Care for the Soul

strangers_in_a_strange_land-231x300I do not understand Zombies. When I was a child, Zombie movies were virtually non-existent. The word referred to something like a Golem in Jewish thought – a creature without a soul. It is properly a frightening thing – for that which we think of as the soul, is also the seat of compassion and kindness. A creature without a soul would be driven by something other – which can only be dangerous for everything and everyone around them. A Golem cannot be reasoned with or appealed to. Like a Zombie, it can only be killed.

So what is this soul, this something that makes us not a Zombie or a Golem?

A man is walking down the hallway in his home. A spider suddenly darts out from under some furniture. Without a thought the man instinctively steps on it. For the man, the action is nothing more than a reflex, like scratching an itch. For the spider, it is the end of the world. Of course, we think of other human beings with greater regard than a spider. Killing another human being is murder. But sometimes, the unthinkable occurs, and a mass-murderer goes on a killing rampage, randomly shooting children or adults, until, exhausted, he ends his own life, or his life is ended for him. We use phrases such as “killing rampage” that sound like a fit of anger. Such rages have been described as far back as Homer, and somehow make tragic sense for us. But we are also realizing that there is a new phenomenon – not a rampage – but an exercise in existential meaninglessness. The killing takes place without anger or words, but mindlessly, like stepping on a spider. Soul-less actions?

Modernity holds that we do not have a soul. And, in other terms, it holds that we do not have a nature. Human beings are a collection of choices and decisions. We can be whatever we want to be, or whatever makes us happy. Of course, such decisions may involve other human beings so that we engage in contractual relationships, negotiating our mutual happiness. If I don’t kill you, you agree not to kill me. I want what you make, so I agree to pay you what you ask. You want someone to make your widgets, so I agree to work for you in the widget factory. We call this negotiated world the “market.” There we buy and sell our happiness, hoping that the market remains in an upward mood.

But is there such a thing as the soul? Where do we find it?

The soul is not observed like the liver or the heart. It is a quality that makes the brain more than a biological calculator. In the Scriptures, it is pretty much synonymous with “life.” But this is rooted in a world-view that understands a person’s life to be more than mere biology and instinct. Modern people may have difficulty agreeing that there is such a thing as the soul, but they would not want to be locked in a room with someone who does not have what the tradition calls “the soul.” And those who deny the soul’s existence may very well discover that they have locked themselves in just such a room.

A primary care for the soul in human history is the telling of stories – not just any stories – but soul stories. I have coined this phrase to help us think about myths. Many modern people think that ancient myths are stories that were told in an attempt to explain a universe that was not understood. And so we think that now that we understand everything, we have no more need for such stories. But myths are not stories of “how?” They are stories of “Why?” and “What does it mean?” and “How should I live?” The answer to such questions are found in the formative stories of every culture.

When Plato described his ideal society in The Republic, he required children to learn to play musical instruments, and described it as a requirement of the soul. The soul requires beauty. It requires poetry, and song. It requires the capacity to live and not merely consume.

A deep failure of modernity is its jettisoning of soul stories. Contemporary music is simply insufficient for the soul. The result can be a struggle for the life of the soul – to exist without being swallowed whole by the consumption that surrounds us. “Man shall not live by bread alone.”

The stories of the Christian faith are soul stories. CS Lewis described the gospel as a myth, with the distinction of actually having happened. It is incumbent on Christians in the modern world to be sure that what they offer is the full meat of the Christian tradition and not merely another form of fast food.

Of course, there are other stories. The fathers of the Church did not dismiss the myths of the non-Christians around them. The simple fact is that every shred of knowledge that we possess today about the pre-Christian stories of Greece and Rome exist because Christians preserved them. There are currents within our culture that would largely jettison the study of classical literature, including what was once known as the “canon of literature.” The drive to elevate current political and social understanding over every previous understanding has made it common to neglect important stories for adolescent fiction and the like.

