Welcome to part 11 of our weekly series on the soul. This week I want to talk about the powers of the soul and the phenomena that is often called paranormal or occult these days, phenomena also too often ascribed to angels, Holy Souls, or demons, when it could easily have its source in ourselves or in others around us, sometimes but not always in the circle of our family and friends. Notes and links are at the end of this post.
What I mean is this: When I was younger I saw what I immediately thought of as ghosts. (I wrote about this in Monday’s post.) I had other experiences that I immediately thought of as coming from family or friends who I was reasonably certain were still among the living. (And, yes, I know that the souls of the dead—dead to this world—are among the living in Purgatory or Heaven, or could be in Hell, but I’m not sure I can call that living). But what if the first kind of experiences I mentioned were not ghosts at all? What if they, too, were contacts from others who were still living in this world? Or what if they were from my imagination? Perhaps, as so many do, I jumped to a conclusion without really knowing enough—without having enough data and not knowing enough to understand what data I did have—to draw a reasonable conclusion?
I don’t think I’m the only one to do this. Most people probably spend far less time studying the soul than almost anything else, and perhaps fewer still study the soul from the standpoint of Catholic scholastic theology. But in all my years of searching for answers, this is where I found them. What does scholastic theology say about the soul? We covered a lot of that in the first posts in this series where we were looking at Dom Wiesinger’s book, Occult Phenomena in the Light of Theology. But there is so much more that we didn’t cover. I’d like to talk about that now, first reviewing some things we did cover, then something that was further along in the book that we didn’t get to.
We’ll review some material from the fisrt parr of Dom Wiesinger’s book: the powers of the soul and how what we have now are atrophied powers, not the full original powers that our First Parents had. Then we’ll look at a later chapter about so-called paranormal phenomena, on ghosts and hauntings. It’s not necessarily a case of eithr/or, either angels or demons, or even a case of angels, demons, or Aunt Sally from beyond the grave, either.
The soul and the body are interdependent and influence each other. But the soul possesses “an element which is pure spirit and nothing else.” (Wiesinger, Dom Alois, OSCO: Occult Phenomena in the Light of Theology. Newman Press, 1957. Pg 11.) Though the soul is not divided into parts in reality, we can think of it as having two different aspects. One aspect has to do with tending to the body, but the soul also has an aspect that is spirit. So we have the union of the body and soul that makes up a human person; and we have a body-soul and the spirit-soul, not two different souls but two different aspects of the one soul.
About this body-soul and spirit-soul: When the soul is focused on the body (keeping the body together, etc. ), it is not free to give its attention to higher things, to spiritual things. But when the soul is freed of so much attention given to the body, then it experiences things that were closed to it before, or that it wasn’t able to see or hear or experience because its energies and powers were otherwise engaged.
“We know, however, that this union of soul and body must one day cease with death; indeed death consists in this very severance ; the question now before us is whether the two parts can exist and function in separation (Wiesinger, 11).”
When the soul is preoccupied with things of the body, it’s called the body-soul. When the soul is freed of the concerns of the body, it’s called the spirit-soul. Now the soul can be more or less fully free, so that it can be an only partly-free soul, still embodied, still functioning to keep the body together, but not so preoccupied with the body that it can’t pay attention to anything else. When the soul withdraws enough from the body, without withdrawing too much which would endanger the body, the soul can function more as the spirit that it is. And this makes me think of mortification and prayer. The more the soul is free of bodily concerns the more it functions as a spirit and the more it can learn things of the spirit.
“…for a perishable body weighs down the soul, and this earthy tent burdens the thoughtful mind (Wisdom 9:15 RSVCE).”
“Jesus often draws apart to pray in solitude, on a mountain, preferably at night (CCC 2602).”
There we have our model for how to get in touch with the deeper things of the spirit, how to withdraw from worldly things and pray. When the soul is free, it can reach out beyond the body, beyond matter, into the realm of spirit. This is how we can learn from spiritual beings, either angelic intelligences or other human souls living in this life. The soul also has power over matter. But much of this can happen without conscious awareness of the soul. Some of it can happen while the person is asleep and he may not remember it when he awakes.
This is also how the reappearance of the dead can be explained.
“[U]nhinderedbythebody the soul seeks to follow its natural connections and appears to persons who are closely connected with it (Ibid., 27).”
I just re-read this passage.
“There are, however, (b) abnormal states in which the life of the senses has been diminished, or cut out altogether, in which the life of the spiritual part of the soul is greatly intensified. In these it acts increasingly after the manner of a pure spirit, and can receive communications from other spirits, such, for instance, as the angels…remembering always that, according to theology, our first parents were endowed with the faculty of acting and knowing after this fashion, though these gifts were lost through original sin and now only survive in a rudimentary and vestigial form. (Ibid., 31).”
