The Secret Life

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.

Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe

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.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.





29 responses to “The Secret Life”

  1. fatherstephen Avatar

    Art: St. Bride (1913) by John Duncan.

  2. Micah Avatar


  3. fatherstephen Avatar

    Marc Indeed. Our true life is indeed eschatological. The Truth of things is always found in their end. Thus when we worship we stand in the Age to Come. It begins: Blessed is the kingdom…

    Sent from my iPhone

  4. todd Avatar

    This reflection reminds me of:
    “To him that overcometh, to him will I give of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, and upon the stone a new name written, which no one knoweth but he that receiveth it.”
    . . . the true self corresponds to the name on the white stone.

  5. stumpphilosophy Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    I’m not sure what is so funny about your very deep statements followed by the phrase “Sent from my iPhone”, but it is funny.

    I was thinking about your subject the other day. I’ve spent a lot of time on what it means to be “warped”. If I may borrow the term from Daoist philosophy(where I first encountered the term in a more Orthodox sense), we’re all “carved up wood”. Bringing the term into a Christian perspective, we are created one way, but shaped by other forces into something else. I think you have used the term “wounded” to describe this condition. As wood is carved to serve the carver, one could argue that we are carved to serve the forces that have shaped us. Rather than serving as the “axe handle” of profane forces, it would serve us better to be a living tree growing in the Light of God.

  6. Lauren Avatar

    This post was a bit lofty for me, but that image is wondrous. Thank you for posting it! I now have a new artist to explore.

  7. Dean Arnold Avatar

    I got a kick out of the iPhone post as well. Fr. Stephen, you are a beautiful creature.

    I got the opposite sense from Lauren. I found this blog post immensely deep, but in a very personal, relevant way, not in an arcane philosophical way.

    In fact, for me, I can’t think of many things more relevant. Much to ponder . . .

  8. dinoship Avatar

    This post deserves to be read in the still of the night in total solitude…

    “Be still and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10), what splendid words! Was the Prophet clever? a genius? No! He was a Spirit-bearer.
    This things are not subject to reasoning but to living experience.

    In very practical terms (quoting Elder Aimilianos yet again), “during the day one has God rushing to help, acting… but in the still of the night is when you have Him revealed to you” is also true of the true self.

    What a beautiful and crucially relevant post beloved Father!

  9. Philip Jude Avatar
    Philip Jude

    I very much like Gregory of Nyssa’s comment about the soul. What work is it from? It is reminiscent of Aristotle’s hylomorphic theory, as perfected by Saint Thomas, which I believe is still fairly valid today, even with all the advances in neurology and brain science.

  10. Sasha Avatar

    Father, good morning/afternoon!
    This is, probably, not the most important part of your post, but…

    I’ve felt that the soul *is* the actual me/self, like the “ghost in the machine”. That is not to say that a man is a spiritual-only creature, but that the soul is/can be independent of the body. I say that because we all are likely to live without the body for some time, when we pass on. And it’s just that currently body and soul are attached to each other.

    Now, this is not to argue with you or St. Gregory, but I simply want to understand *why* you say that is not true.

    Thank you for the response – and for this blog effort, as always!
    Blessed Lenten journey (to your-self).

  11. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    Excellent post for such a hard-to-talk about topic. Also, Gregory of Nyssa’s comment encourages me to share an idea here. It’s one that a pastor shared with me many years ago that’s helped me to understand the human being a lot better. See what you think…

    In the Garden before the Sin, Adam and Eve were put together like this: spirit on the outside, soul inside that, physical body inside that. If you would have met them, the first thing you would encounter was their spirit. And if you come into a close relationship with them, you might have eventually come into contact with their body.

    After the Fall, that order reversed. Their spirit hid inside the soul, which hid inside the body. It wasn’t that they just realized their nakedness after they sinned; they actually WERE just now naked, having been clothed with their soul and spirit before.

    And of course it is true that post-Fall, it is one’s physical body that you first know of a person, and is usually a long time or never that you actually meet a person’s spirit. In fact I suspect that most people don’t actually know their own spirits, let alone have the conscious ability to share them or not.


    Feel free to let me know if this is way off-base or even just highly speculative. It seems to fit with St. Gregory’s quote and has made a lot of sense to me over the years, but there has never before been an occasion for me to discuss this belief.

  12. rmdoson Avatar

    Wonderful thoughts for this Lenten season. Thank you very much!

  13. Lina Avatar

    Aging and the spirit/soul experiences I have had.

    Sometime around the age of 55, and years ago, I began to experience the split between body and soul/spirit. My soul seemed to be saying, “Let/s do that!” and my body would respond, Are you kidding me? You want to do what?