The contemporary landscape argues that we have been making disastrous decisions for several generations. Some are making a case that we have entered a cultural dark age. This judgment is perhaps too pessimistic, but it is not without merit. But it also makes the strong case that Christians need to sing. They need to paint and tell stories. They need to build beautiful temples and adorn them with lives of sacrifice and kindness. They need to nurture the life of the soul, both within themselves and within their children. And make no mistake, they need to sing rather than just listen to songs. They need to speak careful words with great intention rather than just hear them.

My soul, my soul arise!

Here is a contemporary treat, a Kyrie written by Patriarch Ilia of Georgia, a great soul. The Lord’s song is still being sung. Sing along.




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 “Care for the Soul”

  1. Susan Cushman Avatar

    That is the kind of beauty that will save the world.

  2. Dean Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,
    Surely the Kyrie preformed by the Gerogian? choir is part of the full meat of the Christian tradition to which you make reference. My heart soared as I listened to it. My heart also is touched to hear my grandson singing at full volume in the shower the mornings we babysit him and his sister. They go to a charter school which emphasizes the arts. A very rich curricula in a vast wasteland of most state schooling. Thank you Father for your blessed writing.

  3. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes, a Georgian choir. This is a Kyrie from a Mass written by the Orthodox Patriarch of Georgia, Ilia. His other stuff is quite good as well. It’s a very simple tune, even child-like, but profound.

    I pray your grandson always sings.

  4. Byron Avatar

    I am reminded of something Rich Mullins, a Protestant singer, once said (I paraphrase here): “I don’t like my voice. I sing because God commanded that I sing.” This reminds me that it takes a great deal of courage to sing, especially in a world where it will often be mocked not only by others but also by ourselves.

    Many thanks for this writing, Father. God grant us strength!

  5. Bud Snowden Avatar
    Bud Snowden

    Thanks so much for this Fr.

    I read a review in the WSJ this weekend about a book that may be of interest (not that you have time to read yet another book.) Here’ s the link to the review of George Makari’s “Soul Machine: The Invention of the Modern Mind”

  6. EPG Avatar

    “Christians need to sing. They need to paint and tell stories. They need to build beautiful temples and adorn them with lives of sacrifice and kindness. They need to nurture the life of the soul, both within themselves and within their children.”

    Indeed they do need to do those things, not only for the care and nurture of their own souls and those of their children, but so that others may see and hear, and be moved to share. A real attention to beauty is a more effective evangelism than the accusatory propositions that pass for proselytizing in our debased discourse.

    I stuck with the Episcopal Church for as long as I did because I sang in church choirs, and was lucky enough to be in parishes in which earlier generations had created beautiful buildings. Attendance at worship was an immersion in beauty. Singing a hymn based upon Bach or Mozart was often more illuminating than the sermon. The Book of Common Prayer, for all of its flaws from an Orthodox perspective, contains phrases that lie at the heart of modern English (in fact, one could probably argue that modern English is in large part a product of the BCP, Miles Coverdale’s translations of the psalms, the works of William Shakespeare, and the King James Bible). Even as late as the 19th and early 20th centuries, Anglican composers created hymns and anthems that were, quite simply, beautiful (often using traditional English music as source material—I especially admired the work of Herbert Howells and Ralph Vaughn Williams).

    Of course, it couldn’t last, because the beauty was only a façade. Underneath it all, the Episcopal Church was developing a theology of astonishing vapidity (as you know quite well). Interestingly, even the façade began to crack. When the rector of my last parish installed the Roman Catholic “Gather” hymnal alongside the authorized one, the dismal quality of the music forced me to acknowledge the dismal quality of the theology. And so I left.

    If the Roman Catholics had any sense of beauty left, I might have landed among them. But they too have abandoned their traditions in music and architecture, and their translation of the Mass is anything but beautiful.

