Some years ago, I was talking to a young woman who, with her husband, was preparing to work with an aid agency in the developing world. It sounded like quite a sacrifice they were making, and I asked her how they had received this vocation. This was the story she told me.
When she was twenty years old, she had taken the opportunity to emigrate to South America, where she became part of an international jet-set. These fun-loving people spent their nights partying, with lots of drink and free sex on offer. They spent their days sleeping off the effects! She met and married her husband during this time, although as he was part of the same set, with the same lifestyle, it was not exactly a harmonious relationship. Soon anger, jealousy, resentment and even disgust began to eat away at their marriage.
One evening, she was preparing to go out to yet another party, and was putting on her make-up in front of the mirror. At one point, her eyes engaged with her mirror-image, and a shock reverberated through her. ‘I was suddenly gobsmacked by the expression in my eyes!’ she told me. ‘There were these hard, bitter, dead-looking eyes staring back at me, and I thought, what’s happened to me? I’m only twenty-five years old, and I look like this! Have I lost my soul?’ The moment passed, but the effect of this self-revelation evidently didn’t. It was the beginning of a journey that led her and her husband to re-evaluate their lives, and decide to invest them in serving the world’s poor.
‘What shall it profit a man (person) if he should gain the whole world but lose his own soul?’. Jesus’ statement on a person having a soul to lose has occupied theologians and philosophers for millennia, and sometimes the question has become very narrow-focused and religious. Perhaps this is why it is less talked about, or written about, today, but surely it is still a valid question to ask. Do I have a soul, and, if I do, what is it, where is it, and is it simply a part of my body, lost at death?
Taken on a journey
Medics and researchers over the centuries have considered this question, and usually concluded that either the soul is non-corporeal and outside the field of medical science, or else it is another way of talking about the mind, which could be seen as a set of electrical impulses in the brain, and that dies along with the rest of us.
Even then, some doctors have investigated remarkable accounts of people who have been pronounced clinically dead, but later resuscitated, who have had remarkable after-death experiences which seem to indicate that the mind continues to function, at least for a time, after separation from the body. Many of these people speak of being taken on a journey, and of an encounter with a being from another world. Most religions have included the afterlife in their teachings, possibly forged out of such reported experiences, but certainly having origins that go back into antiquity. The ancient Zoroastrian religion teaches that we are greeted after death by either a beautiful, pure woman, who represents our good thoughts, deeds and words and who guides us into the afterlife of light and joy, or else by an ugly, twisted-up creature representing our evil self, who takes us to the place of fire and punishment.
In all the accounts of people’s after-death experiences (recounted by those who have been resuscitated, obviously!) there is a recurring theme of encountering dazzling light and meeting some being who represents our conscience, exuding waves of love, or of fear and darkness. Of course, these could all be tricks of the mind, the working of an overactive imagination, operating without our control, a bit like a dream world. But there is a remarkable similarity in the many accounts that exist. Is this the soul, continuing to live when the body is no longer functioning – no breath, no pulse, no detectable brain activity?
Body, soul and spirit
I knew a man some years ago who had such an experience when he was undergoing a heart operation. His heart stopped, and all attempts to resuscitate him failed. He was eventually pronounced dead. All the doctors who were attending him left the operating theatre apart from one, who was writing up the notes and the death certificate at a table in the corner, when he nearly had a heart attack himself! Suddenly he heard movement and a voice coming from the dead man, who had a sheet covering his face. This man later told of a classic after-death experience; of feeling himself separate from his body, seeing his lifeless body lying on the operating table, being taken through a tunnel, emerging into beautiful light and a shining presence speaking with him and eventually sending him back into the world. He was certified dead for at least ten minutes before he ‘re-entered’ his body. I would be reluctant to form dogma out of anecdotes, as I am sure many of my readers will have a variety of possible explanations for such phenomena. (Indeed, I have a few myself.) But it causes me to examine afresh what I think about our non-corporeal selves.
