13 Aug

What is the soul?

“Something inside you that should be clean and you make it dirty and God makes it clean again…? We outgrew that [limited] way of understanding it a little after our First Communion. But what is it now at the age of twenty or fifty or eighty? It loses its colour, for one thing – I mean black and white equally. And so it becomes a sort of colourless bubble (of uncertain whereabouts), till one day it goes ‘pop’ or, more likely, it gets a slow puncture and dies that way?

Of uncertain whereabouts?

In all good sense what is it? Or is it an ‘it’ at all? Many a thing that we refer to as ‘it’ is not an ‘it’ at all: for instance when we say ‘it is raining’. That ‘it’ does not refer to any ‘thing’. Likewise the word ‘soul’ does not refer to a thing. What does it refer to?

What does it refer to?

If you switch on the radio and listen to a foreign language (a really foreign one in which you cannot guess the meaning of even one word) you have the experience of hearing everything and yet nothing. You have to admit that you are hearing every sound: there is nothing wrong with your hearing, and speakers on radio are usually careful to speak clearly; yet it all counts for nothing. The person who understands that language hears the same sounds as you do, but those sounds are suffused with meaning. You touched the body of that language; the other person touched body and soul. In some such way the soul suffuses the body; it is the meaning of the body. It is not a ‘thing’ lurking inside it. It is its meaning, its radiance. It is its life – and how could the life of something be separate from the thing itself? In a word, your soul is the difference between you and your dead body.

When your soul ‘departs’ at death, it is not as if one part of you has left the other remains behind. You have disappeared completely; what is left behind is not you, nor part of you. We know this by instinct.

We know this by instinct

In a remote part of Ireland a simple man died. A neighbour, feeling as awkward as the family itself at being focus of attention, said to the priest at one point, ‘Excuse me, Father; the corpse’s brother would like a word with you.’ Why do we find this a very odd expression? Because we know that corpses don’t have brothers. Corpses don’t have anything.

A body without a soul

What is most striking about the appearance of a dead body is the total absence of involvement with us at every level. Our attentions, our tears, our feelings of desolation are unable to bring the person back. We tiptoe around the room as if he or she were only sick; we can’t believe just yet in the total absence; that is something we have to grow into gradually. The departure of a soul is the departure of the whole person.

Where? Is there any forwarding address?

Where? Where is that person now? Is there any forwarding address? The only forwarding address of a dead person is God; we cannot reach that person any more, except in God; we cannot touch them without touching God. As prayer is ‘addressing oneself to God,’ so now is God the dead person’s only address. Death is the realisation of God’s promise to be ‘all in all’.

‘All in all’

Along with the idea of the soul as a ‘thing’ we have the idea of heaven, hell and purgatory as ‘places’, and so the mystery of human destiny begins to look like sorting things in boxes.

In the way we sometimes talk about the next life, what is missing is any vital reference to God. (What’s left when you leave God out?) We know nothing about heaven except that ‘it’ is the presence of God; nor about hell than that it is God’s absence; nor about purgatory than that it is a process of purification for allowing God to be all in all. We find, I believe, that any improvement in the idea we have of the soul is also an improvement in the idea we have of heaven, hell and purgatory – and of God.”

– This article by Donagh O Shea OP was published in St Martin Magazine, issue July 2014. For subscriptions please visit (external link).

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Posted by on August 13, 2015 in Words of Wisdom


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