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The sensory power of the soul in the writings of the fathers


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#1 M.C. Steenberg

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Posted 05 March 2008 - 10:47 PM

Dear friends,

From another thread, a recent post included the following remark (paraphrased):

How does the soul 'sense' anything? Does it do so in a physical way, or does it sense in a way all its own?

I would be interested in a discussion on the question of the sensory power of the soul, drawn explicitly from the writings of the Church fathers and reflections on the same. In particular, we might begin with the rather interesting writings of St Athanasius on the topic.

INXC, Dcn Matthew

#2 Anya

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Posted 06 March 2008 - 02:46 AM

interesting writings of St Athanasius on the topic.


which ones?

#3 Owen Jones

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Posted 06 March 2008 - 03:30 AM

It's interesting that you started this because I was about to do the same. I am reading a fascinating work called "Soul Made Flesh" and it traces the development of medical science from the ancient Greeks to the Latin West up to the origins of modern neuro-science (typically leaving a huge gap -- ignoring any Patristic sources or any other scientific writings of the Patristic era) and there is a great emphasis on trying to identify spirit with mechanical/natural processes, including sense perception. We are familiar, of course, with the idea the ancients had that breath itself was animating, giving spirit life to the organism. Hence the tradition of saying "Bless you," when you sneeze.

But it was asserted that this spirit life actually was a substance that was then directed to certain organs for the proper ordering of the four humors. Eyesight was seen as an impression of the form of the thing on the mind, knowing nothing of course at the time about the science of optics, or anatomy. Sight was inherently a spiritual quality because it was one of the mechanisms by which this spirit substance entered the body. But presumably again there was some transfer of some spirit substance through the eyes to the heart. The brain itself was simply seen as a kind of release valve for when the heart became overheated -- i.e. too passionate.

So underlying the problem seems to me to be an Aristotelian emphasis on causality such that the perfect spirit/form is transferred via some spiritual substance to the human knower. And there is a constant search for the mechanisms of how this spirit substance animates the body. When it became clear in late medieval medicine and in other sciences that there was no spirit substance, and no need for a spirit substance to animate the body, then, of course, the whole idea of God is called into question, because the whole basis of animation going back to Aristotle was overturned.

But it strikes me that the Fathers were not in search of a naturalistic explanation of how spirit functions. But it would be very interesting to know if they dealt with the issue specifically, and, of course, specifically with respect to sense perception. Or how scientists of the day, medical doctors, etc., dealt with these questions. And then you have the ultimate question of what is spirit, really? How does it get together with matter, if there is no spirit substance that animates that is identifiable, with identifiable mechanisms.

#4 Father David Moser

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Posted 06 March 2008 - 04:50 AM

It seems to me that St Theophan discusses this idea some as well (perhaps in The Spiritual Life and How to be Attuned to It), but I'll have to do some reading and revisit this before I can say anything for sure.

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#5 Victor Mihailoff

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Posted 06 March 2008 - 06:30 AM

Dear friends,

From another thread, a recent post included the following remark (paraphrased):

I would be interested in a discussion on the question of the sensory power of the soul, drawn explicitly from the writings of the Church fathers and reflections on the same. In particular, we might begin with the rather interesting writings of St Athanasius on the topic.

INXC, Dcn Matthew


Greetngs to all members!

In the Philokalia Vol. 3, page 313, appears the words of St Makarios of Egypt:

"And if the soul's five senses - understanding, spiritual knowledge, discrimination, patient endurance and compassion - receive the grace and sanctification of the Spirit, they will in truth be wise virgins, but if they are left imprisoned in their own nature then they are indeed foolish virgin children of the world and subject to the wrath of God."

I'm sure this is not exactly what you are after but it is on the topic of sensory powers of the soul as explained by a saint and it is worthy of mention.

In Christ, Victor.

#6 Owen Jones

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Posted 06 March 2008 - 03:19 PM

So give us a little hint here. Is it in Life of Antony?