And that reminds me to talk about the preternatural.
“Whereas today the spiritual element in the soul can only function fully when the rest of the human personality is put out of action, this was not always so. In our first parents the preternatural endowment was fully present and active without the rest of the personality suffering any impairment. This was true both in regard to (a) the preternatural modes of knowledge and (b) the firmness of the preternatural will (Ibid., 74).”
The term supernatural is much abused in our day. All manner of things are called supernatural. Goblins and ghosts. The ranting rambling nonsense of ouija boards. The delusions of wicca and witchcraft. But these are not supernatural at all.
“The supernatural is of two kinds: the first is a perfection which transcends all created nature, as does, for instance, sanctifying grace, which gives man a divine nature, something to which no creature can have a claim. This is what we mean when we speak without further qualification of the supernatural. The second kind is the supernatural secundum quid and consists in the participation by our nature in a higher created nature than our own (Ibid., 75-76).”
And the preternatural.
“If for instance a man makes an act of knowledge without the mediation of the senses and after the manner of the angels, then he transcends his own nature and is permitted to partake in the higher nature of the angels. We call this category of the supernatural “preternatural”, and again there are two kinds of the preternatural; the first is the preternatural ‘according to the matter’ (the thing done), and is a perfection to which we have no claim; the second is the preternatural ‘according to the form’ (the manner of doing receiving—it), that is when we have no claim to the form.Thus when, for instance, we make an act of knowledge after the manner of the angels, then that is preternatural according to the matter, but if someone has the science of medicine infused into him, then that is preternatural according to the form, for that a man should acquire this science is natural, but the manner of acquiring it through infusion is not (Ibid., 76).”
Our first parents had in perfection what we would have inherited. But we still have the powers of the soul, even if in atrophied and vestigial form after the Fall.
“Our first parents were created by God and received in addition to all that was proper to their nature—in addition, that is to say, to the talents, powers, aptitudes, which were necessary for their survival, activity, development and for the attainment of their goal—the wholly supernatural gift of sanctifying grace…Apart from their nature and these wholly supernatural graces, they also received a number of preternatural privileges, such as freedom from concupiscence, from suffering and from death, the power of higher knowledge, the faculties of pure spirits which were natural to their spirit-soul as such, but were nevertheless not its strict due, in so far as it was bound up with the body and the body was its instrument (Ibid., 76).”
So the powers of the soul belong to each and every one of us human persons. We could exercise and experience them more often if we knew anything of them, if we were taught these things, and if we would withdraw and pray the way we’d need to, the way the Faith actually does ask us to.
As for the occult practices, Dom Wiesinger is not equating that or spiritualism with true spiritual practice. Here he explains the Catholic view on spiritualism. It’s worth quoting at length.
“Spiritualism was also a natural result of the rejection of Christianity; faith in the Christian revelation would have given a knowledge of the secrets which men were trying to probe, though it would not have furnished the experimental proof which in an age of technics people are anxious to secure (Ibid., 216).”
“As Catholics—and what is here written is written from the Catholic viewpoint—we reject spiritualism, not because it is physically impossible for the souls of the dead to perform feats of this kind—they are capable of that and of much more—but because it is not fitting that they should at a word of command be made to amuse us, simply in order to satisfy our curiosity or to serve as the object of scientific experiments like so many guinea-pigs to be vivisected. Souls are spiritual things, and thus physically far above human beings. They are for the most part filled with divine grace, and so carry the divine nature within themselves and are destined to enjoy the beatific vision; they are therefore ‘sons of God’ and fellow-citizens of the angels and saints, whom one cannot easily visualize in the setting of a spiritualist seance. If they appear to man, they do so in a worthy form and for some high purpose on behalf of the kingdom of God upon earth and the salvation of souls. We do not therefore deny the possibility of their appearing as genuine ghosts, but refuse to believe that they would be mixed up with spiritualism unless it is proved that spiritualist practice attains that worthy form and is serving the rational purpose of which we have spoken (Ibid., 216-217).”
“Another ground for our unbelief in this matter is the failure of spiritualist practice to establish genuine proof of identity with a deceased person, and we can but marvel that in the age of exact science people appear to remain so modest in their demands (Ibid., 217).”
“The best proof, however, that no soul from the next world has ever appeared to spiritualists is that nothing new about that next world has ever been revealed, and some kind of revelation might surely at one time or another have been expected (Ibid., 221).”
