Category Archives: The Spiritual Life

Life Of The Soul

I woke up in Assisi one morning and suddenly felt convinced that not enough is being said about the life of the soul. This was caused, in part, by a friend who had asked me a question about the spiritual life and, in part, by a general awareness of the sort of cultural climate in which we live these days.

So I decided it may be opportune to put together a little essay on the soul, to bring together onto one page a few key thoughts, perhaps some foundational thoughts on the nature of the soul, especially considering that with our busy life schedules most of us do not have the time to read huge books on the subject.

These days we are so caught up with what is visible, tangible and audible. Our senses are so engaged with hundreds or thousands of physical stimuli–they constantly impact on us from the external world. It is difficult to find time to “Be still and know that I am God”, as the Psalm (46:10) encourages us. It is easy to forget the Lord’s question, “What does it profit a man if he were to gain the whole world yet lose his own soul?” (Matt 16:26) It is even easy to forget the existence of the soul.

What is the soul? How can we say anything about the life of the soul? So much of what we know and how we come to know these days is conditioned by the progress of science and technology (which is great in itself), by what we can see or hear or touch. There are so many implicit or explicit suggestions which incline us to believe that reality is only what we can see or touch. How can we know anything about the soul which we cannot see or touch in the same way?

Being immaterial, the soul is not going to submit to the material experiments that we normally conduct in science. It is unlikely or impossible that we can ever subject the soul to the mere rigours of logic. Nevertheless, there is an amazingly beautiful and rich analogy between the body and the soul–if only we will hear the voice of faith and reason. For reason is always greater than the ingenious physical experiments that humans may devise to explore the physical cosmos. And knowledge is always greater than mere perception.

Rather than try to subject the soul to any strict logical or scientific analysis, we would do better to recognise the analogy between body and soul. Afterwards we can begin to recognise certain logical connections and relations and progressions which obtain in the life of the soul. Faith and reason work together.

We can learn a good deal about the life of the soul by considering the life of the body. The following depiction is short and to the point and omits mention of many things. My intention is, not to produce a huge work on the subject, but only to provide in a short space what may hopefully be some key or seminal thoughts on the life of the soul.

So let’s look at the life of the body. The body is conceived in its mother’s womb like a seed planted in the earth. The body is nourished with food and drink so that it may grow and develop. The body is exercised so that it grows strong and becomes fit. The body is subject to injury, wounds or disease, but is also able to be cured or healed. The body grows to optimum size and health, after which it begins to grow old and eventually dies. But the body is raised again in the Resurrection to new life in which it no longer is subject to suffering, pain or decay–if we win the crown of eternal life.

Similarly, we can say that the soul is conceived by the power of God and planted in a body to share in a life on earth. The soul is nourished with food and drink (wisdom, light, love, the word of God, the Eucharist) so that it may grow and develop and reach spiritual maturity. The soul is exercised (in prayer, in acts of love, in communicating and communing with other souls and with God) so that it grows strong and becomes fit. The soul is subject to injury, wounds or disease (sin or moral wrong, lethargy, neglect, ignorance, weakness, emotional or psychological wounds) but is also able to be cured or healed (by the Divine Mercy, the Love of God, God’s light and grace and wisdom, and by the love of fellow human beings). The soul is able to grow to optimum health (to become like Christ, in fact) and, unlike the body, may remain in optimum health (with God’s grace and a willing heart) until the body dies. The soul can potentially go to Heaven, after which it is reunited (in the fulness of time) with the body at the Resurrection.

The Spirit Of Prayer

Someone asked me a question one day about prayer which went something like this:

“Is it a bad thing if I incorporate prayer into my daily duties? To give you an example, if I’m doing push ups or walking the dog or doing the dishes, is it okay to pray during these activities? I pray a lot while walking, especially if it’s beautiful and sunny. Sometimes I feel bad, however, as though I’m not fully focussed on just praying.”

