulated. Much of the work of the imagination is expressed in language. Language shapes the thoughts much in the same way that a glass “shapes” the water that fills it. How an idea is available for later manipulation depends on how it is encoded in language. Those of you who speak more than one language fluently might be familiar with this. Thinking of something in one language may give rise to all kinds of concepts and potentialities that would never even begin to arise by thinking of the same thing in a different language. Language determines how it is we “encode” ideas in our mind, and to a certain degree determines the kinds of conclusions that we draw from a particular experience or idea. (This aspect, by the way, gives rise to a whole discussion about *why* we use a particular language or form of language in the services of the Church - but that is a discussion for another time). This “encoding” of experiences and thoughts is the function of “imagination”. Along with imagination, memory comes into play almost immediately. As soon as we experience something, memory begins recording it. Memory records both the “raw input” as well as the “encoding” provided by the imagination. This brings up the importance of what the fathers call “guarding the senses”. “Guarding the senses” is the act of being careful of the things to which you expose yourself. Any tempting image or concept that you allow into your brain is recorded there and even though your “imagination” or the higher mental functions associated with reason may reject the image and filter it out - that memory can “pop up” at the most unexpected times, especially when your resistance to temptation is weakened by other factors. It is important therefore to be very careful about what you allow yourself to see and hear and the kinds of sensations to which you expose yourself.
The imagination and memory, however, are only the “receiving department” for these experiences and ideas that serve as the raw material for the higher functions of thinking and reasoning. Once the mind gets ahold of these sensations and ideas, it begins to process them. The first step in the process is to ask questions - what is this, where does it come from, what does it do? These questions are the function of the intellect, whose business it is to reason, think things over and reach the necessary conclusions. The intellect, by the process of reason begins to create fully formed thoughts from the raw material. It filters out that which is useless, it combines those things which seem to fit together, it analyzes everything and then comes to a conclusion. This conclusion, or concept is the “thought” that is triggered by a sensation coming into the brain. Not every question though can have a definite answer and the mind makes “leaps of logic” and assumptions that yield opinions and suppositions. These opinions and suppositions are based on what “ought to” make sense and if we get too attached to our own opinion, it begins to appear to us not as an “assumption” but rather as indisputable fact - because of course, “what else could it be - I must be right, I couldn’t be wrong”
This whole process of making conclusions and opinions from the raw material of experiences and ideas sounds a whole lot like science. In fact that’s what it is, for the mind is the proper place of science. Science is the crown of the intellectual labor of the intellect. We are accustomed to talking about the physical sciences and applying the scientific method to things we observe in the world. There is also, among the fathers, the practice of talking about the spiritual sciences - especially the science of prayer. That is because our spiritual exercises produce certain observable results from which our mind can draw conclusions and develop principles. Science is nothing to fear or to reject since it is the natural product of the activity of the mind. But it is only a part of the whole picture, there is more to the soul than just the mind and more to truth than just science. Not only that we must also be careful that science is not based on simply “opinion and supposition” because then it may well draw incorrect conclusions due to a lack of adequate information.
Science requires a philosophical basis for the conclusions it draws - how it chooses to put facts together and how it chooses to interpret observations and information. Thinking also requires an external structure and “philosophy”. This external philosophy is the wisdom of God which is perceived through the spirit and which is handed down to us through the teaching of our Holy Tradition. Without this “structure” our thoughts would simply be an aimless string of conclusions with no real value or substance. As for those who reject the teaching of the Church, they have long sought to replace the wisdom of God with the foolishness of men in the form of philosophies or theologies which are the products of their own fallen reason and rationalization.
The second aspect of the soul, the desiring aspect, is the part of us that deals with the “wants and needs” of the person. This is the part of the soul from which arises the statement “I want...” or “I need...” At every moment of our existence we are faced with choices. We choose whether to do this or that, to take one or the other, to stop or go, to accept or reject and a million other choices. Making these choices is the function of the will. How are these choices made? The will chooses to acquire that which is beneficial to itself, or that which is necessary or pleasant. In addition it avoids choosing anything that is unpleasant or contrary. When there is some unmet need or some unpleasantness or some unfulfilled desire, the will is in a state of tension, seeking whatever will release that tension and alleviate the disturbed condition, bringing it again to a state of rest. The object of all desire is the same - a satisfied need. But often when one need is satisfied it also rouses new desires and so the state of unrest is triggered all over again. It is the task of the will to somehow find a way to satisfy all these diverse desires without incurring unpleasant consequences or exciting a new state of unrest.
