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On Forming the Soul


By Blessed Fr. Seraphim of Platina

The soul that comes to Orthodoxy today often finds itself in a disadvantaged or even crippled state. Often one hears from converts after some years of seemingly unfruitful struggles that “I didn’t know what I was getting into when I became Orthodox.” Some sense this when they are first exposed to the Orthodox Faith, and this can cause them to postpone their encounter with Orthodoxy or even run away from it entirely. A similar thing often happens to those baptized in childhood when they reach mature years and must choose whether or not to commit themselves to their childhood faith.

From one point of view, this is a result of the deep commitment required of those who are serious about the Orthodox Faith–a commitment that is quite different in kind from that of those who merely join a new denomination. or sect. There are many denominations with their various interpretations of Christian life, but only One Church of Christ which lives the true life in Christ and the unchanged teaching and practice of the Apostles and Fathers of the Church.

But from a more practical point of view, the problem lies in the poverty of our modern soul, which has not been prepared or trained to receive the depths of true Christian experience. There is a cultural as well as a psychological aspect to this poverty of ours: The education of youth today, especially in America, is notoriously deficient in developing responsiveness to the best expressions of human art, literature, and music, as a result of which young people are formed haphazardly under the influence of television, rock music, and other manifestations of today’s culture (or rather, anti-culture); and, both as a cause and as a result of this–but most of all because of the absence on the part of pa rents and teachers of any conscious idea of what Christian Life is and how a young person should be brought up in it–the soul of a person who has survived the years of youth is often an emotional wasteland, and at best reveals deficiencies in the basic attitudes towards life that were once considered normal and indispensable:

Few are those today who can clearly express their emotions and ideas and face them in a mature way; many do not even know what is going on inside themselves. Life is artificially divided into work (and very few can put the best part of themselves, their heart, into it because it is “just for money”); play (in which many see the real meaning of their life), religion (usually no more than an hour or two a week), and the like, without an underlying unity that gives meaning to the whole of one’s life. Many, finding daily life unsatisfying, try to live in a fantasy world of their own creation (into which they also try to fit religion). And underlying the whole of modern culture is the common denominator of the worship of oneself and one’s own comfort, which is deadly to any idea of spiritual life.

Such is something of the background, the “cultural baggage,” which a person brings with him today when he becomes Orthodox. Many, of course, survive as Orthodox despite their background; some come to some spiritual disaster because of it; but a good number remain cripples or at least spiritually undeveloped because they are simply unprepared for and unaware of the real demands of spiritual life..

As a beginning to the facing of this question (and hopefully, helping some of those troubled by it), let us look here briefly at the Orthodox teaching on human nature as set forth by a profound Orthodox writer of the 19th century, a true Holy Father of these latter times–Bishop Theophan the Recluse (+1892). In his book, What the Spiritual Life Is and How to Attune Oneself to it (reprinted Jordanville, 1962)*, he writes:

”Human life is complex and many-sided. In it there is a side of the body, another of the soul, and another of the spirit. Each of these has its own faculties and needs, its own methods and their exercise and satisfaction. Only when all our faculties are in movement and all our needs are satisfied does a man live. But when only one little part of these. faculties is in motion and on]y one little part of our needs is satisfied–such a life is no life…A man does not live in a human way unless everything, in him is in motion …. One must live as God created us, and when one does not live thus one can boldly say that he is not living at all” (p. 7).

The distinction made here between “soul” and “spirit” does not mean that these are separate entities within human nature; rather, the “spirit” is the higher part, the “soul” the lower part, of the single invisible part of man (which as a whole is usually called the “soul”). To the “soul” in this sense belong those ideas and feelings which are not occupied directly with spiritual life-most of human art, knowledge, and culture; while to the “spirit” belong man’s strivings towards God through prayer, sacred art, and obedience to God’s law.

From these words of Bishop Theophan one can already spot a common fault of today’s seekers after spiritual life: Not all sides of their nature are in movement; they are trying to satisfy religious needs (the needs of the spirit) without having come to terms with some of their other (more specifically, psychological and emotional) needs, or worse: they use religion illegitimately to satisfy these psychological needs. In such people religion is an artificial thing that has not yet touched the deepest part of them, and often some upsetting event in their life, or just the natural attraction of the world, is enough to destroy their plastic universe and turn them away from religion. Sometimes such people, after bitter experience in life, return to religion: but too often they are lost, or at best crippled and unfruitful.

Bishop Theophan continues in his teaching:

“A man has three layers of life: that of the spirit, of the soul, and of the body. Each of these has its sum of needs, natural and proper to a man. These needs are not all of equal value, but some are higher and others lower; and the balanced satisfaction of them gives a man peace. Spiritual needs are the highest of all, and when they are satisfied, then there is peace even if the others are not satisfied; but when spiritual needs are not satisfied, then even if the others are satisfied abundantly, there is no peace. Therefore, the satisfaction of them is called the one thing needful.

“When spiritual needs are satisfied, they instruct a man to put into harmony with them the satisfaction of one’s other needs also, so that neither what satisfies the soul nor what satisfies the body contradicts spiritual life, but helps it; and then there is a full harmony in a man of all the movements and revelations of his life, a harmony of thoughts, feelings, desires, undertakings, relationships, pleasures. And this is paradise!” (p. 65).

In our own day, the chief ingredient missing from this ideal harmony of human life is something one might call the emotional development of the soul. It is something that is not directly spiritual, but that very often hinders spiritual development. It is the state of someone who, while he may think he thirsts for spiritual struggles and an elevated life of prayer, is poorly able to respond to normal human love and friendship; for If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar; for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God Whom he hath not seen.” (I John 4:20)

In a few people this defect exists in an extreme form; but as a tendency it is present to some extent in all of us who have been raised in the emotional and spiritual wasteland of our times. This being so, it is often necessary for us to humble our seemingly spiritual impulses and struggles and be tested on our human and emotional readiness for them. Sometimes a spiritual father will deny his child the reading of some spiritual book and give him instead a novel of Dostoevsky or Dickens, or will encourage him to become familiar with certain kinds of classical music, not with any “aesthetic” purpose in mind–for one can be an “expert” in such matters and even be “emotionally well-developed” without the least interest in spiritual struggle, and that is also an unbalanced state–but solely to refine and form his soul and make it better disposed to understand genuine spiritual texts.

Bishop Theophan, in his advice to a young woman who was preparing in the world for monastic life, allowed her to read (in addition to other non-spiritual books) certain novels which were “recommended by well-meaning people who have read them” (What the Spiritual Life Is, p. 252): With this in mind, this new column in “Orthodox America” will recommend and introduce certain works of literature and art (not excluding the modern art form of the movie) which can be of use in forming souls, especially of young people, in basic human attitudes and emotions which can dispose them to understand and pursue the higher things of the spiritual life.

+Fr. Seraphim (Rose) of Platina, Forming the Soul – Spirit, Soul and Body

*This Book Available – “The Spiritual Life and How to Be Attuned to It” – from St. Herman Press.


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