There is nothing wrong with incorporating prayer into your daily duties. However, you ought to know that in private prayer there are three different forms: vocal prayer, mental prayer, and contemplative prayer.

Vocal prayer is using your voice to pray: either existing prayers composed by others or just praying with words which come straight from your own heart. When this prayer proceeds with faith it is especially powerful.

Mental prayer includes meditation or reflection on the scriptures, on spiritual writings, or on your own personal relationship with God. It may also include prayer using the imagination to put yourself inside certain scenes or events from the Bible, especially in the life of Jesus, such as in the spiritual exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola.

One form of the prayer of contemplation happens when you cease to exercise your own powers in prayer, when God takes over and prays in your own soul, so to speak. In a certain way, it is no longer your own power which prays, but it is God’s power which works within you (compare with St Paul’s letter to the Romans, Chapter 8, verses 14-28).

Contemplation literally means “to see with the mind’s eye”. You can also think of it as God revealing Himself to your soul or in your heart. Remember Jesus Christ’s words: “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.” (Matthew 5:8)

There are many ways and methods that God uses to pray within you, and likewise the ways in which you experience this are many and varied. St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross have written extensively on this subject. It is sometimes called mystical prayer, or the prayer of union, or silent prayer, or the prayer of recollection.

There are various stages in the life of prayer which these saints describe in their works, such as, “The Interior Castle” (St Teresa of Avila), and in the collected works of St John of the Cross.

One of the manifestations of this kind of prayer is that sometimes you feel that all the movements within your soul come to rest, and you experience a kind of peace that “surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7), or you may experience new light in your understanding, or you may feel an overwhelming presence of God.

There is no limit to the number of ways in which God can work in the soul. And God, who in His mercy called us into existence from nothing, operates in our lives freely, spontaneously, and lovingly, without violating our own freedom, to lift us up to His knowledge, beatitude, and happiness. In a sense, this is the highest truth and all other truths depend on this truth: that before any creature was made God freely intended to create us out of nothing in order to share with us His Goodness, Happiness and Glory.

You cannot bring about this prayer of contemplation. Only God can make it happen. However, you can dispose yourself for this kind of prayer by practicing the first two kinds of prayer: vocal and mental prayer. In short, you can desire this prayer, you can pray for this experience, and you can dispose yourself for this prayer of contemplation, but even then God is not obliged to grant this experience.

The good news is, however, that God loves to grant us this experience. He does so inasmuch as we seek Him, obey Him, and love Him, for He does not want to force our free will. God grants this experience freely, because He loves us, not because we deserve it. Remember Jesus’ words, “Freely you have received, freely give” (Matthew 10:8).

Finally, I should also mention that a life of prayer leads the soul ever closer to God, to union with God. In fact, prayer and union with God go hand-in-hand. The ultimate purpose of prayer is to unite us with God. God always wants to grant us more than we can desire at any given moment. So we should not limit our vision, but lift our eyes to God’s vision. And the ultimate purpose of God, in His infinite Mercy, is to grant us eternal happiness, Divine Life beyond our greatest dreams.

Again it is St Augustine who sums up these things so well:

“But again one might ask whether we are to pray by words or deeds and what need there is for prayer, if God already knows what is needful for us. But it is because the act of prayer clarifies and purges our heart and makes it more capable of receiving the divine gifts that are poured out for us in the spirit. God does not give heed to the ambitiousness of our prayers, because he is always ready to give to us his light, not a visible light but an intellectual and spiritual one: but we are not always ready to receive it when we turn aside and down to other things out of a desire for temporal things.

“For in prayer there occurs a turning of the heart to he who is always ready to give if we will but take what he gives: and in that turning is the purification of the inner eye when the things we crave in the temporal world are shut out; so that the vision of the pure heart can bear the pure light that shines divinely without setting or wavering: and not only bear it, but abide in it; not only without difficulty, but even with unspeakable joy, with which the blessed life is truly and genuinely brought to fulfilment.”

From St Augustine’s  “On the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount”.