“Ask a Priest: Can you explain what is meant by spirit-and-soul from ‘The Interior Castle’?”

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Q: I read “The Interior Castle” and came across the spirit-and-soul issue that has me confused. From the book I get the idea that the spirit in man’s soul is what guides a soul to God. The Bible differentiates soul and spirit and body as a trinity unto itself, just like the Holy Trinity. I assume there is a true difference between the soul and spirit, and it is not a scriptural differentiation. Can you point me to a resource that will help? -S.C.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

The simplest answer is to turn to the Catechism, No. 367. It basically implies that we could think of man as a unity of body and soul, and that the distinction between “spirit” and “soul” does not mean that the soul is subdivided.

The text says, “Sometimes the soul is distinguished from the spirit: St. Paul for instance prays that God may sanctify his people ‘wholly’, with ‘spirit and soul and body’ kept sound and blameless at the Lord’s coming. The Church teaches that this distinction does not introduce a duality into the soul. ‘Spirit’ signifies that from creation man is ordered to a supernatural end and that his soul can gratuitously be raised beyond all it deserves to communion with God.”

The listing of all three in Scripture is simply a way of referring to the entirety of the person. That part in the Catechism about the spirit and man being ordered to a supernatural end, would echo your statement about the spirit guiding a soul to God. Sometimes the language of the tripartition of the soul appears in Scripture (”May the God of peace himself make you perfectly holy and may you entirely, spirit, soul, and body, be preserved blameless for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” – 1 Thessalonians 5:23). Plato describes a kind of tripartition (reason, spirit, appetite) of the soul in his Republic.

Pope Benedict XVI in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est seems to use “spirit” and “soul” interchangeably: “This is due first and foremost to the fact that man is a being made up of body and soul. Man is truly himself when his body and soul are intimately united; the challenge of eros can be said to be truly overcome when this unification is achieved. Should he aspire to be pure spirit and to reject the flesh as pertaining to his animal nature alone, then spirit and body would both lose their dignity. On the other hand, should he deny the spirit and consider matter, the body, as the only reality, he would likewise lose his greatness. The epicure Gassendi used to offer Descartes the humorous greeting: “O Soul!” And Descartes would reply: “O Flesh!”. Yet it is neither the spirit alone nor the body alone that loves: it is man, the person, a unified creature composed of body and soul, who loves” (No. 5).

The traditional understanding of a “soul” viewed it as a principle that makes something alive, and in this sense animals and plants have souls, but not spiritual souls, since they are not created in the image of God. The souls of human beings are spiritual. Jesuit Father John Hardon in his Modern Catholic Dictionary adds, “The soul has no parts, it is therefore simple.”

I hope this helps. God bless.

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