Tag Archives: the soul

Trees who are themselves.

This morning my walk took me down by the creek, where after the recent rains the leaves on the trees glowed in their contentment at having been washed and well-watered. Lots of light was coming through the gray atmosphere, though the drizzle was thickening. I thought of the Psalm that speaks of us being like trees, “planted by the rivers of water, whose leaf also shall not wither….”

Most of the time I do not feel like a tree! I’m too wispy and bendy, like grass. I won’t say I’m ever a weed, because that concept doesn’t fit with the reality of us being made in God’s image. But the trees are themselves, without fretting over their self-concept, as long as their roots go down where their nourishment lies.

After I came home I made a nice soup breakfast, but before I sat down at the kitchen table facing the garden and the birds — oh! a crow is visiting…. I looked at the books on my mobile bookshelf for something new to read. This was the first page of the one I opened:

“Every creature has in it the instinct to be as true as possible to what God created it to be. Even plants have this directive in them. All nature stretches toward the nurture it requires for its fulfillment — the daily bread, so to speak, that it needs for its survival.

“One spring, we planted a tuberous begonia upside down. When we dug it up in the fall, we saw that it had started growing downward into the earth, but had soon made a U turn and brought itself up into the daylight and blossomed with the other begonias. We have, every one of us, been planted facing the earthly  darkness of sin and death. This business of making our way upward and into the daylight, to blossom forth as the individuals God made us to be — this is the enlightened life to which our inborn instinct calls us.

“As daylight reached through four inches of dark soil to draw the begonia toward it, so the Lord Jesus Christ is always reaching even into the darkest places on earth and inside our souls to draw us into a blessed life. Holy people understand it. They say, He has called you out of darkness into his marvelous light (I Peter 2:9). The Prophet told of it: Upon those who sat in the dark region and shadow of death the light has shined (Matthew 4:16; Isaiah 9:2)”

A few pages further in we read: “When is a soul mentally fit? When it knows a lot about itself (that is, what God made it to be and how to work with God), say holy counselors. When it readily sees and accepts reality. When it is able to prevail against whatever psychological and spiritual obstacles it may face. When it can protect itself from spiritual harm. When it is using its free will for its own greatest benefit…. The greatest benefit we’re capable of achieving is being in harmony with God’s perfect (all-loving and divinely wise) will for us.”

Dee Pennock, the author of this book, God’s Path to Sanity, calls this health of soul, “sanity.” The idea brings to mind what I’ve read elsewhere, how it is truly irrational to sin against our loving Father, not that we don’t often have perfectly good (irrational) reasons for turning away from His love.

I wanted to drink this book in big gulps, but I restrained myself and will take sips of the tonic. God provided the the fittingly beautiful illustrations before I ever saw the text, and those will, I am sure, be part of my ongoing treatment plan.

Ho, every one that thirsteth,
come ye to the waters,
and he that hath no money;
come ye, buy, and eat;
yea, come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.

Wherefore do ye spend money
for that which is not bread?
and your labour
for that which satisfieth not?
hearken diligently unto me,
and eat ye that which is good,
and let your soul delight itself
in fatness.

– from Isaiah 55

The entire faith and love and hope.

My whole church is bereaved, because one of our strong young men, the only son of his parents, grown up for 35 years in the parish, suddenly sickened and died. It happened so fast, it seems unreal to us. This morning I attended a prayer service in advance of the funeral proper.

One of the lines that is repeated in song is, “Blessed art Thou, O Lord; teach me Thy statutes,” and I mused on what God might be teaching me right now. Certainly, we should all “number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.” But I don’t want to forget something else that our rector reminded us of, at the end of the service, that even in our grief we have joy, knowing that Christ has overcome death — that’s why we could pray that our brother will be granted rest “with the spirits of the righteous made perfect.”