#7 M.C. Steenberg

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Posted 06 March 2008 - 03:35 PM

Here's a quotation from the Contra Gentes that is an interesting beginning:

This is the reason why the soul thinks of and bears in mind things immortal and eternal; namely, because it is itself immortal. And just as, the body being mortal, its senses also have mortal things as their objects, so, since the soul contemplates and beholds immortal things, it follows that it is immortal and lives for ever. For ideas and thoughts about immortality never desert the soul, but abide in it, and are, as it were, the fuel in it which ensures its immortality. This then is why the soul has the capacity for beholding God, and is its own way thereto, receiving not from without but from itself the knowledge and apprehension of the Word of God. (CG 33.4)



#8 Antonios

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Posted 06 March 2008 - 07:18 PM

From the above quote, it seems that the physical senses must always be understood to be mortal, that is, temporal. So what is tasted/ smelled/ felt/ heard/ seen at one moment only subjectively exists as long as we sensually perceive it. This is different from things divine which the soul 'thinks of and bears in mind' which is beyond time and therefore not perceivable by the above physical senses alone, but with the eternal Word of God through the grace of the Holy Spirit. Does anyone understand the quote this way or am I mistaken?

#9 Antonios

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Posted 07 March 2008 - 06:44 AM

The senses, while transient, leave eternal impressions on the soul. This is why a Christian must purify his passions so that his eternal life will be in peace and harmony. In order to overcome the deleterious effects of gluttonous living and laziness, much repentance is required and much mercy by our Almighty God.

#10 Rdr Andreas

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Posted 07 March 2008 - 08:01 AM

The senses, while transient, leave eternal impressions on the soul. This is why a Christian must purify his passions so that his eternal life will be in peace and harmony. In order to overcome the deleterious effects of gluttonous living and laziness, much repentance is required and much mercy by our Almighty God.


This is very apt as we approach Lent. I don't know anything about this topic but Bishop Eirenaios taught me that we are a union of soul and body and so there must be this mutual affectiveness. It is well known that the state of a person's soul affects their facial appearance. Elder Sophrony mentions this.

#11 Owen Jones

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Posted 07 March 2008 - 03:57 PM

Unable to sleep due to my allergies, I turned on the TV at 1:30 AM, and came upon a woman protestant minister, "pastor Melissa Scott," preaching/lecturing on the Apocalypse of John. So I thought, this might be entertaining. In fact, she seemed to have a very thorough knowledge of Greek, quite impressive in fact. One of the passages, and I did not get the verse and have not looked it up, has Christ telling the Church at Laodecea to anoint their eyes. The Greek word used is criso, from which we get the word Christ, so in effect, He is saying, "Christ your eyes."

#12 Nina

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Posted 07 March 2008 - 04:18 PM

Unable to sleep due to my allergies, I turned on the TV at 1:30 AM, and came upon a woman protestant minister, "pastor Melissa Scott," preaching/lecturing on the Apocalypse of John. So I thought, this might be entertaining. In fact, she seemed to have a very thorough knowledge of Greek, quite impressive in fact. One of the passages, and I did not get the verse and have not looked it up, has Christ telling the Church at Laodecea to anoint their eyes. The Greek word used is criso, from which we get the word Christ, so in effect, He is saying, "Christ your eyes."


Yes, that is why we have Chrismation after being baptized so that all body parts and limbs have the sing of Christ and the mark of the Holy Spirit. St. Cyril has written about this. You can get an idea about the words here. And that is why we chant that 'we put on Christ' at the end of the Baptism service. All these are for the defense of the body and soul.

#13 Rick H.

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Posted 07 March 2008 - 05:03 PM

Owen--I had a feeling you might have been watching a little too much TBN, or something akin, when you asked for a "witness" last week! :) Still brings a chuckle even now :) :) :)

#14 M.C. Steenberg

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Posted 08 March 2008 - 12:22 AM

Dear all,

Regarding the quotation from St Athanasius on the sensory power of the soul, the following comments from the responses in the thread:

The senses, while transient, leave eternal impressions on the soul. This is why a Christian must purify his passions so that his eternal life will be in peace and harmony. In order to overcome the deleterious effects of gluttonous living and laziness, much repentance is required and much mercy by our Almighty God.