    I hope that Orthodox Christians in North America will manage to hold on to the sense of beauty that inheres in their traditions of building, painting, singing, etc. We live in a market oriented society, which may be a handy thing for producing automobiles, or radios, or computers. However, it is not a thing that nurtures beauty when we undertake things that really matter. And, in my admittedly limited experience, Orthodoxy in North America can be a little more than a sentimental attachment for immigrants or the descendants of immigrants, an ethnic social club with a religious gloss, but little more. Its members carry the forms, at least to some attenuated extent. But the pillars in the new building are not structural—they are made of architectural foam. Icons for sale in the parish bookstore are mass produced, not painted. The choir sings old chants, but does not really rehearse. Members come in after the liturgy has started, stay through communion, and dash out. There is only a shadow of beauty. Orthodoxy is reduced to an ethnically flavored brand. The parishioners are modern Americans in all the essentials.

    It takes time, effort, and attention to make something beautiful. We are a fallen race, and we no longer create beauty naturally. We need to work at it, but have forgotten how. The mere aping of traditional forms does not produce beauty. It produces a commodity—something that resembles real beauty as a postcard of the Grand Canyon evokes the thing itself—a legitimate representation, but not the real thing.

  7. tess Avatar

    Father Stephen–

    Thought you might find this interesting. I have an excellent book, that I first read in college, called “The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror.” Its major premise is that the horror/monster genre of film was a direct response to society’s anxiety about dealing with the atrocities and physical deformities/amputations caused by the first World War.

    Anyway, the brief mention of zombies in the book notes that they make their appearance, culturally, when the collective unconscious is afraid that it is dead inside— merely an animated corpse. Interesting thought, eh?

  8. Matt Avatar

    As a gamer who’s never seen any of the classic zombie movies I’ve tended to think the appeal of zombies at least in this particular decade or two is the availability of the image and likeness of man without the soul or the personhood that makes it possible to engage in all sorts of violent fantasy with even less care than for the spider in your example, without any of the usual consequences of politics or conscience.

    Better than immortal/constantly regenerating enemies (or malevolent AI, or hive-mind aliens (which in a role of target-rich hostile army are almost always depicted as non-humanoid and thus unfit for this purpose) or plain old interpersonal violence done through “Kiln People”-style dittoes) since you don’t even need to have grudges or politics or motivations – just lots of literally mindless violence with the player as the world-saving(?) hero fighting the perfectly totally dehumanized (and also politically correct, as long as you don’t notice that most depictions of “zombies” basically look like people with debilitating diseases like leprosy) deadly enemy horde.

    I say all this in addition to and assuming the context of Tess’s comment. There is definitely an element of wanting to mean something in a culture of human fungibility.

  9. mary benton Avatar

    I wonder how it came to be that killing a spider is of no greater significance to the man than “scratching an itch”?

    While I am not equating spiders or any other animals with human beings, I think our blatant disregard for God’s other creatures is one of the many symptoms of our own death from within.

    How is it that some of the great saints could communicate with animals and be obeyed? Perhaps it was because, in their holiness, they had grown closer to the new Adam who lived what the original Adam did not.

    Part of our role in creation is/was to lead and care for the lower species as well as the earth – but in our self-worship, we have instead dominated the animals and the earth with increasing destructiveness and cruelty. We have not loved them.

    Although I peacefully coexist with most of the spiders in my house, I know not everyone can do this – nor can we do this with all creatures in all circumstances. (I have little patience for gnats that keep flying in my face and will admittedly swat them, with proper apologies.)

    The Native American hunter thanked the animal after taking its life for food. The Shochet who carries out a Kosher slaughter for food does so in a way that causes the animal no pain. The spirit of these practices in almost totally lost in modernity, not only in the food industry, but also in our minds and hearts.

    May I suggest – the next time you see a spider – or a worm or squirrel or mosquito – greet it. You might even paint it or sing to it. 🙂

    In praising the Creator, we must praise His creation or we praise Him not.

    All glory be to Him.

  10. Nicholas Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Griswold

    Yes, Father, care for the soul and acknowledgement of having one are the fundamental things missing in Post- Modernity. I am afraid of a society that has rejected this truth.

