Weekly Series On the Soul, Part 3

The triumph of the Immaculate, by Paolo de Matteis. Wikimedia. Public domain. All that spirit: Divinity, angels, human souls.

I’m writing this series as I re-read the book, Occult Phenomena in the Light of Theology, by Dom Alois Wiesinger, OCSO. Last week I shared passages from the first chapter, Body and Soul. This week we’ll look at the second chapter, Pure Spirit, angels and human souls. You can get a copy using the links at the end of this post. I’m mostly going to quote passages from the book instead of write about it because I’m at the beginner stage in understanding it; but I want to go ahead and share this material with you because I think more Catholics should know it. See the beginning of last week’s post for some of my thoughts on that. This time Dom Wiesinger gets into the way spirits communicate and the way spirits and humans learn. In this chapter I also discovered a new favorite word: noopneustia. Isn’t that delightful? What does it mean? Patience, patience. It’s in this chapter toward the end.

Chapter 2, Pure Spirit

So far we have inferred that the soul possesses within itself, potentially or actually, the attributes of a pure spirit. What then are those attributes? Here theology can enlighten us—at least to some extent, for it can tell us much concerning these attributes, in particular it can tell us what is a spirit’s mode of knowledge. This is different from our own, in so far as human knowledge is built up out of sense perceptions while a spirit’s is not, a spirit’s mode of knowledge being wholly intuitive.

— Occult Phenomena, Wiesinger, pg 12. 

There is scarcely a concept of philosophy that has been less perfectly clarified than that of spirit. The inevitable result of this has been that in all cases in which we are dealing with the effects of a spirit’s activity people go so widely astray, that they search for and excogitate explanations possible and impossible, set up hypotheses and invent so-called working methods, and all the while get ever deeper into the mire. One of the reasons for this is that it is in the nature of profane philosophy to proceed inductively from the phenomena themselves, and to endeavour to infer from these the actual concept of spirit. But this is at best a very unsatisfactory procedure and cannot yield any good result, since it is only the manifestations of the corporal soul that are taken into account. Where the purely spiritual is concerned, those engaged on these enquiries are usually devoid of all knowledge of such a thing and flatly deny its existence even where it is to be plainly inferred ; for exact science will only recognize a “closed natural causality” and rejects the findings of all other categories of knowledge that of theology, for instance. The men who take this attitude are only too well aware (as we shall see on page 137) that the whole proud rationalist edifice would have to submit to revision, if the force of evidence were to compel them to assume the existence of a non-material power.


Now the phenomena of occultism are simply not to be understood unless we can take cognizance of a cause that lies outside the purely material, and actually the researches carried on for over sixty years at the University of Durham, U.S.A., very strongly suggest that such causes do exist—as we can see from Professor J. B. Rhine’s book The Reach of the Mind. It is therefore necessary to find out whatever we can concerning the essential nature of the powers in which these causes are to be found..

Ibid., 12-13.

The scholastic idea of spirit is of course very different from that of the “spirits” and “controls” of spiritualism, which are all supposed to have a delicate astral body, and which have been invented because their existence seemed necessary for the explanation of occult phenomena.

Ibid., 13.

In man we can see two substances, spirit and matter, united in a single nature, although each is completely different from the other. Matter exists separate in the bodies surrounding us. From this it would seem to follow that spirit may also exist separate from matter. Spirit is the name given by the philosophers to a substance that is neither matter nor dependent on matter for its existence or its activity. God is a spirit, as are the angels, the devils, as are also human souls. The philosophers say that it is the nature of a spirit that it should uninterruptedly possess itself. One can only possess something that one recognizes as such and appropriates to oneself; this activity is an unbroken transition from possibility to actuality by means of thought and will. It is not an organic process—since a spirit has no organs but a spiritual one and consists of acts of the understanding and the will which are the two basic faculties or accidents of the spirit. The intellectual memory is not a special faculty, but merely the natural effect and development of the intellectual power according to habit and disposition. In order to get to know the nature of the life of a spirit, however, we must explain its activities. 

Ibid., 14.

The intelUgence of a pure spirit is essentially higher than that of human beings, for the latter can only apprehend the phenomena of matter through the senses, and it is only thus that they can arrive at a knowledge of tilings themselves and of their nature. This means that men must first learn the nature of material things, and that this knowledge serves as a means whereby they can most imperfectly grasp things that are nonmaterial, spiritual and supernatural.

Ibid., 14-15.

The spirit on the other hand first knows the nature of purely spiritual things, doing so directiy ; it first of all knows spiritual substances and, as St Thomas teaches us (I, q. 84, a. 7), through these the material (the actual object of the divine intelligence is the nature of God in which he knows everything that is knowable) . The spirits first apprehend themselves, and after this the other spirits, and by this means arrive at a knowledge of (God and) matter ; their way is thus the opposite to that of man.

Ibid., 15.