    And now that I am much older than that, while my body is aging it doesn’t seem as if my spirit/soul is. It is changing in other ways.
    maybe gaining more wisdom, or something.

    Any thoughts about this?

  14. Philip Jude Avatar
    Philip Jude

    Sasha and Lina,

    Saint Thomas recognized the tension that you have pointed out.

    On one hand, he understood that the soul is the substantial form of the body; that the soul needs the body in order to display the full range of its functions. The human being is neither matter with superfluous spirit nor spirit with superfluous matter. Rather, it is a sort of composite: both parts are integral, with the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.

    On the other hand, Saint Thomas recognized from revelation and reason that the soul transcends the material body, and is capable of existing beyond the expiration of the body.

    He wrote, “Therefore, the intellectual principle, which we call the mind or the intellect, has an operation in which the body does not share. Now only that which subsists in itself can have an operation in itself. … We must conclude, therefore, that the human soul, which is called intellect or mind, is something incorporeal and subsistent.”

    However, the existence of this rational faculty, the soul, is incomplete apart the body. We might say that a disembodied soul is not “living up to its full potential.” With the hardware impaired, the software cannot function properly.

    This is why our final end is not that mysterious spiritual dimension known as “heaven,” but rather the new creation. This is why we look forward to the resurrection, after which the body and soul will work in perfect harmony, charged and purified by the energy of God.

  15. Philip Jude Avatar
    Philip Jude

    I believe that Father is rejecting Platonic or Cartesian dualism, not necessarily Aristotelian or Thomistic dualism. The former can be denied without sacrificing any traditional Christian beliefs. However, the rejection of substance dualism in toto would require a major re-tailoring of orthodox conceptions of man and his telos. It doesn’t seem to me that Father is advocating any such radical innovation.

  16. Philip Jude Avatar
    Philip Jude

    Again, Saint Thomas:

    “We must not think . . . of the soul and body as though the body had its own form making it a body, to which a soul is super-added, making it a living body; but rather that the body gets its being and its life from the soul.”

    Given advances in science, especially neurology, we have a greater appreciation of the function of the material brain. Nonetheless, the existence of the soul can still be reasonably demonstrated.

    For instance, the idea of justice is distinct from the chemical and electrical phenomena which complement the consideration of the idea of justice.

    Furthermore, emotional states are proper to the person, the soul, and not the brain. Again, the electrical and chemical phenomena associated with “happiness” are not happiness itself. Brains are not happy or sad, content or anxious.

    These are states of the soul, dimensions of the hidden life of spirit. Such distinctions suggest that the human being cannot adequately be described in physical terms.

  17. fatherstephen Avatar

    Philip Jude and Sasha,

    PJ, I’m rejecting anybody’s dualism, but I think they (St. Thomas, etc.) reason towards something they do not know and that their reasoning is specious and of no use in the matter. The soul exists, but is a mystery. As I’ve stated, the most I can say is that it is the “something more.”

    I accept certain teachings with regard to the soul (such as the Hesychast fathers’ teachings about the passions) but I treat that pretty much on the basis of language (have to call these things something) rather than a detailed knowledge of the thing itself (res ipsa). I do not think that there is anything in Church dogma that asks more of me than that in the matter.

    As for the brain, most current research would indicate that the brain is clearly involved in everything we think and experience – exactly what relationship that has with the soul is not at all clear, nor can any function of the soul be deduced in a manner that proves its existence. Nor do we prove God’s existence. It’s one of the meanings of mystery. I believe that God can be known (and the soul can be known) but not in a manner that can prove either to someone else. If that were not so, then only faulty reasoning would be to blame for anything. I’ve never seen perfect reasoning, not even on St. Thomas’ part.

    The teaching of the Church is the body is as much “you” as the soul is you. We are psychosomatic, soul/body. The existence of the soul apart from the body, according to the Church, is that it is maintained in existence by God (“the souls of the righteous are in the hands of God”). “How long” that is may not be a relevant question.
    As Christians we look towards the fullness of our existence in the resurrection – though what we know of the resurrection is only what we see in the resurrected Christ.

    For all, if I could suggest anything (and if this posting is to be of use), it would be not to ponder “what is the soul,” and to think of answers – but to ponder the soul itself with the question, “What is my true life?” I’ve suggested in the posting many things the soul is not – and a few things that we should consider in what the soul is. “Who” is a much better question than “what,” when it comes to the soul.

  18. fatherstephen Avatar

    Sorry your comment got hung up in spam filter (don’t know why). But I liberated it!