  11. Laura Avatar

    I watched the first couple of seasons of “The Walking Dead,” and what I saw was that the Walking Dead weren’t the zombies. The Walking Dead were the people who wanted to hold onto their humanity, living in constant fear that they would lose their humanity. Maybe that is our lesson. We have to hold onto Christ in order to hold on to our humanity. Just a thought…

  12. Sharon Joy Avatar
    Sharon Joy

    Warm bodies. Good zombie film – funny. Spoiler alert: zombie meets someone that inspires(?) love and comes back to life.

  13. Matt Avatar

    Thank you Mary!

  14. tess Avatar

    Matt– your connection between the appearance of zombies and the very ill is astute. It would definitely fit The Monster Show’s thesis that our cultural monsters reflect our anxieties. Our society is absolutely hysterical when it comes to severe illness, of any kind. A very far cry from being able to thank God for all things— even and especially our sufferings.

    Mary– We very rarely kill bugs or spiders in our house, either. 🙂 My little 3-year-old stomped on a beetle accidentally yesterday, and when she saw what she had done, she burst into tears. Then she looked up and prayed, “God, you need to raise this bug from the dead!” And then she ran off to play. 🙂

  15. jacksson Avatar

    Interesting, Father, that you use the term rage in conjunction with Homer. Jonathan Shay, in his book on combat trauma, Achilles in Vietnam, comments that the true title of The Iliad should have been Rage. In being a military veteran, I have seen the rage that goes with combat and was moved by Shay’s description of one incident of the rage of the consummate warrior, Achilles:

    ” . . . in his shaggy chest this way and that
    the passion of his heart ran; should he draw
    longsword from hip . . . kill
    [Agamemnon] in single combat . . .
    or hold his rage in check . . . ?
    . . . As he slid
    the big blade slowly from the sheath, Athena (his mother)
    . . . stepping
    up behind him, visible to no one
    except Akhilleus [Achilles], gripped his
    red-gold hair . . .
    The grey-eyed goddess Athena said to him:

    “It was to check this killing rage I came
    from heaven . . . ”

    The rage of Achilles over the ‘theft’ of his prize of honor
    by the king of the Greeks, Agamemnon, the woman
    Briseis brought on his rage and he contemplated an
    unheard of action (brought on by rage) which was only
    forestalled by the visitor from heaven.

    The Iliad tends to be the story of the gradual degradation
    of the honorable man, Achilles, from indignant wrath (menis)
    into a bestial rage culminated by the killing of Hector (who
    killed Achilles brother, Patroklos) and then shamefully
    debasing the body of Hector before the eyes of his parents
    and his wife.

    The killing of the spider, the taking of life from a small creature,
    seemingly can be overlooked, but the killing of a human being cannot.
    We use the terms ‘manslaughter’ and ‘murder’ to differentiate between
    what brought on the death. Then we have the mass murderer,
    the berserker, who full of rage (demonic), kills for a cause or for
    no cause other than the rage of the moment. One has to think
    about the life of the spider, especially as they flee to escape
    ensuing death; as Mary posted, we simply scratch an itch without
    a second thought.

    I am reminded of reading of the holy elder of Athos, St Paisios,
    who observing a stream of ants attracted to some sweets in his
    cell, took a piece of the sweet outside and told the ants to leave
    the sweet in the cell alone and eat what he had provided for them;
    and they obeyed him. No rage over the ants hauling off his candy,
    but love that provided for them.

  16. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I read an article last year in Road to Emmaus (a sweet journal), that interviewed Timothy Patitsas at Holy Cross Seminary. He focused on trauma and war and the Iliad as an original liturgy (public event) that served for the healing of the trauma. Outstanding article, as was the once that followed in the next issue.

    I had the pleasure of meeting and getting to know him a couple of weeks ago when I spoke at a conference there. He did my introduction. I’m not certain of all of his sources that he was drawing on, but I was deeply interested in the topic of healing trauma, particularly the trauma of war.

    Many people are “traumatized” by many things (when the term is properly understood) and it needs subsequent healing. The Church does this when it handles things properly – but this is not always done.