The tool of the will for this is choice - it chooses those things which it deems will best satisfy all the desires. As men we are given the gift from God of “free will” or the ability to make choices that are not determined by any outside force or agency (whether that be instinct, nature or even God Himself). It is this free will or free choosing that makes our choices different from those of the animals. We can even make choices that are contrary to our apparent well-being in service of a higher priority. (the supreme example of this is of course martyrdom where a person literally lays down their life for something, or Someone, they perceive as greater or higher than themselves).
For those who have lived in this world any length of time, the will begins to develop “short cuts” to its decision making. These short cuts are called habits. Everything that is within the usual “order” of life becomes subject to some habit. As the habitual choice is repeated over and over again, it becomes ingrained, almost automatic, done even without the awareness that a choice has been made. For most of us, our way of life is the sum total of our “habits, rules and procedures”.
Just as the mind has a higher function that “processes” and modifies the raw information it receives, so also the will has a higher function that can over-rule the obvious cause and effect relationship of choices. This regulating function is called “prudence” or “judgment”. Prudence is the means by which the various competing choices are evaluated and one is given precedence over another. Prudence is the faculty that keeps from making bad choices, or choices that have unpleasant, undesired or even unforeseen consequences. When the will is accustomed to making poor choices or when prudence is not strong or effective, then a person becomes inconstant, chasing after this and that desire with no real purpose. Such a person becomes selfish, preoccupied with themselves, and lovers of all the various pleasures and sensations, aimless, without focus or direction in life. Such a life is marked by idleness and futility - producing nothing and gaining no real lasting satisfaction, driven before the winds of every desire that presents itself.
The aspect of the soul that is at the center of all the others is the incensive aspect. This aspect of the soul is seated in the heart and thus we view the heart as the center of our being. Everything seems to emanate from the heart. The initial function of the incensive aspect is to sense everything. All sensations whether from the external world or from our internal condition flow through the heart and are monitored by the heart. The heart senses the outside world through the bodily senses and then directs those sensations on to the mind. Internally the heart senses the condition of the body and of the soul (that is the whole person) and passes those sensations on as well. But the heart does not only passively monitor the person but it also has the active task of generating and allocating the energies of the person. Based on all the sensations of the soul and body, the heart energizes various aspects of our person. We know this almost naturally from the way that we talk about the heart. When a person is very motivated to follow a particular path or issue, we say that “their heart is in it”. When an emotion seems particularly deep, intense and genuine we say that it is “heartfelt”. When you participate in an activity with gusto and energy - you are said to be “hearty” The examples are endless when you begin to notice them.
This is the primary function of the incensive aspect - to marshal and allocate energy to where it is needed in the life of each person. This is accomplished through the feelings. Every sensation, every condition in the person, generates a unique emotion or feeling. It is this emotion that becomes the carrier for the energy produced by the heart. It is by observing our own feelings that we have any understanding at all about the function of the heart and therefore the true condition of the soul. Modern psychology invests a lot of time and attention on developing an emotional vocabulary - learning to describe our emotions in more and more precise and accurate terms. (Have you ever seen those posters with the little faces and a word underneath each one to describe the emotion it depicts?) By doing this, psychologists try to “capture” the function of the heart with the language of feelings and by doing so subject it to the reason of the mind.
This then is the function of the heart - to monitor and properly energize the person. The heart can be overcome, however, so that it loses the control over its own functioning. That which overcomes and tyrannizes the heart are the passions. These passions are energetic disturbances born in the mind from fantasy or in the will from unchecked desire. These energetic passions produce strong destructive emotions that consume the heart and usurp its control over the person. When a person is ruled by passion, they are no longer able to effectively monitor, care for and direct their own soul, but rather are enslaved by the alien passions. This brings up the necessity of self denial (which weakens the passions and prevents them from spreading) and of restraining the heart and its feelings and desires. As long as the passions are in force, to give the heart its will would meant to doom oneself to enslavement to sin and death. Therefore vigilance is needed and a constant war on the passions to prevent this enslavement from overtaking us.
Now that we know a little about the three aspects of the soul and what their functions are, let us continue to look at how they relate to one another. One of the easiest ways to do this is to relate the soul, which we don’t fully understand, to something that we do comprehend - say a car. We all know the basics of how a car works, you fill the tank with gas, get in, turn the key start the engine and put it into gear. Then you take the wheel and guide the car to wherever it is you want to go. But how does a car tell us anything about the soul?
