Orthodox America

On the Soul and Union With God

By Priest Paul Volmensky

The Holy King and Prophet David counselled his son, Solomon: And now, Solomon my son, may you know the God of your fathers, and serve Him with a perfect heart and a willing mind (I Chron. 28:9). Centuries later, Bishop Theophan the Recluse wrote, "The greatest and most perfect thing a man may desire to attain is to come near to God and dwell in union with Him." This is the main purpose, the main goal, of each individual soul. In view of the importance of this task, a task that requires great effort, we offer here some thoughts about God, about the soul and its composition, and about the path to union with God.


What is God like? He is Inscrutable in essence, but known to us through His attributes, according to the measure of the purity of our soul. Sacred Scripture attests that God is Spirit (John 4:24). However, we also know that God is one in essence and triple in Persons." The Hypostases of God have personal attributes: the Father is not born, the Son is born, the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father. Three Persons, yet one God, Trinity undivided.

This is a mystery not entirely comprehensible, but it does come clearer for us if we think about God's closeness to the world: "God is above us, God is with us, God is in us." Above us is God the Father, the ever-flowing Source, the Foundation of every existence. We are His children by grace. With us is God the Son, Who has revealed Himself as Man in a most perfect image, performing miracles and teaching with His words. In us, by His power and grace, is God the Holy Spirit, Who fillest all things, Who is the Giver of Life, the Comforter.

The mystical, inner life of God concealed in the depths of Divinity has been revealed to the world in time "by the sending down of the Son of God from the Father into the world, and by the activity of the wonderworking, life-giving and saving power of the Comforter, the Holy Spirit."

God the Son is also called the Word. The same Apostle begins his Gospel with the following: In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by Him; and without Him was not anything made that was made (John 1:1-3). These verses are important not only because they shed light on the dogma of the oneness of essence and the equality of honor of God the Son with God the Father. Understanding that the Word is the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity is essential when we study the nature of the human soul.


Let us make man in our image (Gen. 1:26). God as Trinity adorned human nature with His image and likeness.

The soul has three particular powers: mind, thought (or word), and spirit. Our mind, as the source, the beginning of both thought and spiritual feeling, is an image of the Father. Our word (an unpronounced word is a thought) is an image of the Son, and our spirit, the capacity for spiritual feeling, is an image of the Holy Spirit.

Here is what Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov writes:

"The mind begat and does not cease to beget thought. Thought, having been begotten, does not cease to again be begotten and at the same time remains continuously begotten, concealed in the mind.

"The mind cannot exist without thought, just as thought cannot exist without the mind. The beginning of the one is, without fail, the beginning of the other. The existence of the mind is the existence [source] of thought.

"In exactly the same way, our spirit proceeds from our mind and synergizes the thought. Therefore every thought has its own spirit, every order of thoughts has its own separate spirit...

"A thought cannot exist without a spirit. The existence of the one is necessarily accompanied by the existence of the other.

"Our mind, word and spirit, by virtue of the simultaneity of their origin and their mutual relationships, serve as an image of the Trinity." (Ascetical Writings, Vol. VII)

The Father is inscrutable, indescribable. But, according to the teaching of Saint Athanasius the Great, the Image of the Father is the Son, Who said, He that hath seen Me hath seen the Father ... I am in the Father and the Father [is] in Me (John 14:9-10). The same may be said about man's mind and his thought. We cannot know the mind of our neighbor in and of itself. But we can know him in part through acquaintance with the thoughts his mind produces.

The Holy Spirit is called the Power from on High (Luke 24:49), the Spirit of Truth (John 14:17). The spirit of man also has a known power. The spirit of a man is the spirit of his thoughts, be they true or false. Man's spirit "is manifest both in the secret movements of the heart and in the order of his thoughts and in all of his actions. By the spirt of a man, both his mind and the order of his thoughts are revealed. The spirit of every action exposes the thought, guiding the man during the action."

The state of the soul is manifest through words and thoughts as confirmed by the Sacred Scriptures: Those things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart; and they defile the man. For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies (Matt. 14: 18-19).


The image of God is the very essence of the soul. It remains forever inalienable, even when the soul is immersed in the mire of sin or bound and cast into outer darkness (hell). "I am an image of Thine ineffable glory, though I bear the wounds of sin" (hymn from the memorial service).

The likeness of God lies in the godly attributes of the soul. The newly-created man was like unto God: "eternal, most-wise, good, pure, incorruptible, holy, foreign to every sinful passion, to every sinful thought and feeling. It is in the nature of the image of God to be in all things like unto God. Otherwise, the image would be insufficient, unworthy of God; it would not fulfill its purpose."

