A Catholic Monthly Magazine

Talking About Spirituality Today: – 5

By Fr Tom Ryan sm

By Fr Tom Ryan sm

Retrieving the Biblical view of the human person – a helpful approach?

So far, in talking about spirituality today and, specifically, Christian spirituality what has stood out?

The spiritual quest engages the whole person. Further, it is not ‘one size fits all’ but rather a personal project that is somehow shared yet unique. It demands some level of conscious attention. Importantly, whatever its form, it involves a pattern of self-transcendence and is not a narcissistic search for self-realization.

Again, it somehow involves a community and commitment and is oriented to social transformation. It is inherently relational.

Finally, Christian spirituality is embodied in the person of Jesus Christ. It is a call to share the divine life through Him within a community of faith for the sake of the world.

Spirituality, then, is about the ‘whole person.’ But what does it mean to speak of the mystery of the human person? Shakespeare in Hamlet, Act 3 gives an insight into the person.

Made in God’s image

‘What a piece of work is man!

How noble in reason!

How infinite in faculty!

In action, how like an angel!

In apprehension how like a god!

The beauty of the world!

The paragon of animals’

Human being in worldIn those words, Shakespeare captures both the beauty and uniqueness of the person while acknowledging that we have our feet in the material world. We are amphibians. We inhabit two worlds – a blend of body and spirit.

We can consider the human person from three points of view.

First, we are, like creation itself, part of the material world and specifically of the category of living animals. Our make-up has biological, chemical, physiological and psychological ingredients.

Again, we are embedded in a network of interconnections. We have differing levels of relationships – to God, each other, society, culture, nature and the cosmos. At the same time, within that context, each of us is individual and unique. We are identified by our fingerprints and our DNA. We are rational beings, with the capacity to know, to love, to choose, use language and imagination. We are creative beings.

All of these characteristics are part of the theological view of the person. But what is central from this perspective is that we are creatures dependent for our existence, as with the whole of creation, on God the Creator. In that sense, we are limited.

Further, human experience over the aeons points to a tendency to evil, to act against our true selves and against the true pattern of relationships – with God, others and the world. In other words, we live in a good world but it is fallen. We are good but something is lacking that should not be. We need God’s saving love.

This is a brief outline of who is the human person. What can the Biblical sources offer us something more here?

 Biblical view of Person 

We hear phrases like ‘keeping body and soul together’ or ‘body and spirit’ or ‘the spiritual life.’ We go into a music shop and find a section ‘Soul’ or listen to African-American ‘spirituals.’ Or we hear of a book by Thomas Moore called Soul Friend. 

We find that we often use the word ‘spirit’ and ‘soul’ interchangeably. Sometimes ‘soul’ means the life-principle of something. Sometimes it means the deepest part of the person (“it touches my very soul”).

To help make things a bit clearer, the Biblical approach offers something that can be very helpful here. It is captured in a phrase of Paul ‘and may you all be kept safe and blameless, spirit, soul and body’ (1 Thess. 5:23). What is Paul getting at?

‘Soul’ in Greek is the word psyche. It refers to the principle that makes us living beings. And for humans, that involves life that is conscious and free. It would embrace the bodily and psychological aspects of human life.

‘Body’ used by Paul above is the Greek word soma. It denotes bodily or physical existence. It is normally used in a neutral sense, namely without any judgment about what is good or bad about having a body.

In English, then, when we want to talk about the close interconnection between bodily and psychological well-being, we use the word psychosomatic

When Paul speaks of ‘spirit’, the Greek word is pneuma. This refers to the inner depths of ‘spirit’ (pneuma) of the person that is open to the divine presence, namely the Spirit

(Pneuma). A spiritual person is one who is so open, who positively responds to the invitation to be in relationship with God. For Paul, this is the ‘spiritual’ person or pneumatikos.

Paul often uses another word ‘flesh.’ Generally, this denotes ‘fleshliness’ or sarx. It refers to the whole person from a certain perspective, namely, being frail, prone to sin and to resisting God. But this does not necessarily mean the ‘flesh’ equals ‘sinful.’

It is in the flesh (sarx) that, as Brendan Byrne says, ‘sin gets a hold’ in human nature and is often felt in the body. It is important to remember that ‘flesh’ refers to the creaturely aspect of human existence especially as it resists or opposes the action of the divine Spirit. It is negative in that sense.

Most importantly, we should not think that ‘flesh’ (sarx) means the same as ‘body’ (soma) for Paul. Nor does this indicate that the body is something negative or evil – even though, as Scripture scholars note, the tendency to resist God is often experienced in the body. For Paul, one who is not open to the promptings of the divine Spirit is the ‘unspiritual person’ or sarkikos.

This is helpful for two reasons.

Spiritual Struggle

First, Paul talks about in Romans 7: 14-25 – the spiritual or ‘inward’ struggle.

If you read that passage, what has been said above becomes clearer. Note how Paul talks about in his ‘inmost self’ he delights in God’s Law.

What is in opposition here are NOT spirit (pneuma) and body (soma) but rather the ‘spiritual’ self (pneumatikos) and the ‘unspiritual’ self (sarkikos).

Paul proceeds in Romans Ch. 8 to outline what life in the Spirit means. It is ‘the Spirit (Pneuma) and our spirit (pneuma) being united such that we can cry out ‘Abba, Father!’

Jacob wrestling with God

Jacob wrestling with God -cathworldart.com

Our deepest self is somehow gradually immersed and transformed into the deepest ‘Self’ of God.

 Centre of the Soul

Secondly, the notion of the spirit as pneuma gives us a better doorway to the deepest core of the self or what is sometimes referred to the as the ‘centre’ or ‘core’ or ‘hot point’ of the soul. Using the triad of Paul, we can say that the ‘spirit’ (pneuma) overflows into the body (soma) through the ‘soul’ (psyche).

In this sense, the grace of God, the divine presence in the deepest recesses of the self (pneuma) can affect our consciousness – namely the way we see the world, respond to life and people through what moves us, and the values that drive our lives in our judgments. It brings a sense of inner peace, that one is ‘in-tune’ with God and with the world.

Another instance of this is the emotions. These are described by the Catechism of the Catholic Church as the ‘passageway between the life of the senses and the life of the mind.’

Heart – symbol of whole person

Finally, we can sum up what we have said in the biblical understanding of the heart. 

In Scripture, ‘heart’ should not be seen in modern psychological terms. Namely, that thinking or knowledge is in the intellect and that love and decisions are in the will. Or for many people today – we consider the ‘heart’ as the centre of our emotional and affective life.

The heart is, in Scripture, a symbol for the ‘inside’ of a person. Xavier Léon-Dufour points out the heart “…embraces feelings, memories, ideas, plans, decisions.”

The Biblical approach to the person is very global and concrete. The heart is the principle of morality, the centre of one’s freedom and of one’s decisive choices.

It is the place where one enters to be in dialogue with oneself and where one opens oneself or closes oneself to God.

Jesus sums up in himself and his teaching in the Hebrew understanding of the ‘heart.’ (See Luke 6: 43-45 on a tree and its fruits).

Apples on tree


Xavier Léon-Dufour, ‘Heart’ in Dictionary of Biblical Theology.

Brendan Byrne, SJ, Reckoning with Romans.

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