Man is Body, Soul and Spirit! Why We Mustn't Forget the Spirit

Am I wrong, but does the Roman Church, and Thomists, in particular, have a tendency to neglect discussion of the spirit of man?

While in the Eastern Church, it seems to be taken for granted that the spirit is part of the anthropology, it is not always the case in the West. I have, from time to time, come across Roman Catholics who omit mention of it when discussing the nature of man, or skip over it quickly with a remark such as, 'I'm a Thomist, so I'm not sure what the spirit is.'

The Cathechism is vague. In the section 'Body and Soul But Truly One' (CCC362-368) it stresses the unity of body and soul in man but mentions the spirit almost as an afterthought without clearly defining it.

I'm wondering why this is?

The idea of the spirit of man is rooted in scripture after all. St Paul refers to man as body, soul, and spirit, as does the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews. (I understand that scripture scholars, in accord with Ronald Knox, are now coming back to the idea that St Paul wrote this epistle.) However, the concept of the spirit does not arise naturally out of philosophical anthropology and is not referred to by Aristotle. I'm wondering if this apparent neglect is a reflection of this. Another factor may be that historically in seminarian formation in the West, there has been a higher focus on philosophy and, relatively, less on scripture than in the seminarian formation of priests in the Eastern Church. Pius X commented on the adverse effects of this in Quonian re biblica.

Here are some thoughts that I have about the importance of following the scriptural anthropology. 


I was first presented with the idea of the spirit when learning to paint. When I was studying iconography, we would sometimes paint a separated shape in a furrowed brow, between the eyebrows. This is not present in all icons, but I was told that this can be and is considered a symbolic representation of the 'spiritual eye' by which we 'see' God. This is the spirit, the highest aspect of the soul, I was told.

From my contact with Eastern Christians, here is my simple understanding of how the spirit relates to the soul: the spirit is the highest part of the soul. It is that part of the soul which touches God, a portal for the grace that pours out from God ‘transfiguring’ us into the image and the likeness of God. The divinely created order of the human person is the spirit, which is closest to God, rules the rest of the soul, which in turn governs the body. All move together in union and communion with God. This does not introduce a duality into the soul, rather it distinguishes between the highest and lowest parts of a single entity. The higher parts liken us to angels and the lower to animals.

Here is Ephraim the Syrian, who is a Doctor of the Church, saying it far more eloquently in his Hymns of Paradise:

Far more glorious than the body is the soul, and more glorious still than the soul is the spirit, but more hidden than the spirit is the Godhead. 

At the end, the body will put on the beauty of the soul, the soul will put on that of the spirit, while the spirit shall put on the very likeness of God’s majesty. 

For bodies shall be raised to the level of souls, and the soul to that of the spirit, while the spirit shall be raised to the height of God’s majesty.

The account of precisely which faculties are proper to the spirit alone and which are proper to the rest of the soul does vary from commentator to commentator. What complicates the matter further in the East, is that even when writing in Greek, the Church Fathers did not always use the same word when referring to the spirit. I'm not a Greek scholar, but they seem to switch between psyche and nous. I'm guessing that the meanings of particular words had migrated over centuries and so they wrote for their own time. Nevertheless, a common thread that seems discernible is that the spirit is the highest aspect of the soul by which we 'see' God.

Consistent with this, a Melkite Catholic priest gave us three simple Lenten exercises this year (in addition to the Lenten fast). First was some additional physical exercise to help the body, second engaged the intellect with some elevating reading or study, and third was to add something to our prayer lives.

The threefold anthropology is present in the Western tradition and even in the writing of St Thomas. In the Letter to the Hebrews (4:12) we read:

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 

And in his commentary on this passage St Thomas wrote:

According to the Apostle there are three things in man: body, soul, and spirit: ‘That you wholly spirit and soul and body may be preserved blameless in the coming of our Lord’ (1 Th. 5:23). For we know what the body is. But the soul is that which gives life to the body; whereas the spirit in bodily things is something subtle and signifies immaterial substance: ‘Egypt is man and not God: and their horses, flesh, and not spirit’ (Is. 31:3). Therefore, the spirit in us is that by which we are akin to spiritual substances; but the soul is that through which we are akin to the brutes. Consequently, the spirit is the human mind, namely, the intellect and will. This has led some to assert that there are different souls in us: one which perfects and vivifies the body and is called a soul in the proper sense; another is the spirit, having an intellect by which we understand and a will by which we will. Consequently, those two are called substances rather than souls. But this opinion was condemned in the book, The Dogmas of the Church. Therefore, we must say that the essence of the soul is one and the same, and by its essence it vivifies the body, and by its power, which is called the intellect, it is the principle of understanding eternal things.

This last point, that recognition of the existence of the spirit does not introduce a duality into the soul, is emphasized in the Cathechism too (CCC367).

St Thomas's analysis is consistent with that of the Eastern Fathers, in respect to his considering the spirit the highest aspect of the soul (although it might differ in other ways). This makes the reluctance of Thomists to engage with the subject all the more surprising to me.

