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Caring for our soul

October 1, 2015
Father Ron Rolheiser

What does it profit you if you gain the whole world but suffer the loss of your own soul?

Jesus taught that and we tend to take Jesus’ words to mean if someone gains riches, fame, pleasure, and glory and then dies and goes to hell what good is earthly glory or pleasure if we miss out on eternal life?

Jesus’ teaching does mean that but there are other lessons about health and happiness. What does it mean “to lose your soul” in this world? What is a soul and how can it be lost?

A soul is immaterial and spiritual; it cannot be pictured. Philosophers have tended to define the soul as a double principle inside every living being: Both the principle of life and energy inside us as well as the principle of integration. In essence, the soul is two things, the fire inside us giving us life and energy and the glue that holds us together.

If you have ever been at the bedside of a dying person, you know exactly when the soul leaves the body not because you see something float away from the body, but rather because one minute you see a person with energy, fire, tension in her body and a minute later that body is completely devoid of all energy and life. It becomes a corpse. As well, until the second of death it is still one integrated organism. But at the very second of death that body ceases to be one organism and becomes instead a series of chemicals which now begin to separate and go their own ways. Once the soul is gone, the body no longer contains any energy and it’s no longer glued together.

And since the soul is a double principle doing two things for us, there are two corresponding ways of losing our souls. We can have our vitality and energy go dead or we can become unglued and fall apart; in either case we lose our souls.

If that is true, then how should we care for our souls? What is healthy food for our souls? If I am watching television what’s good for my soul?

This is a legitimate question, but also a trick one. We lose our soul in opposite ways and thus care of the soul is a refined alchemy that has to know when to heat things up and when to cool things down: What’s healthy for my soul depends a lot upon what I’m struggling with: Am I losing my soul because I’m losing vitality, energy, hope, and graciousness in my life? Am I becoming a person who’s painful to be around? Or, conversely, am I full of life and energy but so full of it that I am falling apart, losing my sense of self? Does my soul need more fire, something to rekindle its energy? Does my soul have too much fire and need some cooling down and glue.

After we die we can go to heaven or hell. That’s one way of speaking about losing or saving our souls. But Christian theology also teaches that heaven and hell start here in this life. We can lose our souls by not having enough fire or we can lose them by not having enough glue.

Oblate Father Rolheiser is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas.

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