I think this is quite good in its own right, Antonios, and as Andreas notes, apt as we approach Great Lent. But I don't think it's the subject of St Athanasius' address in the passage (though it is his focus in passages nearby in the CG-DI, where he talks about the senses of the soul succumbing to the misuses of the senses of the body). In this particular passage, St Athanasius is actually talking about the different ways in which the senses of the soul and those of the body function, and in particular the manner in which the soul's sensory power connects to the human person's relation to the eternal God.

This comes out in your earlier comment in the thread:

From the above quote, it seems that the physical senses must always be understood to be mortal, that is, temporal. So what is tasted/ smelled/ felt/ heard/ seen at one moment only subjectively exists as long as we sensually perceive it. This is different from things divine which the soul 'thinks of and bears in mind' which is beyond time and therefore not perceivable by the above physical senses alone, but with the eternal Word of God through the grace of the Holy Spirit. Does anyone understand the quote this way or am I mistaken?


This seems to be getting more toward Athanasius' point. The bodily senses and the soul's senses are different things, and thus they sense different things. The bodily senses are given to sense what St Athanasius elsewhere calls 'those things near to them' -- i.e. the tangible material creation; while the soul senses 'immortal things, it follows that it is immortal and lives for ever'. Athanasius is clear that the mortal objects of the bodily senses does not make them negative (materiality is good, even in its transience, as created by God); but that the immaterial objects of the soul's sensory power are distinct.

What is particularly revealing in his comment is the connection between the sensory power of the soul, and the participation of the sensory agent (i.e. the person who senses) in the objects of the senses. Looking closely at two phrases from that short paragraph of the CG (with emphasis added here by me):

"Since the soul contemplates and beholds immortal things, it follows that it is immortal and lives for ever."

"For ideas and thoughts about immortality never desert the soul, but abide in it, and are, as it were, the fuel in it which ensures its immortality."

It seems clear that St Athanasius is arguing that the immortality the soul grants to the body, and thus the whole human person, is granted because the soul senses these divine realities in God. In other words, the 'sensing' of the soul is intimately connected to the participation of the creature in God's divine life. Sensing (and elsewhere, Athanasius refers to this process as 'contemplation') is participatory. For the soul to 'sense' God, to contemplate his eternity, is for the soul to participate in that eternity and convey it to the body.

There is something quite remarkable (and profoundly beautiful) in his comments here, which tie in the senses to participation in God's divine life, which is the only abiding life for man.

INXC, Dcn Matthew

#15 Victor Mihailoff

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Posted 08 March 2008 - 03:50 AM

Owen--I had a feeling you might have been watching a little too much TBN, or something akin, when you asked for a "witness" last week! :) Still brings a chuckle even now :) :) :)


The body seeks what is akin to itself: food; comfort; pleasure; rest...

The soul, likewise, seeks what is akin to itself: prayer; contemplation of God, the heavenly kingdom, eternity; purity; wisdom...


In Christ, Victor

#16 Rdr Andreas

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Posted 08 March 2008 - 09:07 AM

I'm likely to be wrong because I'm out of my depth here, but it occurs to me that the soul's sense of the immortal and therefore its sensing of the source of the immortal - God - is something that exists in every person because everyone was created in the image and likeness of God. In many, this does not lead to a conscious participation in a life in God, but it could be that which explains the inclination of all (or nearly all) human beings to some sense of the numinous and a striving, however primitive, towards 'something' beyond physical existence. Driving to Cambridge yesterday, we noticed a number of places on the road where flowers and little monuments had been placed, obviously the scenes of fatal accidents. People with no organised religious life yet sense a need for God, even if they do not recognise that it is God they seek, and to express that need. It is what Bishop Eirenaios used to call the nostalgia for God which is in every person He created. Lydia commented in terms very close to Fr Dcn Matthew's words, the only abiding life for man is in God, saying that because this life is now largely not lived at any level and the Christian faith, which used to be the foundation of our society, is marginalised to say the least, society has become dysfunctional and people suffer the consequences of quashing this nostalgia, this striving towards God. Life without God is madness, a denial of who and what we are. In short, we do not live as we were meant to live and we are sick as a result - the theme, I think, of Lent.