Some recent commentators in the Roman Church are addressing the subject, but they tend to be outside the Thomist mainstream. So the late Stratford Caldecott presented a paper (at a Liturgical conference at Fontcombault in France in 2001) called, Towards a Liturgical Anthropology. Caldecott suggested that the diminishment of the importance of the spirit in Catholic anthropology has led, in part, to the rise of the error of dualism in the West and to an incomplete participation in the liturgy since the 19th century at least, and this, in turn, has led to the Catholic cultural decline that we are all so well aware of. The passage from St Ephraim suggests that the spirit is a special place in us that is in primary contact with God’s majesty and that it is itself raised to God’s majesty and is transfigured. This indicates a special place therefore for the spirit in our participation in the liturgy, for the liturgy is the primary encounter with God by which we ascend, by degrees in this life, to union with God and which is complete, as St Ephrem puts it ‘at the end’ in paradise. It reinforces an idea that Caldecott described in his essay, for example:

In his essay on “Tripartite Anthropology” in the collection Theology in History, Henri de Lubac traces the rise and fall in Christian tradition of the idea that man is composed not simply of body and soul, but of body, soul and spirit (1 Thess 5:23). Of course, in much of the tradition the soul and spirit are treated as one, yet traces of the distinction remain, whether in St Teresa’s reference to the “spirit of the soul” or (arguably) in St Thomas’s intellectus agens. It is certainly present in The Philokalia, where the eastern fathers contrast the nous dwelling in the depths of the soul with the dianoia or discursive reason. Jean Borella also writes of this topic of the “human ternary,” making clear its roots in the Old Testament. For the philosopher who became John Paul II, the “third” in question seems to be that “reflexive” consciousness by which we experience the drama of human existence as acting persons.  

The spirit is the “place” within us where we receive the kiss of life from our Creator (Gen 2:7), and where God makes his throne in the saints. Thus when St Paul appeals to the Romans (12:1-2) to present their bodies as a living sacrifice in “spiritual worship” (logike latreia), he immediately continues: “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind [nous], that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Paul implies that the “logic” of Christian worship — a logic of self-sacrifice that conforms us to the will of God - corresponds to a new intelligence. Discussions of the liturgy in the immediate postconciliar period may not have taken enough account of this fact – with the results we have already noted. 

Sitting on the panel of speakers at that conference and listening to the presentation was Cardinal Ratzinger. He has written and spoken about the importance of the spirit both before and since. As Pope Benedict XI for example, in a papal address, on St Gregory of Nyssa, he described this anthropology of body, soul, and spirit as being part of the tradition of the Church.

Much earlier, he wrote an article on the nature of the human person entitled Retrieving the Tradition - Concerning the Notion of Person in Theology in the Fall 1990 edition of Communio. His approach was, as the title suggested, theological and it describes how the notion of the human person has arisen from the development of a theology of the persons of the Trinity. From this, he identifies the human spirit as that part of us that makes us distinct from other, lower, creatures as it enables us to be in relation to others and in relation to God, and to be self-aware in a unique way:

It is the nature of spirit to put itself in relation, the capacity to see itself and the other. Hedwig Conrad-Martius speaks of the retroscendence of the spirit: the spirit is not merely there; it goes back upon itself, I as it were; it knows about itself; it constitutes a doubled existence which not only is, but knows about itself, has itself. The difference between matter and spirit would, accordingly, consist in this, that matter is what is "das auf sich Geworfole" (that which is thrown upon itself), while the spirit is "das sich selbst Entwerfende" (that which throws itself forth, guides itself or designs itself) which is not only there, but is itself in transcending itself, in looking toward the other and in looking back upon itself. However, this may be in detail - we need not investigate it here - openness, relatedness to the whole, lies in the essence of the spirit. And precisely in this, namely, that it not only is, but reaches beyond itself, it comes to itself. In transcending itself it has itself; by being with the other it first becomes itself, it comes to itself. Expressed differently again: being with the other is its form of being with itself. One is reminded of a fundamental theological axiom that is applicable here in a peculiar manner, namely Christ's saying, "Only the one who loses himself can find himself"

It is the faculty of love by which we relate to God. God loves us, we accept that love and then return it to him. Only then are we, in turn, able to relate and love other persons. The dynamic of love that originates with God stimulates a special form of knowing and a special form of desiring. If this indeed the influence of the spirit, it is not so much a seperate entity that can be isolate, but rather one that is influenced by the divine and in turn impinges upon all aspects of our humanity. It engages all other human faculties, purifies, transforms and exalts them, directing them to their highest end in a unity of the human person.

The desire to love God and to worship him - the virtue of religion - is something that differentiates us from the animals and likens us to angels. It is also the highest expression of the love of God. It is easy to see the neglect of consideration of the spirit of man might indeed affect our liturgical life profoundly with all the ramifications that will have on the Christian life and society as a whole.

To think of just once example, the flawed New Age spirituality promoted an anthropology of Mind, Body, Spirit. One wonders if this arose out of a misdirected but instinctive sense of what was right. Perhaps we should be relaunching a Body, Soul, Spirit spirituality to supplant this. This would be a richer spirituality rooted in the Church Fathers, liturgically oriented and founded on a correct understanding of man.

The adherence to these New Age philosophies, from the uniquely self-indulgent spirituality of California Buddhism to crystal gazing, fail to deliver what people really want. Christianity - or more particular Christ - is what we yearn for, and Christianity contains all that we need to get it. However, this is more likely to happen the more that we Christians are capable of offering to them, and that begins by grasping it ourselves. So, all those involved in the creative retrieval of Thomism of the sort engaged in by figures in the recent past, such as Norris Clarke and Cornelio Fabro, perhaps you could turn your thoughts to the Pauline, threefold anthropology? The alternative is to look at the Eastern Fathers for inspiration on this and be prepared to pass this on, perhaps giving it a Thomistic spin in the process in order to encourage others to look at it! Wherever we get it from, I think it matters.


Oh no, not this please...