Every time there is another death or funeral, my own soul’s griefs are awakened, acknowledged and comforted. And our pastor also kindly included in our church bulletin today an encouraging passage (an excerpt from this article) from Father Alexander Schmemann. He starts out explaining why death must be understood as an evil enemy. But keep reading:

God created man with a body and soul, i.e. at once both spiritual and material, and it is precisely this union of spirit, soul and body that is called man in the Bible and in the Gospel. Man, as created by God, is an animate body and an incarnate spirit, and for that reason any separation of them, and not only the final separation, in death, but even before death, any violation of that union is evil. It is a spiritual catastrophe. From this we receive our belief in the salvation of the world through the incarnate God, i.e. again, above all, our belief in His acceptance of flesh and body, not “body-like,” but a body in the fullest sense of the word: a body that needs food, that tires and that suffers. Thus that which in the Scriptures is called life, that life, which above all consists of the human body animated by the spirit and of the spirit made flesh, comes to an end — at death — in the separation of soul and body. No, man does not disappear in death, for creation may not destroy that which God has called from nothingness into being. But man is plunged into death, into the darkness of lifelessness and debility. He, as the Apostle Paul says, is given over to destruction and ruin.

Here, I would once more like to repeat and emphasize that God did not create the world for this separation, dying, ruin and corruption. And for this reason the Christian Gospel proclaims that “the last enemy to be destroyed is death.” The Resurrection is the recreation of the world in its original beauty and totality. It is the complete spiritualization of matter and the complete incarnation of the spirit in God’s creation. The world has been given to man as his life, and for this reason, according to our Christian Orthodox teaching, God will not annihilate it but will transfigure it into “a new heaven and a new earth,” into man’s spiritual body, into the temple of God’s presence and God’s glory in creation.

“The last enemy to be destroyed is death…” And that destruction, that extermination of death began when the Son of God Himself in His immortal love for us voluntarily descended into death and its darkness, filling its despair and horror with His light and love. And this is why we sing on Pascha not only “Christ is risen from the dead,” but also “trampling down death by death…”

He alone arose from the dead, but He has destroyed our death, destroying its dominion, its despair, its finality. Christ does not promise us Nirvana or some sort of misty life beyond the grave, but the resurrection of life, a new heaven and a new earth, the joy of the universal resurrection. “The dead shall arise, and those in the tombs will sing for joy…” Christ is risen, and life abides, life lives… That is the meaning; that is the unending joy of this truly central and fundamental confirmation of the Symbol of Faith: “And the third day, He rose again according to the Scriptures.” According to the Scriptures, i.e. in accordance with that knowledge of life, with that design for the world and humanity, for the soul and body, for the spirit and matter, for life and death, which has been revealed to us in the Holy Scriptures. This is the entire faith, the entire love, and the entire hope of Christianity. And this is why the Apostle Paul says, “If Christ is not risen, then your faith is in vain.”

–Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann, 1980,
Translated from Russian by Robert A. Parent

harrowing of hell wide

Do the spooky thing.

My late husband many times told me that I thought too much. He would like to have read this recent article by Fr. Stephen who tells me the same thing, and I commend it to your reading, even though, as Fr. Stephen admits, “…our thinking about thought is decidedly spooky.” We do need to think in order to learn the proper place of thinking, and the difference between thinking about God and being with God.

It is the latest in a series in which the author tries to get through our modern noggins the reality that we are more than our thoughts and feelings, and that the Christian faith is not essentially an idea. How could it be, when God is not an idea?

I think I get this, and I have written about it and quoted others about it for my own edification many times. It remains that I was born in this modern era and I’ve soaked up its ways as regularly as I’ve eaten my breakfast. It’s hard to live in the truth that I am learning, but each point that Fr. Stephen makes in each successive article helps a little more. This last one is full of concrete illustrations, such as:

1) eating your saIMG_1452 chunkndwich
2) burying your dead
3) being bored in church
4) the mythology of Star Trek
5) what Christ’s blood is
6) taking antidepressants

To contrast the secular mind with the spiritual or the Christian mind would be to perpetuate the misconception of our selves, and the article is fittingly titled “The Secular Mind Versus the Whole Heart.” In the comments section the author often elaborates on and clarifies statements in response to commenters, so don’t miss that part. Read it here.