“It is not some dead person (nor is it the devil) who is the originator of the ‘revelations’ at seances…” but the minds and souls of the people gathered around the table. (See p. 222.) I like the way he puts ‘revelations’ in scare-quotes, though I’m not sure he would have called them that. I think the same thing goes for some ‘apparitions.’ He hints as much when he says, “are we really to believe that Asmodeus, Leviathan, Christ, Mary, Homer and Augustine make an appearance just to say ‘good morning’?”
But what of ghosts and hauntings? There’s a section on those, too.
“It is true enough that there is still a residual category to explain—that of spook phenomena attached to a particular place, where it is impossible to establish any connection with any living individual. In such cases as these, which are very rare, I have no hesitation in assuming, that the apparition is really that of a departed soul, particularly when a serious purpose may be inferred, when for instance the soul is expiating some guilt, or has come to give warning or comfort, or to ask for our prayers—things which God might well permit (Ibid., 227-228).”
On page 228 Dom Wiesinger shares a story about Saint Don Bosco and the time he was visited by the spirit of a person who had died a few days earlier.
“Midnight struck and I then heard a dull rolling sound from the end of the passage, which grew ever more clear, loud and deep, the nearer it came. It sounded as though a ‘) heavy dray were being drawn by many horses, like a railway train, almost like the discharge of a cannon. . . . While the noise came nearer the dormitory, the walls, ceiling and floor of the passage re-echoed and trembled behind it. . . . The students in the dormitory awoke, but none of them spoke. . . . Then the door opened violently ofits own accord without any- body seeing anything except a dim light of changing colour that seemed to control the sound. . . . Then a voice was clearly heard, “Bosco, Bosco, Bosco, I am saved.” . . . The seminarists leapt out of bed and fled without knowing where to go. Some gathered in a corner of the dormitory and sought to inspire each other with courage, others crowded around the prefect, Don Giuseppe Fiorito di Rivolo; thus they passed the night and waited anxiously for the coming of day. All had heard the noise and some of them the voice without gathering the meaning of the words. I sat upon my bed and told my comrades that they had no cause for alarm. I had clearly understood the words; they were “I am saved.” Some had also understood them as clearly as I had done, and for a long time afterwards there was no other subject of conversation in the seminary (Ibid., 228).”
I have no reason to doubt Don Bosco, and there are other stories shared in the book, but I agree with our Dom here that “such accounts should always be accepted with caution, though there are always people with an insatiable appetite for strange tales, and superstitious people who will read of such things with interest (Ibid., 228).”
Dom Wiesinger explains this all so much better than I can. I hope you’ll read his book. I can only hope to whet your appetite here. There’s so much there, too much to cover in this blog post which is already very long.
TL;DR: The soul originally had greater powers than we most of us usually realize, but we’ve lost much, though some of the powers remain in admittedly vestigial form. God’s permissive will allows things to happen that cannot always be easily explained, but some explanations are to be had if only we learn what so often is no longer taught. Dom Wiesinger was a Cistercian abbot and also a student of St. Thomas, and he took a particular interest in the spiritual life and the modern weaker reflection of it, the occult. Catholicism and Scholasticism provide answers that we have ignored for too long. There is no need to ascribe every eerie event to the action of ghosts or demons, but there are ghosts and demons, and we would do well to learn about the soul, about our own, about what it is and what it can do, so we don’t miss God’s actions in our lives, and so we don’t assume that having mere surface knowledge gives us the ability to know what kind of phenomena we are seeing, experiencing, or hearing about from others. I have a long way to go myself. I am, in fact, not even at the level of a beginner. Yet.
Thanks for reading. I hope you’re enjoying your visit. Until next time, whoever and wherever you are, may the Lord bless you and keep you, and may the peace of Christ be always with you. +JMJ+
Notes and Links
- Wiesinger, Dom Alois, OSCO: Occult Phenomena in the Light of Theology. Newman Press, 1957.(Black and white PDF copy free from the Internet Archive.)
- The Holy Bible. (2006). (Revised Standard Version; Second Catholic Edition, Wis 9:15). San Francisco: Ignatius Press. (Quoted from the Verbum edition.)
- Catholic Church. (2000). Catechism of the Catholic Church (2nd Ed., para. 2602, p. 625). Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference. There are several editions out there. If you want to use my general Amazon affiliate link to purchase a Catechism (or something else), I’ll be most grateful. Thanks!
- Images: The Mass and the Church Triumphant, Suffering and Militant (in Heaven, Purgatory, and on Earth). Public domain. God Blessing the Earth, by Garofalo. Public domain.
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