The source of the energy of the soul, the source of its “power” is the heart. The heart produces feelings and emotions which are full of energy and which bring that energy to the pursuits of the soul. In a car the energy is provided by the fuel - the gasoline that you put in the tank. Like the emotions, the gasoline is full of energy. So we can say in one sense that the heart is the “gas tank” of the soul and the emotions produced in the heart is the gasoline that brings energy to the rest of the soul.
But while a car will not run without fuel, neither is fuel the only thing necessary for the operation of a car. Just because it is full of energy, gasoline must be properly used in order for it to be useful. (Don’t really try this at home or anywhere else for that matter!!!) If you took some gasoline and poured it out on the ground - then light a match to it - what happens? There is a big FOOF and lots of fire and heat and then the gasoline is gone, the energy is released and nothing is left (except the burnt patch on the ground) Nothing useful results from this. In fact if this burning gasoline comes into contact with anything else combustible (like your hair or skin!) that will begin to burn too and not only will the release from the burning gas be useless, it will be destructive. In order for the gasoline to be useful it has to be contained. Another example is a firecracker. If you take a fire cracker and light it holding it in you open palm, it will go off, making a big bang, maybe leaving a little soot or even possibly a minor burn on the surface of your skin, but no other damage. But, if you take that firecracker and close your hand around it and light it. It will explode, just as before, but it will also take a few fingers off with it. The energy of the explosion is contained and instead of dissipating that force is directed toward the weakest link in its container - your fingers! The energy produced by the incensive aspect of the soul is also useless if it is undirected and allowed just to dissipate with no focus. A temper tantrum is full of lots of energetic emotion - but after its over what was accomplished? Nothing, absolutely nothing - just a lot of flash, bang and smoke and all that’s left is a little burnt patch. In order for the energy of the incensive aspect to be useful it has to be contained and focused. Just as in a car, the release of the energy in the fuel must be contained and focused.
This is where the second aspect of the soul - the will - comes in. In a car the fuel is pumped into the motor where it is exploded in the cylinders and the resulting energy is channeled into the wheels which turn and push the car in a particular direction. The unfocused energy of the fuel is now taken by the motor and the drive train and turned into useful motion by focusing it from the motor to the transmission to the drive train to the wheels. This is how the will functions in the soul. The will takes the energy produced in the heart and carried by the emotions and focuses it into a productive path. By choosing how it is that energy will be invested in this or that pursuit, goals are reached and needs and desires are satisfied. Something productive is accomplished.
Let’s stop here for just a moment and “revisit” the fuel situation. What if we decided not to use gasoline for fuel, what if we used ethanol instead? (Ethanol is grain alcohol). Ethanol is a great fuel for a car, except for the fact that the car is not designed to use it well. Ethanol has less energy potential than gasoline - so it may not actually have enough power to do the task at hand. Also ethanol is corrosive to rubber and similar compounds, it will eat away at the gaskets and hoses in your car until finally they spring leaks or disintegrate and the fuel will leak out all over the ground (or worse yet, will ignite on the hot engine). By the same token, it might be possible to use a fuel with a higher energy potential - say nitrous oxide (a gas used as a fuel additive in racing cars). Nitrous is great for giving a quick boost of energy to a dragster at just the right moment to outrun the competition - but it is also so powerful that if the engine isn’t designed to handle the extra power, instead of blowing away the competition you will only succeed in blowing up your engine. Now I mention all this to point out that it is necessary to use the correct fuel. If we allow the passions to drive the soul, they are so powerful that they eventually will blow the soul to bits. Even if a passion might seem “manageable” it is still corrosive and over time will destroy the soul from the inside out. This is why we do not use the passions as fuel for the soul.
If the will is dysfunctional then the motor may turn, but the energy never gets to the wheels. The transmission might be disengaged or there might not be sufficient spark to release the energy in the cylinder in the first place or any other host of reasons. If there is a flat tire, it might still turn but it won’t easily go where it is supposed to go. Any kind of dysfunction in the will can short circuit this process. But even if the will is working perfectly it is still possible that nothing profitable is accomplished. Here is something else not to try. Start the car, open the throttle and put it in gear so that you start to move, then take your hands off the steering wheel and see what happens. Well, if you car is well aligned and you were pointed in a straight line and the surface of the road is smooth with no sloping or bumps then you might end up going in a straight line for a while, but sooner or later the wheels will turn this way and that and the car will swerve and end up in the ditch. The motor and drive train can focus the energy of the car, but without direction they don’t know where to go. Similarly the will can focus the incensive energy of the soul, but without some over riding direction, the will will end up swerving all over from this place to that and going around in circles and finally end up in the ditch. Something needs to provide an overall sense of direction to the will.