Edited by Andreas Moran, 08 March 2008 - 09:32 AM.


#17 M.C. Steenberg

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Posted 08 March 2008 - 01:36 PM

In the above, Victor wrote:

The body seeks what is akin to itself: food; comfort; pleasure; rest...

The soul, likewise, seeks what is akin to itself: prayer; contemplation of God, the heavenly kingdom, eternity; purity; wisdom...


Yes, this is certainly true, and an important part of the ascetical equation. Though this is rather more a question of the inclinations of the senses, rather than their particular function and sensory nature.

But there is also some nuance in St Athanasius' writings to temper even these statements. Firstly, the heavenly kingdom and eternity are no more akin to the soul than the body, since the whole human person, body as well as soul, has been created for both. As a created entity, the soul is no more eternal than the body, save that it has a more obvious eternal dimension, since it is not given to the material corruptibility / decay of the body. So while compared with the flesh, the soul appears 'eternal' (and Athanasius calls it this from time to time), nonetheless in an ultimate sense, the soul is as finite as the body, since it is a created thing, brought into being and thus bound to pass out of being unless sustained by something greater (i.e. the eternity of God).

So there is some important nuance to be had in distinguishing just what it is that the soul senses and has akin to itself, that is distinct from the body.

Similarly, that the soul seeks after or longs after more spiritual things and the contemplative participation in God, which is the true order of creation as Athanasius explores it, has to be tempered by the fact that the soul's inclinations are effected by sin. So while the soul should seek after such things, in point of actual fact, it most often does not. St Athanasius describes this as the soul, out of habit, 'preferring those things closer to itself' - i.e. the lusts of the world.

INXC, Dcn Matthew

#18 Antonios

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Posted 09 March 2008 - 06:29 AM

Dear Matthew and friends,

My understanding from my readings (which are surely lacking) is that if the goal of Christian living is to live in Christ, then we should never disregard the body as some burden or excess weight in which we must do battle! This is an essential and permanent aspect of what God deified after He was tortured and executed and then resurrected and ascended back to the Kingdom of God. The reconciliation of Love, pure perfection of created and Uncreated, a communion par excellence! This is the Only-Begotten Son of God, Jesus Christ our Lord!

The fall and its dire consequences, which have destroyed our loving communion with God through our arrogance and pride, have corrupted and caused division in all of creation. What was once True Life has shattered into a multitude of pieces! Broken is the complete unity with God as a solitary movement of pure love, a singular all encompassing movement of eternal love. A Divine Love, which is God's very own Uncreated Energy! Instead, our soul and body now ache, forever in discomfort and confusion as they drift further and further away from each other.

And so, instead of loving with all of our body, we have divided our bodies as well! Now, our eyes are not set for beholding the Light of God, but rather to spy some scandalous activity. Our noses are not to smell the Incense of the Kingdom, but rather some vagrant aromas. And so forth with the power of hearing and of tasting and of feeling, all these our 'physical' senses (which are physical merely because we think we have discovered so much under expensive microscopes). But our limits do not necessitate some limit to God. And thus, the soul may be as physical as the rest of the senses, though we cannot measure it or graph it. We should always remember that before God breathed life into Adam, the body was first created. Only after did God grant the Holy Spirit and give Life to His creation in His own image and likeness. Thus, our bodies are not some added baggage, but the foundation of our very soul! A God given tabernacle to contain eternal love and the Kingdom of God!

If the very foundation is weakened, than the entire house is vulnerable, and its complete existence is in jeopardy! And so, we imitate our greatest Teacher, Jesus Christ, Who fasted for 40 days. We learn from our Saviour Who become master of His flesh. We purify our entire being to offer back to Him a portion of what He gave for us on the Cross. Only then can be perceive the joy of the saints! Only then can we learn of the peace Christ spoke about!

In Christ,
Antonios

#19 Victor Mihailoff

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Posted 09 March 2008 - 06:35 AM

But there is also some nuance in St Athanasius' writings to temper even these statements. Firstly, the heavenly kingdom and eternity are no more akin to the soul than the body, since the whole human person, body as well as soul, has been created for both.