Christian thinking teaches that a person has three parts to their being: body, soul and spirit. Behind, or inside, the outward body, there exists the soul, consisting of the intellect, the emotions and the will (the power to make decisions). Deeper still than the body and soul lies the spirit, which gives life to the body and soul, and which belongs to the realm of the spirit and God. From the spirit come our deepest insights and instincts concerning both the spiritual world and the material world. This is why Christian thinkers attribute both conscience (judging good and evil) and intuition (a deep ‘knowledge’ of the world and people) to the human spirit. Sometimes the spirit is described as giving life to the body but being ‘dead’ to the spiritual world. In religious terms, this is not a good place to be, but it is also not good to have a spirit that is in touch with the dark side of the spiritual world.
If I want to be a person who is more than what this outward body conveys, more even than the thoughts and activity of my buzzing brain, then how do I develop my soul, and even more, my spirit?
In ancient writings, the soul and body were often spoken of as if inextricably linked, eg ‘Nine hundred souls died in the battle’. At other times, the soul is linked strongly to the spirit (think of Mary’s words: ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Saviour’). A proverb from ancient times says: ‘The spirit of a man will sustain his illness, but a wounded spirit, who can bear?’ The writer is observing what many doctors have observed, that if a person has a strong lifespring within them, they will recover from illness more swiftly and surely than a person who is not at peace within, whose spirit or soul is wounded.
In what ways, then, can we develop our souls and spirits, so that we are balanced individuals, with inner as well as outer resources? I am going to suggest three ways. They are summed up by three words.
The first is Restraint – restraint of the body, that is. The ancient Greeks highly prized physical disciplines for personal development. So did the early church fathers. The apostle Paul once wrote, ‘I beat my body and bring it into subjection lest by any means after I have preached to others, I myself should become a shipwreck.’ Of course, Paul was talking about the disciplines of fasting (going without food), of watching (curtailing sleep in order to pray) and of celibacy (abstaining from sex for a short time, or for a lifetime). In whatever way we, in our 21st-century world, interpret restraint on the body, it is certainly true that in our Western world we eat too much, drink too much and are often sexually unrestrained. Of course, we need restraint on our emotions. The emotions are often too impulsive, too governed by our physical desires. (The soul is very attached to the body in this realm, also.) So am I advocating a return to the ‘stiff upper lip’ of the English gentleman/woman? Not at all. But most of us regularly witness in our society explosions of rage, hostility and verbal cruelty, which could certainly do with a bit of restraint.
What about the second word, Reflection? This is an underused word today, perhaps because we do not care to reflect too much. Yet Plato, back in the fourth century BC, said, ‘A life unreflected on is not worth living.’ In the 19th century, the poet John Keats, who died at the tragically early age of 26, wrote famously of how reflection calmed his grief at the perceived loss of love and fame that his early death would cause.
When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain …
… And when I feel, fair creature of an hour
That I shall never look upon thee more …
… Then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone and think.
Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink …
Facing his own mortality, Keats is understanding that, in the light of the wider world he believed would open up through death, the pressing issues of this life – love and ambition – sink into a truer perspective. Reflection is linked with conscience, at least in part. By reflecting on our lives and values, we may be motivated to make changes.
The third word is Revelation. We have already noted the importance of intuition – inner knowledge – that can be so valuable in making wise judgements about people, about philosophies, about danger. Intuition is inner knowledge, often called ‘insight’, because it concerns what we see with inner eyes. Outer knowledge is processed by our reason, and we often make a judgement about a person, for example, by our rational evaluation – we process what we know of them outwardly. But intuition processes knowledge that we are often not aware we have. This charming, smiling stranger, well dressed, well spoken, should be utterly trustworthy, but our inner intuition tells us something is wrong. Perhaps this man is a deceiver – he may be a conman, a thief or even a rapist or a murderer. In our spirit, we have the capacity to receive inner revelation about people and events. We may discern them intuitively.
But how can we be sure our spirit is alive, not only to this world but also to the spiritual world, if it exists? From the dawn of time human beings have reached out beyond themselves, to find out if a divine being exists. You can call these yearning thoughts ‘prayer’, if you wish. We may listen to scientists today saying that there is no God, but all they are really saying is that they have not yet found one. Perhaps they have been confused in their search by the clamour of religious voices trying to force them into a straitjacket of thinking, shaped according to their own religious dogma. But go out on a hillside on your own and open your heart and mind, and you may receive a different revelation. Or try ‘calling on deity’, and see what happens. As I love to say, ‘If there is no one there, He can’t answer back!’