But alas, the image of God was corrupted through the sin of disobedience. Having abused self-dominion and deceived by the devil, man severed his will from the will of God, thereby driving from himself the Spirit of God and distorting the divine likeness. In this derangement of the soul, "thought and spirit war against each other; they disengage from submission to the mind and rebel against it. The mind is in continual confusion, in a horrible darkness, barring it from God and the way to God." Because of this derangement, the soul experiences terrible torment. Instead of eliminating the cause of this torment by restoring the fallen image, the soul, more often than not, attempts to blunt it by diversions and pleasures. But woe, "having reposed under the canopy of amusements, torment awakens with renewed strength." Who does not know the emptiness of soul and the darkness of abandonment after immoderate, even desperate subjection of oneself to pleasures and distractions?


Man is liberated from the Fall by God's wondrous providence. God, through His Second Person, took upon Himself His (Own) image: He became incarnate. The image has not only been restored, it has been elevated to an even greater glory than it possessed when it was created.

"The Son, the Word of God, God's Truth, became flesh. Our thought is cleansed, rectified by the Truth. Our spirit has become capable of communion with the Holy Spirit. Through the Holy Spirit our spirit, slain by eternal death, is enlivened. Then our mind enters into the knowledge and vision of the Father.

"The trinity in man is healed by the Triune God: our thought is healed by the Word; it is conveyed from the realm of falsehood, from the realm of self-delusion, to the realm of Truth; our spirit is enlivened by the Holy Spirit; it is conveyed from the sensations of the flesh and soul to the sensations of the Spirit. The Father is manifest to the mind. The mind acquires the mind of God. We have the mind of Christ (I Cor. 2:16), writes the Apostle Paul."


By the grace of Baptism, the image of God is restored in us; mind, thought, and spirit are enlightened. The way to God is once again accessible to us. But where is this path? Scripture tells us clearly that the way lies through Jesus Christ. He is the door (John 10:1-9), and whosoever enters in by Jesus Christ, the same shall find pasture, i.e. abundant food; the same is led to the Father, for the Son is the brightness of His [the Father's] glory and the express image of His Person (Heb. 1:3). But how can one come to the Father through Jesus Christ? According to our strength, we must be like unto the God-Man in all things. Be ye followers of me, exhorts Saint Paul, even as I also am of Christ (I Cor. 11:1).

Clearly, our union with God is union with the Trinity. Whoever has put on Christ no longer says, Lord, show us the Father (John 14:8); rather, having received adoption from the Holy Spirit and sensing his sonship, he beholds the Father as One he knows intimately, exclaiming, Abba, Father (Rom. 8:16). Here is union with God.


The key here is "put on Christ."

One of the greatest impediments we encounter in trying to draw near to God is our own pride, our self-opinion, whose off-spring is self-delusion. This is a terrible malady of the soul. One who suffers from self-opinion considers himself "satisfactorily and in the highest degree acquainted with true knowledge of God, as one who has no need of any further growth or teaching." He does not consider the light of the image of God that is in him to be fallen. On the contrary, he develops this fallen light within himself, producing complete darkness and confirming the Gospel: If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness (Matt. 6:23).

To overcome this impediment, we must develop blessed humility, which is the converse of pride. Pride is a malady of our spirit, a sin of the mind, while humility, a good and blessed state, is a virtue of the mind. Humility denotes a peaceful state of soul. The source of this state, according to the Holy Fathers, is what they call humbleness of mind* or lowliness, which is a state of inner peace combined with a correct understanding of humanity and true self-knowledge.

Outwardly, a man can appear to be humble, meek, self-controlled. He can also have a sense of inner peace. However, without humbleness of mind, that is, without a correct understanding of humanity with its fall and spiritual infirmities, he is at peace neither with himself nor with society at large, with all of its passions, shortcomings, and abuses; nor with personal or social circumstances. He is at peace neither with heaven nor with earth. In various trials and tribulations, he loses his outward serenity and peace of soul, becoming irritated and embittered. Without humbleness of mind, a man is reckless, founding the house of his spiritual life not upon the rock of Christ's commandments, but upon the sand of his own vanity.

