Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Body and Soul

There are two things I intensely dislike, when it comes to society and social relations-- a body without a soul, and a soul without a body. This thought came into my head today, unbidden.

I was washing my hands and thinking about the song "Soul of my Saviour". I've been trying to learn some of the songs I've heard at Mass over the years. (I mean the more traditional ones, not the awful modern ones.)

Reading about this song on the internet, I came across an intriguing comment that it was sometimes considered an Irish folk hymn, as it was very popular in Ireland. Then I found myself wondering how often it had been sung, in how many churches, over how many years...

And that led me to a thought which very often comes into my mind...that religion needs routine, repetition, custom, actions, infrastructure. It needs a body.

How quickly "spiritualized" religion evaporates! How often somebody declares that they are a devout Christian but that they don't go in for ceremonies and rituals and the "outward trappings" of religion.

The problem is that, when you remove these "outward trappings", the religion doesn't really have anywhere to breathe, to express itself, to manifest itself.

You could say that it manifests itself in the actions of the believers. But this is simply to collapse religion into a code of ethics, when it's so much more than that. Similarly, you could say that it manifests itself in the believer's inner state. But the inner requires the outer.

It's funny how quickly writers, musicians and other artists turn to the "outwards trappings" of religion in order to express an atmosphere of exaltation, or awe, or solemnity, or indeed of otherworldliness.

A soul needs a body. A religion requires ritual, ceremony, repetition. And repetition entails boredom.

It may not be the case with saints, but in the vast majority of cases, I truly believe that religion requires boredom.

In fact, I truly believe that everything that has value requires boredom. There must be repetition for anything to develop a soul, a character. A saying has to become a cliché before it can become a proverb. A book or movie or song has to become an old chestnut before it becomes a classic. And so on.

Another example is poetry. I would argue that modern poetry has been entirely "spiritualized". There is still such a thing as "contemporary poetry", to the extent that there are poets who publish volumes of poetry, critics who write about them, etc. But it no longer has a body in the sense that it no longer has a critical mass of readers. There is only the pyramid-- there is no base of the pyramid. A new poem doesn't pass into the everyday discourse of the people in the way poetry did in the days of Tennyson or Kipling. They are not quoted by journalists, taken up by musicians, imitated by imitators, etc.

So much for the soul without a body. What about the body without a soul?

Well, this is a bit easier to explain. It's what we mean when we talk about a soulless dormitory suburb or a soulless indoor shopping centre. I like G.K. Chesterton's description of George Bernard Shaw: "Mr. Shaw has no living traditions, no schoolboy tricks, no college customs, to link him with other men. Nothing about him can be supposed to refer to a family feud or to a family joke. He does not drink toasts; he does not keep anniversaries; musical as he is I doubt if he would consent to sing. All this has something in it of a tree with its roots in the air. The best way to shorten winter is to prolong Christmas; and the only way to enjoy the sun of April is to be an April Fool. When people asked Bernard Shaw to attend the Stratford Tercentenary, he wrote back with characteristic contempt: "I do not keep my own birthday, and I cannot see why I should keep Shakespeare's." I think that if Mr. Shaw had always kept his own birthday he would be better able to understand Shakespeare's birthday—and Shakespeare's poetry."

The college I attended, the Dublin Institute of Technology, was more or less a body without a soul. It was a relatively new institution in a new building, with none of the lived-in, time-hallowed look that a university or college is supposed to have...certainly no dreaming spires! There were no eminent graduates, no college legends, no grainy group photographs of old classes. By the standards of most institutions, it would be unfair to call it soulless. There were certainly lecturers who were characters, clubs, societies, and so forth. But by the standard of a college, it was soulless.

So there you have it...I'm opposed to both materialism and gnosticism, when it comes to social institutions. Soul and body are equally necessary.


  1. Beauty and wisdom. How I long to have writing like this in future books from you - as I can't stand reading it off screens and it's often such a hassle, cutting, pasting and printing it. Would be wonderful to just curl up with a book of material like this ...

    1. Thank you so much Roger...I would really like for that to happen, too!