Our soul is the greatest possession we have, it is what makes us human. Often the soul is characterized as some ephemeral, formless, vapor-like substance that resides deep within us, separate from our mind and body. But I think the soul is considerably more substantial than this popular caricature betrays. The soul, I contend, is the essence of who we are as a person: it is the sum of our thoughts, words, actions, emotions, sensations, desires, and experiences past, present, and future. In a word, the soul is our being in the world.
Because this is so, one of our key purposes in life is to care for our soul, to tend to the soil of our personhood. Soul care, as it is often called, is not an end in itself but a means of preparation for the life to come, when God’s future is established in-full here on earth.
Contemplating life, however, is inextricable with contemplating death. While it is the sting of sin’s curse, death is not given the final word on our life. Rather, it may also be seen as one climactic act in God’s grand drama of redemption. The problem with death, though, as Chrysostom suggests below, is that it cannot be restrained or altogether predicted: all will eventually be met with its devastating power and most will be caught unawares.
Thus the import of cultivating our soul’s virtue while we still retain consciousness. It is the shape of our soul – all of who we are, remember, not just an amorphous spirit – who will survive the blow of death and enter the Age to Come. All of our possessions this side of death will be of no consequence in a new reality.
In sum, then, as we contemplate the shape of our soul this Advent, and as we solemnly celebrate the arrival of the One who conquered death, let us heed Chrysostom’s words and begin to trim the fat from our moral lives. Let’s train our souls in virtue so we may know how to navigate the streets of God’s coming kingdom.
John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel of Matthew, 77, 2ff.
‘Be sure of this: if the master of the house had known the hour of night when the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and not let his house be broken into. So too, you also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come’ (Mt 24:43-44).
He does not reveal the day, so that they will remain vigilant and ever ready; and he declares that he will come at the hour they least expect, so that they will remain constantly prepared for battle and dedicated to virtue. This is what his words ultimately mean: if men knew the time of their death, they would prepare for that hour in every way and with the greatest effort. That their fervor might not be limited to that day, he reveals neither the day of universal judgment nor the day of particular judgment; they will thus be always fervent and in constant expectation.
This is the reason he leaves the end of every man’s life in a veil of uncertainty. It seems to me that he also intends to rouse and confound the lazy, whose souls do not manifest the same concern as those whose riches instead lead them to fear the raids of a thief.