Moreover the actual mode of apprehension is different. In order to recognize an object the spirit must have the thing within itself, that is to say, it must have its form without its matter; this is what the philosophers call a “species impressa’* or “vicaria”.! Human beings must gradually acquire these “species” through study and experience, and must always arrive at universal ideas by means of an abstraction from phenomena, whereas a spirit receives all species at once at the time of its creation. Thanks to these inborn species the spirits first recognize non-material things and only after this the material ones, but even the latter are more perfectly apprehended by them than by man, despite the fact that man apprehends them directly; this is so because their means of apprehension, namely the inborn species, are more perfect than those of man, the means in man’s case being the acquired species. Similarly the knowledge of God is the most perfect of all, being infinitely more perfect than that of any spirit, because it has at its disposal the most perfect means, which is the divine nature itself, and the infused species are always more perfect than those that have been acquired.


Nevertheless even infused knowledge is sometimes less perfect than acquired, a fact that St Thomas (I, q. 55, a. 3) explains as follows : Much knowledge, he tells us, is already given to the angels by a single species ; even so the less perfect among them may need more than one, much as a talented human being can grasp a thing more quickly than a less talented who may need numerous explanations of detail. Since even among the spirits there are numerous degrees of perfection, it follows that the lower angels have need of a greater number of such species, while the human soul, which is a rather less perfect spirit than any angel, requires a greater number still. From this it follows further that when it functions as a pure spirit, the knowledge acquired by the soul always has something vague and general about it, unless by a special grace God raises it to a higher level of clarity. This makes St Thomas think (I, q. 89, a.2) that it is better in this respect for the soul to be united to the body, although circumstances may arise in which its intuitive knowledge may be much more perfect than that which is acquired.

Ibid., 15-16

[This next paragraph describes me pretty well, especially while reading this paragraph. Okay, and all the other paragraphs, too.]

For all this the cognition of a pure spirit is much more perfect than that of man, for man acquires his knowledge by slow degrees and with some labour, and he is incUned all too easily to forget anything that has not been very thoroughly impressed upon him, or anything that knowledge subsequently acquired has pushed into the background ofhis mind. Moreover men’s energies are often diverted by other forms of work, so that the knowledge that such men have acquired may become useless to them. Or again they grow tired, need sleep, fall sick, or are for some other reason not in the right frame of mind, or they suffer from the weather, from heat and cold, etc. Spirits on the other hand experience nothing of all this ; they receive the species at their creation, they forget nothing, are not subject to fatigue, and even if they are incapable of thinking of everything at once, they have nevertheless no difficulty in turning their thoughts towards whatever thing they please, however distant that thing may be, so that one may say with St Augustine that they see things that are far away as from the top of a mountain and so are wiser than man, who, like one who looks out through a chink in his prison, sees but little.

Ibid., 16. 

The theologians therefore tend to represent the knowledge of angels somewhat after this fashion. “Let us imagine”, they say, “that an angel has directed his attention on to the species of natural science. He can then not only read the main outlines which are revealed to ourselves through experience, but also all the details of geology, astronomy, botany, zoology, or of archaeology … or of the animal kingdom. He not only recognizes the different kinds of living creatures, but also each individual one that exists, or that ever has existed within each kind, its individual attributes, modes of activity, etc. All this seems clear enough. [Yup. Clear. Soooo clear. Ahem.]

Ibid., 16-17.
St Michael doing the Will of God, painting by Rubens. Wikimedia. Public domain.

Even so there are limits beyond which the knowledge of spirits does not extend. Though they know the nature both of spiritual and material things, as also every thing towards which they direct their attention and which has actual existence, they seem, according to revelation, to be ignorant of all those things that are dependent on free will and which the other wishes to conceal from them, that is to say of the secret thoughts of others and of the undetermined future (Mat. 24. 36). The same is true of the sacred mysteries of religion.

Ibid., 17.

Pure spirits can associate with one another, which means that they can speak to each other and their manner of speaking is very simple. All that is needed is that a spirit “should be prepared to reveal its thoughts to another spirit, and that that other spirit should give its attention to them” (Lepicier, op. cit., 42). Notice that it is the nature of communications between spirits that is in question here—and the soul is a spirit.


[I]t is clear that the spirits have free will through which they can conform themselves to the will of God. The freedom is an active one—which means that they can act or refrain from action in any particular matter in regard to which the possibility of acting exists. Freedom therefore does not consist so much in the fact that an act can be performed when all the factors which would lead to such action are present, for this would apply equally to any physical or chemical cause. Rather does freedom consist strictly in being able to refrain from action, when action is possible. In so far as freedom consists primarily of a negative act, of a negation, that act can have its origin in the free will of the creature, for it is only all positive things that necessarily have their primal cause in God. Actually, however, pure spirits do not refrain from performing any act which God enjoins, although they have the ability to do so, but always willingly obey.

Ibid., 17-18.

One might well ask what is the origin of this willingness, and the answer is as follows. First of all such obedience is easy for them, it needs no effort, a fact which distinguishes them from ourselves. Further, the action takes place in an instant, so that there is never any lack of the time necessary to carry it out. Moreover, because of the goodness of God and of the good spirits, the whole effort of pure spirits is directed towards good, and an evil deed would be something that would be quite alien to a pure spirit’s character. There are other reasons for this willingness that are adduced by the theologians, but we will not go into them here.