The Hungry Soul – How Science Disappoints

Previous posts on this book:

In the Introduction to his book, Leon Kass writes of his purposes: “I hope to provide evidence that the modern corporealists — those who deprecate or deny the soul — and their modern rationalist or humanist opponents –those who deprecate or deny the body — are both mistaken, both about living nature and about man. I seek such evidence in an examination of eating.”

Here the author conveys an understanding of reality that is more in line with orthodox Christianity than that of many who profess Christ, for he sees that we are unified creatures; our bodies are essential to who we are, not just shells that we hope to escape. He even goes further than what I would assent to, stating that his meaning of “soul” is “primarily not a theological but a biological notion!” (Yes, he put that exclamation point there himself.)

You should know at the outset, however, that I use the term [soul] advisedly and without apology, even though I know that it will cause most scientists to snicker and many others knowingly to smile. These skeptics need to learn that it is only because they in fact have a soul that they are able to find such (or any) speech intelligible, amusing, or absurd. Indeed, only the ensouled — the animate, the animal — can even experience hunger, can know appetite, desire, longing.

It is not, then, only the scientists who are giving us only part of the picture, but also the teachers of humanities (I don’t want to call them humanists, as their vision is too stunted), whom Kass and his wife would call colleagues, as they both are themselves university professors in the humanities.

…the humanities have long been in retreat from the pursuit of wisdom. Analytical clarity, logical consistency, demystification, and refutation; source criticism, philology, and the explication of thinkers solely in terms of their historical and cultural contexts; and the devotion to theoretical dogmas – formerly romanticism and historicism, nowadays Marxism, deconstructionism, multiculturalism, feminism, and many other “isms” – all these preoccupations keep humanists busy with everything but the pursuit of wisdom about our own humanity.

James Le Fanu

While I was in the middle of thinking about Kass’s book, I heard another writer on scientific topics interviewed on Mars Hill Audio. James Le Fanu is a physician and author whose book The Rise and Fall of Modern Medicine won the Los Angeles Prize Book Award in 2001. He was speaking in the interview about his recent book Why Us?: How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves.

Le Fanu is also concerned about the reductionist and unsatisfying science that purports to tell us all there is to know. Before the notion of science appeared in the early 19th century the idea of the metaphysical was part of the common sense of mankind. Galileo and Newton and Kepler had an instinctive recognition that whatever science couldn’t explain, there was “something beyond.” Their study of Natural Philosophy was encompassed in the larger whole of the love of wisdom.

Nowadays, says Le Fanu, science is boring, and “to be a career scientist is to be in a very small hole,” as they are so specialized in their work, and in their education there is nothing like the older biology textbooks that were “full of awe and wonder and astonishment.” Le Fanu said that in the scientific journals he reads and in his talks with scientists, he has not noticed that any individual scientists are fully appreciating the mystery and glory of the human being.

But we assume that at least some of those scientists leave their holes each night and go home to prune the roses, eat a tasty dinner and play with their children, showing what Kass calls “the disquieting disjunction between the vibrant living world we live in and enjoy as human beings and the limited, artificial, lifeless, objectified, representation of that world we learn about from modern biology.”

As Kass is seeing the non-material aspects of our humanity demonstrated through the very material and natural activity of eating, so Le Fanu sees them revealed ever more obviously by the recent discoveries of science. Everything we learn seems to show how amazingly complex and unknowable by scientific study is “the most important part of the human experience…the nonmaterial thoughts and ideas and feelings and relationships..all the sorts of things we do the whole time….”

I loved listening to someone who is knowledgeable about the latest breakthroughs in the world of science talk about the “five cardinal mysteries” of the human experience. I ordered his book and have been relishing it on every level. Here is another man whose own soul is well-rounded and developed enough that he is a good writer, a practicing physician, and a person who can wonder at the Creation.

If we had a few more men like Kass and Le Fanu, true Natural Philosophers who don’t reduce life and reality to systems and ideologies, but who are willing to be open to that Something Beyond, the world would be a better place. Perhaps some of the upcoming homeschoolers who are getting a foundation in the kind of Poetic Knowledge that Charlotte Mason and James S. Taylor teach will have the ability to benefit from their scientific studies and to find them not boring but joyful.