Welcome to the Weekly Series on the Soul, Part 4, based on the book, Occult Phenomena in the Light of Theology, by Dom Alois Wiesinger, OCSO. If you’ve missed the previous posts, you can catch up using the links at the top or at the end of this one. Last week Dom Wiesinger told us about pure spirits according to theology. This week he’ll help us gain “a fuller coneption of the powers latent in the human soul.” He’ll also explain to us a “pure spirit’s mode of cognition” and with the way a pure spirit communicates with and influences other spirits. He’ll also tell us about two characteristics of pure spirits that really got my attention: their immunity from forgetfulness and fatigue. (Yes, I’d like some of that, please. Can I have it to go?)
(Now don’t you go thinking that we’re talking about Spiritualism cuz we’re not. Dom Wiesinger was a Cistercian abbot and was not a Spiritualist, Theosophist, Anthroposophist, Teilhardist or New Ager at all. Everything I’ve read about him so far has led me to think that he was a highly respected Thomist and orthodox in his theology. If I thought for one moment that he would lead us astray, I certainly would not share his writing with you without a great big warning.)
I’ll get out of the way now and allow Dom Wiesinger to speak for himself. All quotes are from my free PDF copy of Occult Phenonena in the Light of Theology unless otherwise noted. (See link at the end of this post to get a free PDF copy.)
Chapter 3: The Body-Free Soul
The soul and the body “constitute a single nature, a single substance which is man.” “When separated from the body, the soul is continually moved by a desire for reunion with it…” “After death [the soul] must live in separation from it until the resurrection of the body on the last day…even while the state of separation obtains, the soul can engage in cerain activities which we will now discuss.”
It is instructive to observe how those authors who ascribe all spiritualist and occult phenomena to the devil seem concerned to minimize the powers possessed by the soul when it has become separated from the body; they seem determined that this whole territory shall remain strictly reserved for the powers of evil which alone are assumed to be capable of these activities.
Admittedly the soul belongs to a different species of spirits than those to which the term spirit usually refers, but that is no reason for denying that it possesses any of the powers which usually belong to spirits, all the more so since according to some writers every angel belongs to a different species but all have the powers proper to spirits. Naturally, as an inferior spirit, the human soul possesses these advantages in a less degree than the angels, but in essence it does possess them in one form or another.
It may now be objected that it is immaterial for us to know what powers the soul may possess when freed from the body, since in this life we invariably find it united to the body; we come across it, that is to say, under circumstances where these spiritual powers are necessarily fettered. Yet it is precisely in order that we may learn to know and appreciate better the faculties and powers of the human soul during its union with the body, that it is desirable to understand its spiritual powers generally—powers which the soul should never have lost, unless we assume, as some people do, that its union with the body is a form of punishment, powers which are identical—let us state this here and now—with the preternatural gifts given to man at the time of his creation. These powers were lost by man through sin, or were at best only retained by him in a feeble rudimentary form.
We must ascribe to the soul, when freed from the body, all the qualities that we have predicated of pure spirits, even though it may possess them in a lesser degree. So that there may be no misunderstanding in the matter, let it be explicitly stated that the soul is not a pure spirit in the same sense as we use that term of the angels, since it is an incomplete substance which was essentially created for union with the body. For all that, however, it is a spiritual substance, though of course it is one dependent on matter, matter being a joint cause of the vegetative and sensitive activities, and being in intellectual life a condition of its function, which means that even where the mind forms spiritual concepts, matter is the basis and point of departure of the abstraction.
Yet as a spiritual substance the soul reaches out beyond matter, so that it survives and is active even after separation from the body. This activity can only be that of a spirit and of a pure spirit at that. It is only in this sense that the words “pure spirituality” or “pure spirit” are to be understood in what follows; it is not intended to imply that the soul as such is a pure spirit ; it is, to be perfectly accurate, a spiritual substance. Yet this spiritual substance, when separated from the body, cannot in its manner of acting behave otherwise than as a pure spirit. It must therefore possess a higher intelligence, the objects ofwhich are non-material things, i.e. the purely spiritual nature of these things, their recognizable substance (St Thomas) that is separated from the body ; it therefore apprehends directly and intuitively everything that during its union with the body it apprehended imperfectly by means of abstractions ; it is merely debarred from those forms of activity which are dependent on the body such as the vegetative and sensitive life ; the intellectual Hfe, however, remains to it, since this is not inwardly dependent on the body.