St Diodochos of Photiki wrote, "Just as the senses of the body impel us almost violently towards what attracts them, so the perceptive faculty of the intellect, once it tastes the divine goodness, leads us towards invisable blessings. Everything longs for what is akin to itself: the soul, since it is bodiless, desires heavenly goods, while the body, being dust, seeks earthly nourishment. So we shall surely come to experience immaterial perception if by our labours we refine our material nature."

"Divine knowledge, once it is awakened in us, teaches us that the perceptive faculty natural to our soul is single, but that it is split into two distinct modes of operation as a result of Adam's disobedience. This single and simple perceptive faculty is implanted in the soul by the Holy Spirit; but no one can realize this singleness of perception except those who have willingly abandoned the delights of this corruptible life in the hope of enjoying those of eternity, and have caused every appetite of the bodily senses to wither away through self-control."

As a created entity, the soul is no more eternal than the body, save that it has a more obvious eternal dimension, since it is not given to the material corruptibility / decay of the body.


St John Chrysostom says, "In order to prevent the human intellect from thinking that it is God (my note: exactly what Satan used to 'beguile' Eve), God has subjected it to ignorance and forgetfulness, so that in this way it may acquire humility." He also says that the Creator willed that there should be a separation in their natural intermixture of soul and body. The diaform soul, as St John Klimakos says, either ascends upward to heaven, or goes downward to hades, while the earthly body returns to the earth from which it was taken. But through the grace of our Saviour Jesus Christ these two separated are once more joined together at His second coming, so that each of us may receive the due reward for his works. Who can grasp but an inkling of this mystery without being astonished? God raises man again from the earth after he has committed so many terrible crimes, despising the devine commandments, and He bestows on man the same immortality that he possessed originally, even though man has disobeyed the commandment which preserves him from death and corruption, and in his arrogance has brought death upon himself. (Note: St Peter of Damaskos fully agrees with St John Chrysostom on the above).

So while compared with the flesh, the soul appears 'eternal' (and Athanasius calls it this from time to time), nonetheless in an ultimate sense, the soul is as finite as the body, since it is a created thing, brought into being and thus bound to pass out of being unless sustained by something greater (i.e. the eternity of God).


This is true, however the soul can also operate quite freely from the body's influence. St Symeon The New Theologian says, "It is not always both the soul and the mind that are perturbed by the body. Sometimes it is the soul alone that suffers, while the mind says to it, 'What is wrong with you?' and comforts it. At other times the mind is blinded and covered with a veil, while the soul remains free and by the power of the divine fire expels the darkness, removes the veil, and makes the soul see clearly."

I agree that the soul is not eternal because it had a beginning when it was created, but it is immortal, since it has no end. The body we have in this earthly life is mortal. Though we who become citizens of heaven will have a transfigured body which, will be a transfiguration of our earthly body, it will not be the same in many ways. It will not be flesh and blood but much subtler. It will not show the signs of age as we know them. Disabilities and illnesses will be entirely absent. The senses will be vastly superior to what we have on earth, for example, the sense of sight will be such that one could see vast distances and discern minute details to boot.

The Lord performed a miracle that was greater than could be realised in the past. Modern science has only recently produced proof of the profundity involved in that miracle. I am referring to the miracle of giving sight to a man born blind. Recently, a man who lost his sight when six years old had it restored after he was married and had two school aged children. Stem cell science was used. After the sight of one eye was restored, the man found it more difficult to find his way about than when totally blind. He started getting lost in his neighbourhood which, previously he managed to navigate through quite well. He could not recognise his family members until they spoke, even weeks after the restorative surgery.

It was then discovered that the mind and the eyes make connections in childhood which cannot be made in adulthood. The man felt more blind with eyesight than he did when truly blind.

Think of Christ's miracle in that context. He GAVE, not restored, sight to a man born blind, a man of age, a fully responsible adult. Now if Jesus was simply a great physician with a medicine that restored sight or even gave sight to those born blind, a medicine that worked almost instantly, requiring no surgery and no recovery time, then a miracle would still be required because the period of years required for the brain and the eyes to make their connection to facilitate sight had passed. Even if it hadn't passed and the person was a young child, it still could not have given him normal sight in minutes or seconds.

