Soul or Spirit

I have some rather weird habits which have been known to reduce fellow priests to tears of laughter, and would probably be of interest to a psychiatrist. For example, I have about 200 pictures of saints stuck on to the glass fronts of my bookshelves, and visitors have to guess the principle on which they are arranged before they get any dinner…

But one of my habits stood me in good stead when, four years ago, out of the blue I was invited by the Royal College of Psychiatrists to contribute to a seminar on “Stigma”. I like to investigate where I’m actually going to be for such an event, and once I’d established that the RCP is almost next door to a Catholic Church, I was happy to accept. And not just any Church: the Shrine of the English Martyrs near the Tower of London where St. Thomas More among others was imprisoned and beheaded. If I was going to be martyred by the Royal College of Psychiatrists, what better company to be in than that of “the king’s good servant, but God’s first.”

Why is there such hostility between the world of psychology and the Catholic Church? Sex is an obvious answer, especially Freud’s discovery that hysteria in women was related to sexual repression. And who is to blame for the repression of sex? Why, obviously the Catholic Church, which from early days promoted virginity for women and celibacy for monks and priests, with marriage a second best and sex strictly reserved for producing children.

More generally, popular psychologists like the Americans James Hillman and ex-monk Thomas Moore have accused religion of neglecting the soul in favour of the spirit. How ironic that Moore’s best-selling book is entitled “Care of the Soul.” Surely that was traditionally the job of the priest?

When Jung plumbed the depths of his own soul after his break with Freud, he discovered a bewildering variety of images, voices and independent personalities which he had to dialogue with, to avoid ending up in a mental hospital himself. The human soul, he discovered, is an objective reality with many different figures to be reckoned with apart from the ego which we love to think is in control. All of us experience this when a mood or a fantasy dominates us, or, in St. Paul’s phrase, “we do the very thing we hate” (Rm. 7:15).

If that is the soul (psyche), what exactly is the spirit and how are they different? How are psychology and spirituality related? Too big a question, of course, for one post. Hillman and Moore suggest that spirituality is too quick to give a meaning to the conflicts we experience, rather than just letting them be: your anger is sinful, so get rid of it; your same-sex attraction is disordered, so fight it; your inner suffering has meaning if you unite it to Christ’s Cross, etc., etc. I think there is a lot of truth in this criticism. We need to spend more time letting the soul speak before we attempt to give a meaning to its conflicts. But there is another side to it, which can only be appreciated by a believer: if the human soul is an objective reality, so too is the spiritual realm, by which I don’t mean the world of angels and demons, but the utterly concrete, objective reality of Jesus Christ: God who became man, lived, taught, healed, exorcised, suffered, died and rose again. The Christian story is not a myth like the stories of the pagan gods who “live on in the psychiatrist’s waiting room,” as Jung realised. It actually happened at a particular place and time, and through the sending of the Holy Spirit, gives a totally objective meaning to all human experience for anyone who accepts it. Faith, the foundation of the spiritual life, connects us to that reality as surely as the right kind of wire connects a light bulb to electricity, with wonderful effects.

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