The separated soul can not only acquire an abstractive but also an intuitive knowledge, and this not merely of all things that can be perceived by the senses (as is the case when it is reunited to the body after the resurrection) but also of all things that are intelligible and proportionate to itself and are present in a proportionate measure ; but all created intelligible things are proportionate to it. For this reason it can become aware intuitively of the prayers of those on the way, both of vocal prayer, which when joined to the body it can know through the bodily senses, and also of mental prayer, which will then have become proportioned to it. This is precisely my own contention.
Ibid., 24 [my note: he’s translating a passage from the Latin of Duns Scotus, Opus Oxoniense].
It might be held, as it seems to be held by St Thomas, that the saints in heaven, or the souls in purgatory, would be saddened if they knew what was happening in the world, but this is not the case, for such souls conform absolutely to the pattern of God’s will and are content when they see the holy grounds of his actions. Certainly no theologian has found any difficulty in believing that the angels are aware of what is happening on earth. Why then should such difficulty arise in the case of the souls of the departed?
In order to possess such knowledge, souls must be possessed of certain means, namely of two kinds of species. There are first of all the species which are infused immediately after the soul’s separation from the body, the species which the angels receive at the time of their creation, as things belonging to their nature. Then there are other species that derive from the time of the soul’s union with the body, and are retained by it by virtue of that spiritual memory which, as part of its powers of knowledge, it retains after separation from the body. Through these species, which mutually strengthen one another, the knowledge that has been acquired becomes sufficiently clear, definite and perfect. The old knowledge, which derives from the ability to distinguish the general from the particular, combines with the infused species and so becomes more lofty and perfect, so that the soul’s capacity for knowledge is much greater than before. This new form of knowledge comes easily to the soul. It is acquired, in so far as the soul acts as a pure spirit, by a simple act of the will.
The spirit-soul neither tires nor forgets. Before separation from the body much knowledge had necessarily to sink into the subconscious by reason of the weakness of the bodily organs. Such knowledge in fact became unconscious knowledge, but was not lost. The soul’s acts of knowledge, however, occur in an instant of time. Thus after separation from the body it sees as by a lightning flash whether it is or is not in a state of grace, it sees its Judge and the just grounds that must weigh with him, it sees its past life, the benefits it has received from God, the opportunities for good which it has used or failed to use, and in seeing all this, it judges itself, for it cannot appear before the face of God, nor does it desire to do so, so long as its sins have not been purged by penance.
Souls that are released from their bodies can speak to one another. All that is needed is that one soul should have the will to communicate something to another and that that other should give its attention to the first. Such speaking is based on noopneustia*, the nature of which can be dimly apprehended by us in its degenerate form of mental suggestion, and here theology gives us a certain basis for accepting the latter’s possibility.
Even so there are limits to what souls or indeed spirits in general can know. Anything dependent on a free act of the will, anything lying in the future that is undetermined, remains hidden from them, but there is nothing to prevent a human being from communicating to them the nature of such free acts, nor is there any reason why God should not by a special grace (prophecy) reveal the future to them. Whether God does this for pagans is disputed.
If the faculties of the soul are the same as those of other spirits, we must assume that it has a power over bodies similar to that of the angels (St Thomas, I, q. 117, a. 4). It is true that St Thomas appears to say the opposite when he asserts that a limb separated from the body no longer obeys the spirit, naturali sua virtute (by reason of its natural power), but the holy doctor here only refers to what usually happens in the case of a soul that is still fully united with the body, and says nothing of what could happen in exceptional circumstances when the soul is free of the body, and it is only this last with which we are here concerned.
That’s not the end of Chapter 3 but it’s a good place to stop for now. It’s a lot to absorb, believe me, I know. This is my second read-through of the book and I’m fairly certain that there will be several more before I can even begin to say that I’m just beginning to see.
Thanks for reading. Stay tuned for the next installment of the Weekly Series on the Soul the weekend after the Thanksgiving holiday (so December 5th, 6th or 7th). Until then, may the peace of Christ be always with you and yours, whoever and wherever you are. God bless you!
*Noopneustia: “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.”Ibid., 18.
- Get a free PDF copy at archive.org. There are also other formats of the book at archive.org.
- Image credits: Lukas Meier on Unsplash, and Archangel Michael liberating souls from Purgatory, by Jacopo Vignali, 17th century, from Wikimedia, public domain.