Back to our car, if you were to take the wheel and correct the variations in the direction of the wheels, then we would avoid the going in the ditch. The steering wheel and the nut behind the wheel (that’s you!) are the third vital segment of the car’s functioning. If you want to go from here to Sydney or Brisbane, you would know exactly where to turn and which routes to take and how far to go, how long it will take, how much gas you need and so on. But the car won’t know this by itself, you have to guide it there. You are the “brains” of the car.
Here we come to the third aspect of the soul, the intellective aspect, the mind. It is the task of the mind to take in information, to process it and to come to conclusions - to make a plan, to set long term goals, to define where we want to go and who we want to be. The will needs to be steered, guided and directed. There needs to be some overall sense of where to go and a plan of how to get there. This is the place of the mind.
But what if you get lost, what if you have the wrong directions or no directions at all? What if you don’t know where you want to go? You don’t get anywhere, or worse you end up getting to somewhere that you don’t want to be. The mind, in guiding the car must itself know where to go and how to get there. This is necessity of knowing the way of life that the Church gives to us. This way of life and the belief of the Church is our map - the instructions for how to reach the Kingdom of God. It is important, when you are traveling to have the *right* map - one that really shows you the way. If you have the wrong map or a map that has errors, then you will get lost and never arrive at your desired destination. This is why it is important to rely only on the “map” that is given us by the Orthodox Church and not the “map” offered by other religions or philosophies or even other Christian confessions. When we immerse our mind in the life of the Church, filling our thoughts with only those things from the Tradition of the Church, it shapes our way of thinking. When we “speak the language of the Church” then we know where to go and the mind can then direct the whole person appropriately. The energy of the incensive aspect focused through the lens of the desiring aspect guided by the intellective aspect which is immersed in the Tradition of the Church brings us safely into the presence of God. We cannot get there on thought alone - the mind needs the heart and the will. We cannot get there just by wanting to - the will needs the heart and the mind. We cannot get there only on feeling - the heart needs the mind and the will. The whole soul is the vehicle of our salvation This is what brings us into the presence of God, the mechanism, the “machine”, by which we work out our salvation.
Now you know a little bit about the soul, what it is, what its major parts are and how they work together. With this, perhaps some of the writings of the fathers about the passions about the spiritual life, about the ascetic life might just make a little more sense. With this little knowledge of the soul, now you can more effectively work out your salvation and avoid some of the dangers and pitfalls that will trap you in destructive and futile cycles and derail you from your goal and destiny of becoming like God. This is the beginning of the “science of the soul” which is the beginning of understanding how it is we work out our salvation.
Addendum - notes on training the parts of the soul to keep them in alignment:
For the mind
- Reading and hearing the Word of God, the writings of the Holy Father and the lives of the God-pleaser.
- Studying and impressing upon yourself all the God given truths in brief statements (the catchesis)
- Asking questions of those older and more experienced in the Christian life
- Mutual informative discourse with friends of like mind and spirit.
For the will
- Submission to the whole church rule.
- Submission to civil order, or to family duty, for they are the conduits of God’s will.
- Obedience to God’s will as manifested in your fate.
- Obeying your conscience in the doing of good deeds.
- Subjecting yourself to the spirit that is zealous to fulfill its vows.
For the heart
- Attending the Church services
- Prayer, as specified by the Church; the home prayer rule
- Using holy crosses, icons and other sacred items (holy water, oil, incense, etc)
- Observing holy customs established and promoted by the Church
For the body
- For the senses: guard the senses altogether, especially the hearing and vision (nervous system)
- Guarding the tongue.
- Abstinence and fasting (the stomach)
- Moderate sleep and vigilance (the stomach)
- Physical purity (the stomach)
For the environment - the ordering of life
- Abandon all evil customs without exception
- purge all relationships and acquaintances, retaining the slavific and estranging the harmful and determine your behavior or conduce with people.
- rearrange or re-establish the duties of whatever occupation you may have to fit your new way of life
- establish order in your family affairs or in general adapt your home to spiritual life
For the spirit
- completing all the ascetical labors as a preparation for receiving the mysteries
- receiving the sacraments