    It’s an interesting thought you share. The “clothed upon” certainly resonates with St. Paul (“the righteousness of Christ”) and the Baptism service “robe of light.” I know some anecdotal stories from the saints that echo some of this.

  19. Philip Jude Avatar
    Philip Jude


    “They reason towards something they do not know and that their reasoning is specious and of no use in the matter”

    I think it rash to roundly dismiss the insight of Saint Thomas.

    He was not some sterile scholastic, but an enormously holy monk who could not get through Mass without copious tears, so dear to him was the Eucharist.

    The Lord appeared to him more than once, and he performed great wonders, such as ecstatic levitation during prayer. His knowledge was both mystical and intellectual.

    It is unfair, how you heap such scorn upon the use of the reason. You clearly favor hesychastic methods, fine. But God created all sorts of men, didn’t He? Are all men meant to reach Him the same way? Is there but one road to Wisdom? Thomas’ writings have had a profound effect on my spiritual life. I doubt I’m alone.

    I don’t meant to be rude, and forgive me if I misunderstand you, but I find strange the suggestion that Saint Thomas — who dedicated his life to knowing and loving God, and helping others know and love Him, too — is guilty of utterly specious reasoning.

    Maybe this is why I am Catholic: I require a balance between the mystical and the intellectual. Saint Thomas is the very incarnation of this both/and.

    I do not think it possible to “prove” the soul or “prove” God. But that doesn’t mean that reasonable demonstration is impossible or worthless. God gave us critical powers. Let us use them!

  20. Sasha Avatar

    Philip Jude and Father, thank you for your both responses! Helped me see/approach it in a different way. God bless you!

  21. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Philip Jude,

    You’re being over-sensitive in this matter. You’ve taken one statement as if it were attack. Is it possible that anyone in the history of the world has not had a “specious thought”?

    The issue we’re discussing and why we’re falling short of true answers lies in the fact that we are coming at it the wrong way. We live our lives dividing things up so that we can understand them. This is a tree, this is the ground I walk on – which is separate from the sky and the air I breathe.

    Even the body: This is a hand, which is a separate thing from a wrist, and certainly different than an eye.

    With our human minds we are trying to draw lines of division between souls and bodies and spirits in order to better define them. Except in a vague way so that we can talk about them, this task is impossible, And this is the meaning of “they reason towards something they do not know…”

    Ever and always we are guilty of going past what we know, but doing so in an authoritative manner that our knowledge does not warrant. It is one thing to speculate and label it fancy; it’s another to be so certain of areas that are a mystery to the human race.

    It’s fine to use our critical powers – but always as God’s children, not His peers. If He leaves some things on a high shelf out of our reach, let us not pretend that we have access to it except from afar.

  22. Philip Jude Avatar
    Philip Jude


    Father said Saint Thomas’ reason is of “no use in the matter.” That’s a pretty sweeping dismissal. I was simply a bit taken aback by that. I apologize if I came off as touchy. I was trying to be measured. Always hard to read tones over the internet. part of the problem. 😉

  23. Drewster2000 Avatar

    This is so true, my friend. Email has the same fault of being toneless. Thanks for your gentle reply. You have a good heart.

  24. fatherstephen Avatar

    Philip Jude,
    I don’t mean a hard tone – but I meant “no use in the matter.” I have a great regard for both the piety and the intellect of St. Thomas. However, I have little or no regard for scholasticism. He spent a life-time in a model whose assumptions are flawed. Scholasticism has not born good fruit, but ill (having been the breeding ground of early Protestant thought as well). It is a departure from the patristic mind and method. I don’t mean a judgment of St. Thomas (I would not want to be so brash), but I do mean to cast aspersions on scholasticism and the piety of the medieval West.

  25. Karen Avatar

    Interesting discussion. My chiropractor tells me that my nervous system projects an electro-magnetic field around me that extends about the length of my extended arm. Even when we are talking merely in physiological terms, there are mysteries upon mysteries. Psalm 139–truly we are “fearfully and wonderfully made.”

  26. Lauren Avatar

    Oh, wow, I didn’t realize there is a negative definition for the word “lofty” until now.

    Dean Arnold, I meant only that the post was beyond my understanding, like a lofty mountain is hard to climb.

    The image added wonder to the words, and I was struck by them both. St. Brigid (St. Bride) is my saint, and in the image she is being carried through time and space to see the nativity of Christ. This post was the first time I had ever seen this image or heard of John Duncan. It is always a delight to meet a new artist.

    Thanks again!

  27. Author-H.E. Curtis Avatar

    Interesting article! I have found the question of “what is the soul?” when asked by children can be very enlightening, and humbling, especially if we put the question back to them and ask what they think it is. 🙂

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