Saturday, April 02, 2005

A Terrible Dignity

David Hart has written an excellent piece on understanding the human soul in Friday's Wall Street Journal. Some excerpts:
Terri Schiavo has now died, but of course the controversy surrounding her last days will persist indefinitely. Most of the issues raised as she was dying were legal and moral; but at the margins of the storm, questions of a more "metaphysical" nature were occasionally raised in public. For instance, I heard three people on the radio last week speculating on the whereabouts of her "soul."

The "living soul" of Scripture is the whole corporeal and spiritual totality of a person whom the breath of God has wakened to life. Thomas Aquinas, interpreting centuries of Christian and pagan metaphysics, defined the immortal soul as the "form of the body," the vital power animating, pervading, shaping an individual from the moment of conception, drawing all the energies of life into a unity.

The fourth-century theologian Gregory of Nyssa calls the soul a "living mirror" in which all things shine, so immense in its capacity that it can, when turned toward the light of God, grow eternally in an ever greater embrace of divine beauty. For the seventh-century theologian Maximus the Confessor, the human soul is the "boundary" between material and spiritual reality--heaven and earth--and so constitutes a microcosm that joins together, in itself, all the spheres of being.

Whether one is willing to speak of a "rational soul" or not, there is obviously an irreducible mystery here, one that commands our reverence.

Granted, it is easiest to sense this mystery when gazing at the Sistine Chapel's ceiling or listening to Bach. But it should be evident--for Christians at least--even when everything glorious and prodigious in our nature has been stripped away and all that remains is frailty, brokenness and dependency, or when a person we love has been largely lost to us in the labyrinth of a damaged brain. Even among such ravages--for those with the eyes to see it--a terrible dignity still shines out.

I do not understand exactly why those who wanted Terri Schiavo to die had become so resolute in their purposes by the end. If she was as "vegetative" as they believed, what harm would it have done, I wonder, to surrender her to the charity (however fruitless) of her parents? Of this I am certain, though: Christians who understand their faith are obliged to believe that she was, to the last, a living soul. It is true that, in some real sense, it was her soul that those who loved her could no longer reach, but it was also her soul that they touched with their hands and spoke to and grieved over and adored. And this also means that it was a living soul that we as a society chose to abandon to starvation and thirst--which should, at the very least, give us cause to consider what else we may have abandoned along the way.

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