A man with humbleness of mind is conscious of the fall of human nature, and is therefore capable of acknowledging and accepting the Redeemer. "Humbleness of mind does not see the merits of fallen nature. It beholds mankind as a superior creation of God, but at the same time it discerns the sin that has penetrated and poisoned man's entire being. Humbleness of mind, while acknowledging the grandeur of God's creation, also acknowledges the deformity of this creation, which has been distorted by sin. It continually mourns this calamity. It looks upon the earth as the land of its exile, and it strives through repentance to return itself to Heaven, which has been lost through self-conceit." (Bp Ignatius Brianchaninov, The Arena)

A humble man is a doer of the Gospel commandments. "Comparing the loftiness and purity of the holy commandments with his own fulfillment of them, he constantly acknowledges his efforts to be extremely unsatisfactory and unworthy of God. He sees himself as deserving temporal and eternal punishments for his sins, for his unbroken fellowship with Satan, for the fall that is common to all men, for his own continuance in an unrepentant state..... Whenever trouble or suffering comes his way by the ordering of Divine Providence, he submissively bows his head, knowing that by means of suffering God trains and educates His servants during their earthly pilgrimage. He is kind and merciful to his enemies and prays for them as brothers who have been lured away by demons, as members of one body who are spiritually sick, as his benefactors, and as instruments of God's providence."


In order to believe in God, it is not sufficient to see a miracle with the bodily eyes alone. Those who witnessed the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves, acknowledged the supernatural power of Jesus Christ. But, when those same people heard His teaching, that He is the very Bread of Heaven and Communion of His Flesh and Blood is an absolute condition for the inheritance of eternal life, many stopped following Him, asking rhetorically, This is a hard saying; who can hear it? (John 6:60). Their faith was superficial, the kind that insatiably demands greater and greater wonders, like a mouth that has tasted something delectable yet quickly becomes bored and seeks something even tastier, or like a stomach stuffed with food, that still cries out for more. Such a faith, based on the physical senses alone, can never be gratified, because there is no way it can satisfy the unbearable pain in the depth of the soul, the result of fallen nature.

Jesus Christ, the Son of God, has an entirely different approach to faith. He first appears to us in a hidden manner, so as to heal that which is invisible, and only then through the senses, if that is necessary. One of the Gospel lessons illumines this question.

On the day of Christ's Resurrection, the holy Apostles Luke and Cleopas were walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus, discussing the sorrowful events of the last days of the earthly life of their Lord, which weighed heavily on their souls.

And it came to pass that ... Jesus Himself drew near, and went with them. But their eyes were holden that they should not know Him (Luke 24:15-16). The Lord did this deliberately, for it did not please Him that they should recognize Him immediately. He did this so as to give them the necessary instruction commensurate with the state of their souls. He desired "that they reveal all of their confusion, open their wound and then receive the medicine ... so as to teach them from Moses and the Prophets, and then be recognized; so that they would better believe that His Body was not such that it could be detected by all in general, but that although the same Body which had suffered had resurrected, nonetheless It is seen only by those to whom He is pleased to make It manifest."

Jesus asked them, What manner of communications are these that ye have one to another, as ye walk and are sad? With this question the Lord stirs up His disciples so that they would pour out before Him their feelings....Then the disciples confessed to the Lord all of their sorrow: how their Teacher was great before God and all people, how He had suffered at the hands of the high priests, how they had hoped that He was the promised Messiah, how this took place just three days ago, and how women had been at the grave early in the morning and had not found His Body.

Seeing their preparedness for a deeper faith, Jesus Christ disclosed to them that the reason for their undefined spiritual state was within them: O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken; ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into His glory? And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, He expounded unto them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself (Luke 24:25-27).

Only then, after this instruction from the Divine Teacher, were their eyes opened, and they knew Him (v. 31).

Such is the action of humbleness of mind. People open their minds to God, confess to Him their infirmity and He then provides the instruction of Truth for their enlightenment through the Scriptures and confirms this Truth through Divine and peace-invoking feelings of the Spirit, for, according to the personal witness of the Apostles, they said, Did not our heart burn within us, while He talked with us by the way, and while He opened to us the Scriptures?

So, Christ desires gradually to bring each soul to a deep conviction of the truth of His Resurrection, appearing to it in brilliant clarity only at the end, after proper preparation. Such faith changes into an inner spiritual vision or knowledge, it is unapproachable by any doubts or temptations inside or outside the soul. Such faith is a true shield against the enemy and a merit of eternal life. It is a true conversion.


Let us recall Pascha night. For one day, perhaps even just in glimpses, by the mercy of God, to everyone-both those who have borne the heat of the day and those who have come at the eleventh hour-in an inexplicable yet tangible manner, the Lord reveals His quiet, radiant joy, as a prefiguration of eternal good things, of unending communion with Him.

Fr. Paul is rector of Holy Ascension Church in Sacramento, California. This article is slightly abridged from a lecture he gave at the Eighth Russian Orthodox Youth Conference in Sao Paulo, Brazil, 3/16 July 1997.