In heaven, no one remains blind. They will have a new body.

the soul's inclinations are effected by sin. So while the soul should seek after such things, in point of actual fact, it most often does not. St Athanasius describes this as the soul, out of habit, 'preferring those things closer to itself' - i.e. the lusts of the world.


St Isaiah the Solitary says, "When the intellect rescues the soul's senses from the desires of the flesh and imbues them with dispassion, the passions shamelessly attack the soul, trying to hold its senses fast in sin; but if the intellect then continually calls upon God in secret, He, seeing all this, will send His help and destroy all the passions at once."

In Christ Victor

#20 M.C. Steenberg

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Posted 09 March 2008 - 09:59 AM

Dear Antonios,

There is much thoughtful material in your last post, on which to reflect. In particular, you wrote:

My understanding from my readings (which are surely lacking) is that if the goal of Christian living is to live in Christ, then we should never disregard the body as some burden or excess weight in which we must do battle! This is an essential and permanent aspect of what God deified after He was tortured and executed and then resurrected and ascended back to the Kingdom of God. The reconciliation of Love, pure perfection of created and Uncreated, a communion par excellence! This is the Only-Begotten Son of God, Jesus Christ our Lord!


This linkage of soul and body is of course quite important in all the writings of the fathers. The human person is neither body nor soul, but always and ever body and soul. However, what you identify in your next paragraph as 'the fall and its dire consequences', the reality of sin and its ravishment of the created order, means that the two which are created to function in harmony, often battle against each other. So I would offer that your statement, 'we should never disregard the body as some burden or excess weight in which we must do battle', is right, but with qualification. The body should never be 'disregarded' - that is clear. However, in its habituation toward passionate rebellion, it oftentimes is a 'burden' or 'excess weight' with which we must do battle. This becomes particularly clear, for example, in the hymnography of Great Lent; and indeed in the ascetical writers of the Church (e.g. St John Klimakos) so often read during this period. What is critical is that this context of combatting the sin in the body, and waging are against the rebellion it wages against its own proper and created order, one is not disregarding or diminishing the body, but ultimately affirming its value, sacredness, and integral part of the human formation coming to redemption.

Later you write:

And so, instead of loving with all of our body, we have divided our bodies as well! Now, our eyes are not set for beholding the Light of God, but rather to spy some scandalous activity. Our noses are not to smell the Incense of the Kingdom, but rather some vagrant aromas. And so forth with the power of hearing and of tasting and of feeling, all these our 'physical' senses (which are physical merely because we think we have discovered so much under expensive microscopes). But our limits do not necessitate some limit to God. And thus, the soul may be as physical as the rest of the senses, though we cannot measure it or graph it. We should always remember that before God breathed life into Adam, the body was first created. Only after did God grant the Holy Spirit and give Life to His creation in His own image and likeness. Thus, our bodies are not some added baggage, but the foundation of our very soul! A God given tabernacle to contain eternal love and the Kingdom of God!

There are a number of interesting points brought out in your comments. First, in distinguishing between the bodily senses and those of the soul, you certainly follow Athanasius very directly (at several places in the Contra Gentes-De incarnatione), echoing other writers such as Tertullian. Also in your comments on a 'physicality' of the soul. While the soul is not material, as is the body, the idea that it is nonetheless corporeal is fairly consistent in the early fathers of the Church.

St Athanasius' great offering, in the small passage I quoted earlier in the thread, is on the nature of the soul's sensory power as working participation in divine life. Athanasius' basic model is that sensing and participation are intrinsically linked, both in the material and immaterial realms. So as the bodily senses, misused, draw the human person to participate in the lustful passions, a rightly sensing soul causes the human person to participate in the immaterial objects of the soul's senses: the life of the Spirit. But of course, the soul can also have her senses misused, as Athanasius notes, can focus instead on lustful things; and conversely, the body's physical senses can also become agents of participation in God, since all of creation is God's.

INXC, Dcn Matthew




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