Ibid., 18.

When theologians deal with the powers of knowledge possessed by angels, they like to talk of something called “illumination”, noopneustia, which represents “an act by means of which an angel of a higher order transmits a piece of knowledge concerning supernatural things to one of a lower order. This piece of knowledge will have first been received by the highest angel by way of divine revelation and will have been passed on by him to the inferior orders of angels in a form which the latter can understand” (Lepicier, [Il mondo invisibile], 39). An influence similar to that exercised on the intellect exists with regard to the will. The higher orders of angels and those nearest to God himself partake supernaturally in his holiness by conforming themselves as perfectly as possible to his will and then in their turn pass on this will by means of spiritual inspiration (the power of which we on this earth cannot conceive) to the other spirits. This noopneustic power strengthens all spirits in the love of God, so much so that a deviation therefrom is morally impossible, though the physical possibility of such a thing admittedly remains.


The persistence in good of the spiritual will is strengthened by yet another angelic quality, by virtue of which a decision once taken remains firm and unchangeable. We ourselves fre- quently change our decisions, because they depend on motives the quality and wisdom of which we may come to reassess in the light of subsequent judgments and deeper insight ; we may in fact realize that we have erred. With spirits this does not happen. By reason of the species infused at their creation they immediately know the whole truth intuitively without error or imperfection. Their decisions are therefore unchangeable, which is what St Thomas teaches when he says (I, q. 64, a. 2) that the angelic intelligence apprehends first principles unchangeably, even as men do. From this follows also the obduracy of the evil spirits in so far as they are responsible, and it is this that makes their redemption impossible. With men those fixed ideas which so often trouble souls and which they cannot shake off are something very similar. (No attempt is made here to touch on the purely theological question whether this obduracy is due ultimately to a lack of God’s saving grace.)

Ibid., 18-19.

With the same readiness therefore as that with which pure spirits receive a piece of knowledge, they also receive a com- mand, when something is suggested to them by another spirit this capacity for being influenced is a very important principle, which can explain much to us, as we shall see in a moment. 

By all their obedience, however, and all their good works the angels acquire no merit whatever, nor do they earn for themselves any higher glory as a just recompense for good works, for they are no longer in statu viae and can perform these works without any effort or difficulty. Merit only accrues where there is effort and sacrifice and to the spirits these things are unknown (cf St Thomas, I, q. 62, a. 9). 

The theologians treat of many other questions concerning spirits, of which only the following two need concern us for the present.

Ibid., 19.

A spirit is present at that point where its power and energy is made effective ; it cannot be in two places at once, nor, in so far as the categories of space and time are applicable at all to spirits, can two spirits occupy the same place. Of more import- ance to us here is the power of spirits over matter, a power by virtue of which they can move bodies, for since “a thing of a lower order is subject to the influence of a being of a higher order” (Lepicier, I, c. 68), spirits can move bodies and trans- port them from one place to another, can bring about inward changes in them both in regard to their substance and their accidents, though the degree of their ability to do this varies in accordance with their position in the spirit hierarchy.

Ibid., 19-20.

This power of the spirits extends to man, giving them influence over his body, as we see in cases of possession, over his senses, which are also a material element, and his imagination, which in its turn guides his reason. Theologians, however, differ in their views of the manner in which his reason is influenced. Some lay stress on sensual images and on the imagination, while others are more inclined to think of direct illumination (noopneustia) of the kind that takes place between pure spirits. This latter opinion seems preferable.

It is plain from all this that the spirits, both good and evil, are great and mighty beings—and indeed that is the way the Bible represents them to us, and this in its turn goes to show how mistaken it is to depict them as a child might fancy them, as things with a gay and slightly sentimental charm about them, though that is precisely what we all too often find in holy pictures and in the more degenerate forms of art.

Ibid., 20.
Last Judgment, detail, by Jan van Eyck. Wikimedia. Public domain.
Not a chubby little cherub!

End of Chapter 2. Whew!

This has been a post in the Weekly Series On the Soul. Next week we’ll look at chapter 3, the Body-Free Soul, the soul in those moments when it is free of the body and can reach much further than is usual, “acting after the manner of a pure spirit.” I don’t know about you, but I find all of this fascinating. Even so, it’s going to take me a while to absorb it. Thank you for going on this adventure with me, for visiting the blog and reading. Until next time, whoever and wherever you are, may the Lord bless you and may His peace be always with you.


Images are: The triumph of the Immaculate, by Paolo de Matteis. Fall of the Rebel Angels, by Peter Paul Rubens. Last Judgement, part of the Diptych with Calvary and Last Judgement, by Jan van Eyck. All from Wikimedia, all in the public domain.

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Annotated Table of Contents for the Weekly Series On the Soul.
Annotated Table of Contents for all series.

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