The truth of a person is always more than the person himself knows and always more than anyone else knows. Created in the image of God, human beings have an inherent transcendence. The soul is a mystery.
What is a soul? This is the sort of question that priests dread (particularly on the lips of children). There is nothing to point to, nothing to show as an answer to the question. To believe we even have souls is an act of faith.
For myself, to speak of a soul is to confess a transcendent aspect to human beings. The soul is the something more of our existence. I am more than chemicals and proteins. The soul cannot be weighed or measured or described. Some English translations of the New Testament render the word for soul (psyche) as “life.” It is an attempt to speak the unspeakable – and is surely as useful as “soul.”
The soul is not the “ghost in the machine,” though the expression comes close to describing what many imagine the soul to be. To make matters more difficult, St. Gregory of Nyssa once said that “the soul is not in the body, but the body in the soul.”
The expression, “something more,” ultimately works best for me. What it is to be human cannot be reduced to something we can know. As the Psalmist tells us: “I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; marvelous are Thy works!” (139:14). What we often think of as “myself,” is not the self at all, but a feeble construct maintained feverishly in its existence with fantasy, delusion, deception, comparison and a host of other strategies. It begets anxiety and anger, criticality and envy. It is not being saved nor will it be.
For lack of a better description, there is a true self, an identity of the person that we are in Christ. There are, doubtless, elements of this identity entwined or enmeshed with the false self (Archimandrite Meletios Webber names this the “ego”). These same elements, however, are often hidden by the tireless work of the ego. We do not recognize them nor understand them. The identity upon which we lavish such energy is a source of loneliness since it is a stranger to true communion. It hungers but never eats; thirsts but never drinks; is lonely but does not love. Its needs are infinite.
The true self remains a mystery – and this is also part of its salvation. For we only come to know the true self in the same manner and at the same time we come to know the true and living God. Made in His image, it is revealed from glory to glory as we grow in the knowledge and love of God.
God is a mystery and is only known in the slow and patient work of repentance, forgiveness and illumination. The commandment to “be still and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10), is a commandment to cease from the useless construction of the ego. We give up the project of endlessly re-inventing ourselves. Our goals and accomplishments, our endless comparisons and judgments of others, our fears and anxieties-the fantasies and delusions that we call the self are all allowed to rest.
Before the reality of God we learn to become still and to let the frenzy of our identity cease. Who I am is not known in my goals and accomplishments, comparisons and judgments, fears and anxieties, etc. Those are the busy efforts of a corpse that seeks to create the illusion of reality. Who I am is a mystery that has largely escaped my notice. It is at peace with God; forgives its enemies and loves as God loves. It is not anxious or in despair. It has no need to compare or judge but rejoices in the excellence of everyone. This is truly a great mystery.
It is for this mystery that the monk seeks solitude.
It is a secret because its existence is hid with Christ in God (Col. 3:3). Just as the Kingdom of God is like a treasure hidden in a field, so the true self is the heart’s greatest treasure. A man “sells all that he has that he may go and buy the field.” All that he has (the false self and its self-definitions) is as nothing to the man who understands the nature of the treasure. From the time of Christ until now, there have not ceased to be those who sold all that they had and followed Him. It is the only true pilgrimage.
As surely as my own life is a secret – so much more the life of another. If I do not yet know myself, how can I begin to know another? We cannot judge correctly regardless of the care we take. “Who are you who judges another man’s servant” (Romans 14:4)? The fact that the true self is a secret tells us something of the way in which it can be known: it must be revealed. I will not know the truth of who I am unless and until God tells me.
In the meantime, we watch and pray, never knowing when the master of the house will return. He will return and will bring us with him.