What is the soul?

Current Study: Orthodox Psychotherapy: The science of the Fathers by Metropolitan Hierotheos. I am undertaking a personal study of his book and discussing it here as I read it.


Metropolitan Hierotheos has so far spoken about the purpose of the church, and the need for competent spiritual healers, and what qualities to look for in those healers.

Now in the third chapter, he discusses what is to be healed by the church, our souls.

What is the soul, where is it from, and how can it be described?

  • Souls are described as the life which exists in every creature. 
  • You are not a living creature without a soul. 
  • Evidence from the gospels and apostolic letters showing the word “psyche” being used to mean: 
    • Life (Matt 2:20, John 10:11, Rom 16:4)
    • Soul (Matt 10:28, Luke 12:20) 
    • Both (Matt 16:25)
    • Or the whole man (Romans 13:1).
  • Using these scriptures as a basis, Hierotheos defines the soul as referring to both the spiritual and physical existence of man.

St. Gregory of Nyssa: 

“The soul is an essence created, living, and noetic, transmitting from itself to an organized and sentient body the power of living and grasping objects of sense as long as a natural constitution capable of this holds together. “

Personally, I have heard different faiths say that souls are eternal and that when you’re born, God (or ‘gods’) take this eternal soul and place it within your mortal corpse. The Orthodox church rejects this idea of an eternal soul (see Genesis 2:7). 

Hierotheos details several points about the Orthodox view of the soul: 

  • Souls are not eternal, but created. 
  • Souls should by no means be identified with man. 
  • Physical bodies and souls are created at the same time. 
  • Immortality of man is not based on the immortality of the soul, but on the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. 
  • Souls are immortal by grace, not by nature.

Perhaps the most fascinating point that I found was that our souls are created in the image of the Holy Trinity. 

St. Gregory Palamas:

“[the soul] is endowed with nous, reason (logos), and spirit.”

These are then contrasted with other creation. Animals may have spirit, but lack the nous and reason. Angels may have nous and reason, but no life-giving spirit, since their bodies are not animated by a spirit.

Man alone is in the image of God, “he alone has the image of the tri-hypostatic nature”.

This really struck me as incredible. As a child, I first heard that man was created in God’s image and I thought of our physical bodies. I wondered if you took the body of every person ever born and amalgamated them into a single image, then you might be able to “see” what God looked like. 

Thankfully I have grown from that childish idea, but was never able to come to a rational understanding of what this meant. Hierotheos’ words here were not only novel, but really make a lot of sense to me, while fitting what scripture teaches. 

Our nous is relational to God, and our rational part helps us understand the experiences of the nous.

What is our sickness?

Our souls are broken by our passions and sins. Every passion and sin separates us from God and leads to eternal death (if not properly cured by Christ through the Church). 

How is the soul healed from this sickness? 

Our souls are healed by being unified and offered to God. Unification, or deification is Scripture put into action (I think the Philokalia is a great resource for tangible ways of putting scripture into action.)

Theoleptos, Metropolitan of Philadelphia:

“Pure prayer after uniting in itself nous, reason, and spirit, invokes the name of God with the reason, looks up at God whom it is invoking with a nous free from wandering and shows contrition, humility, and love with the spirit. Thus it entreats the Eternal Trinity, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”

The aim of therapy, is to bring the nous back to its proper place, the heart. The heart is spoken often in scripture as having rational faculties, and we often feel “sick” or “joy” in our hearts. The Holy Fathers taught that the soul uses the heart as its organ and directs the body. 

Because of Adam’s fall, death came first to our souls, then our bodies. Our souls become separated from God and are darkened. This darkness and death then comes upon the physical body. Hierotheos comments that because the soul and body are both corrupt, “they have produced a single animal, driven irrationally and senselessly by anger and desire.” 

This is why man is so often compared to beasts within Scripture. When we allow ourselves to be controlled by our senses, our souls remain darkened and we remain separated from Christ. 

St Thalassios: 

“The soul’s disease is an evil disposition, while its death is sin put into action.”

St. Maximus: 

“A soul filled with thoughts of sensual desire and hatred is unpurified.” 

Our souls may give us life, but we remain spiritually dead if we have not received the true life which is the grace of God.

I’m glad that Hierotheos took time to detail what the soul is, because without knowing what the soul is, we can’t begin to try and cure its’ sickness. And I know that my soul is sick, and I need God to cure me.

Lord our God, good and merciful, I acknowledge all my sins which I have committed every day of my life, in thought, word and deed; in body and soul alike. I am heartily sorry that I have ever offended thee, and I sincerely repent; with tears I humbly pray thee, O Lord: of thy mercy forgive me all my past transgressions and absolve me from them. I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy Grace, to amend my way of life and to sin no more; that I may walk in the way of the righteous and offer praise and glory to the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. 

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