We all know the legend of Dr Faustus, who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for various privileges that he otherwise could not enjoy. In Christopher Marlowe’s dramatic version of the Faust story from the 1590s, Dr Faustus asks for 24 years of pleasure in exchange for spending eternity in a Hell that he initially seems not to believe in. Other retellings focus less intensely on theological questions; though of course the story is just a fairy tale if the author loses sight of the Four Last Things (Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell).
There is also the matter of the soul. Peter Cook used the Faust legend as the basis for his 1967 film Bedazzled, which is spectacularly funny in places but drags on and on in others. Cook had no idea of what a soul is: as a result, there is no real tension or conflict in the narrative. Who cares whether you sell your soul to the devil, when the word “soul” has no meaning?
Readers of the Catholic Herald do not need to be told what a soul is; if you want to jog your memory, you know where to find the definition in the catechism. Yet a shocking number of Christians could not tell you what a soul is, and have never been taught about it properly, even if they went to prestigious Catholic schools. They think “soul” is just a vague word that can be used sentimentally without referring to anything specific.
But the soul is not a floating non-entity. The concept is in fact clear and distinct. If you think of the modern term “consciousness” as roughly equivalent to whatever it is that Aristotle and St Thomas Aquinas were talking about when they discussed the soul, then you are 95 per cent of the way there.
The soul involves: the memory, the mind, the imagination; the centre that processes what you see, hear, touch, taste and smell; the brain that thinks, calculates, and understands; and above all the conscience, and the will.
The soul is what gives the body life; it is the only part of us that cannot die. Any other conception of the soul seems essentially meaningless.
Even well-trained Catholics cannot grasp this sometimes. The filmmaker Luis Buñuel often boasted of his old-fashioned Jesuit education; he shows this off especially in his 1969 film The Milky Way, which is all but unintelligible unless you have a good grounding in Church history. Yet for all Buñuel’s superficially sophisticated understanding of advanced-sounding concepts, he does not seem to get the most basic, important ones – the soul and the Four Last Things in particular.
There really is no point to a learned discussion of salvation when you don’t actually know what is being saved, or damned, or at stake.
Many might blame Buñuel’s defective knowledge on notoriously dry 19th-century Catholic teaching manuals. It is possible to memorise these texts, win high marks on exams with their help, and still have no idea of what they mean. Indeed, the various theological trends that Popes Pius IX and Saint Pius X condemned as “Modernism” were, to a great degree, reactions against texts like these. But at least the old manuals are clear, once you figure out how to read them. Whereas Modernist texts are written in the clumsy, foggy language of literary critics and other failed poets. Only an intellectual could even pretend to understand them. Yet the truths that the Church teaches are not like this. They must be within the reach of even the simplest Christians.
My late grandmother took great care of her immortal soul, and had a subtle understanding of what salvation meant, despite her lack of curiosity on theological matters. She never forgot that her time on this Earth was short. At the end of her life she refused painkillers: she wanted to be fully present when her soul left her body, as it did, peacefully during the last weekend in June. The last thing she saw before her eyes closed was a photograph on her bedroom wall of her beloved husband, who died 35 years ago.
Was she saved? After all, she was baptised very late, a mere three weeks before her death at the age of 91. This was cutting things rather fine, to say the least. But these things are out of our hands now; all we can do is pray for her, so of your charity, please pray for the soul of Gian Kaur Bains.
Having been unable to sell in churches for well over a year due to the pandemic, we are now inviting readers to support the Herald by investing in our future. We have been a bold and influential voice in the church since 1888, standing up for traditional Catholic culture and values.
Please join us on our 130 year mission by supporting us. We are raising £250,000 to safeguard the Herald as a world-leading voice in Catholic journalism and teaching. For more information from our chairman on contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund, click here
Make a Donation
Donors giving £500 or more will automatically become sponsor patrons of the Herald. This includes two complimentary print/digital gift subscriptions, invitations to Patron events, pilgrimages and dinners, and 6 gift subscriptions sent to priests, seminaries, Catholic schools, religious care homes and prison and university chaplaincies. Click here for more information on becoming a Patron Sponsor. Click here for more information about contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund