The life of our body


17 Jul 2023

Our soul shines through in our in all our bodily actions – loving, laughing, weeping, playing, working, planning, caring and finally dying.

When I first heard about the soul I imagined it as a long white bony spindle inside me that develops black spots when we commit a sin. Later it seemed more like a butterfly inside me that would leave my body when I died. It would then fly to heaven or sink to hell depending on whether or not I had pulled its wings off by committing a mortal sin.

In both pictures the soul was the deepest, least earthly, part of myself and it was associated with sin and judgment. In sermons preachers who referred to ‘the loss of your immortal soul’ conjured up the ultimate disaster. In comparison the body, though dangerous, was clearly less significant. As time went on, however, exploring it became much more intriguing.

Still, that image of the soul said clearly that there is something in me, as in each human being, that escapes analysis and makes me of unique value. It is the space where my relationship to God is played out, with all its ups and downs, its promises and betrayals, its turnings away and turnings back. The soul is the open space in me which reminds me that here I have no lasting city.

In my youth thinking about the soul was a serious business. It spoke of what mattered most deeply and of the consequences of making wrong decisions. I thought that this kind of inner conversation was important in the long run, but also something often to be avoided, especially when I was fascinated by the kaleidoscope of attractive things that didn’t matter so much.

In time I came to know that many people didn’t believe we have a soul. I become interested in arguments that proved we do. I also sometimes wondered whether I was in a state of mortal sin. That preoccupation could lead me to overlook the beauty of the world and of the people whom God had made. I then stopped being thankful for God’s presence in simple encounters with friends and in the world of nature. I also failed to notice the pain of people whose encounters with the world and other people had been destructive.

In time I came to realise that soul and body are not separate things, let alone opposed as good and bad. The soul is the life of our body. It marks the difference between a living person and a corpse.

When Jesus speaks of gaining the whole world and losing our soul, the soul is our whole self in our relationships to God, our deepest desires and most generous movements of our heart. These are the deepest sides of ourselves that express our relationship to God. In them body and soul go together. The soul isn’t the ghost in the machine but what gives life to us as human beings. Our soul shines through in all the bodily things we do in loving, laughing, weeping, playing, working, planning, caring and finally dying.

More recently I have found this rich image of soul represented in Soul Music, the African American Spirituals and especially in the voice of Aretha Franklin, which were the seedbed of secular soul music. These were songs of the working soul which celebrated the precious human dignity that goes with souls. They also expressed the sadness of slaves at their exile and harsh treatment as well as the consolations of faith, of shared grief and of unexpected hope.

In these songs Soul brought deep feeling and a depth of humanity to the most oppressive of situations. Soul had to do with heart as well as mind.

The deep faith of the American slaves, their conviction of their dignity as human beings, and their grief and their hope against hope are expressed in simple lines like:

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,
Coming for to carry me home.

At one level this song is like a lullaby, an acceptance of death that will release slaves from loss and brutality into the life of heaven. The song, however, is also a coded call to slaves to desert the plantations and to seek freedom in the northern states. Home is a free life. The chariot refers to the Underground Railway, the chain of volunteers who hid and helped slaves on their journey. The verses urged people to prepare for the journey. The song offers both heavenly resignation and earthly rebellion.

Perhaps that is what the soul is all about.

This article first appeared in the winter edition of Madonna magazine.

Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ is an editorial consultant at Jesuit Communications
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