    We have been given the tools of heaven, but we’re ham-fisted for the most part and wield them in a very clumsy manner.

  17. Sharon Joy Avatar
    Sharon Joy

    Fr. Stephen, as a researcher and as a clinician, I too am interested in how people heal from trauma. One approach developed by a group of people (including Jane Willard, wife of Dallas Willard) at Shepherd’s House over a period of some 15 – 20 years may be found in their publication “Living from the Heart Jesus Gave You”. As I make my way from Protestantism to Orthodoxy I have found that the “Life Model” (as they call it) seems to parallel Orthodox thought regarding living from the heart
    (particularly Arch. Zacharias’ writing on the heart). They also have written a book “Joy Starts Here”. In short, they propose that a person needs to 1) have a place to belong, 2) receive *and* give life, 3) learn to recover – i.e., live from their heart – when encountering negative emotions, 4) mature and 5) live from their hearts. They have had tremendous success working with people who have experienced trauma and addictions.

    On a personal note, I believe God used their work (and Dallas Willard’s “The Spirit of the Disciplines”) to bring me to Orthodoxy (viz. my previous comment about the spiritual disciplines and your response about how they direct us to the Tradition). If you ever decide to read their work, I would appreciate your perspective on it.

  18. jacksson Avatar

    Hello Father Stephen, I to read the interview with Timothy Patitsas in Road to Emmaus and I purchased the books that he mentioned with “Achilles in Vietnam” being one of them. I have young men in my family that have been traumatized by combat with one of them being Special Operations in Vietnam and the other a sniper in Iraq. They have their problems, but seem to be handling them fairly well. One of them an AG pastor’s son (Iraq) and the other has major medical problems from killing in the jungle and being dripping wet with Agent Orange. They are both in my daily prayers as are my daughters.

    I really like the interviews with Dr Timothy Patitsas and recently, if my memory serves me correctly, they did a third interview with him. If is interesting, if one goes back to readings and read them again, how much more information one can get; it is kind of like the soul mulls them over. I just reread Bishop Kallistos Ware’s book “Inner Kingdom” and got a lot out of it, especially the last chapter; he can really put concepts to words.

  19. Joe Avatar

    I’m sure that I don’t have adequate words for this wordless sense inside me, but how can one be encouraged to create new songs or to paint new pictures or whatever else when the impression is given that only the things of the past can measure up? To give an example, if faerie is all but dead, can no one revive it?

  20. Boyd Camak Avatar
    Boyd Camak

    A Catholic friend referred me to this combat survivors/12 step workbook for PTSD and VTSD for another friend who is dealing with these issues.

  21. Boyd Camak Avatar
    Boyd Camak

    Is a Buddhist definition of a soul different that the classical Christian definition of soul? Buddhists claim that we don’t have a soul, and yet they talk about compassion and loving kindness.

  22. Anna Avatar

    A man name Oleksa Lozowchuk from our parish composed the music for the cd, Bright Sadness. Many may have heard it already, but I would highly recommend it for those looking for beautiful soul music from the Orthodox tradition.

  23. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes. They are so different there is hardly any way to compare them.

  24. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Well, Tolkien did an amazing job of it. Poets continue to write, etc. But, I’m working on an article at the moment that addresses this to a degree. It makes the distinction between “discovery” and “invention.” Tolkien would have acknowledged that he did not create a new faerie. In some manner, he “discovered” Middle Earth rather than invented it.

    I believe this is true of great music, great art, great poetry, math, many, many things. Michelangelo never made his own idea of sculptures. He said that he “freed” the figures that were already there. I believe him. This is by far a more accurate description of artistic work.

  25. Joe Avatar

    What you’re saying makes a lot more sense to me Father. I think that whole aspect of uncovering something that was already there is what was missing in my comprehension. I would love to hear more of your thoughts on how an artist (of whatever sort) could avail themselves to this sort of discovery in whatever respect that this is possible.

  26. BasilNova Avatar

    Dear God. That piece of music in the video is beautiful.

  27. God Avatar

    you are most welcome Basil

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