Defence has recently released a DVD called ‘Dents in the Soul”. The title comes from a statement by a veteran commander from our 1992 Somalia deployment who reflected that he had received “Dents in the Soul” from this experience.
From a philosophical and spiritual perspective, our soul is different to our mind. The soul can provide the vision and inspiration to direct the mind. The mind is a physical place intimately connected with the chemistry of our brain. Our soul is a spiritual reality. It is that aspect of our existence where we find true identity and purpose. All animals have a brain, but humans additionally have a soul- a place where God provides us the unique faculties to love and be loved, and experience creativity and emotions. Through the soul we are able to connect with the Universal energy of all Creation.
At the moment of conception, God gives to the cellular human form, a soul that is absolutely unique in all the world, which is then nurtured by the love of parents and others and in due course responds in love itself. Throughout life that soul is the point of connection between humans and God, wherein God provides us the intuition and instinct to act morally and ethically. The soul gives us the unique identity of every human being, with its particular makeup of hopes desires joys and frustrations. While the brain might give us intellect and cognition, the soul is a mirror of our character and personhood – our “human beingness”. At the point of death we believe that the soul leaves the body and returns to God’s place for us in heaven, alongside all those other souls that seek God’s loving embrace.
The soul is nurtured by love and affection, and is the essence in which relationships are lived out in the world. The soul however has free will, to choose good or bad behaviour. The character of a soul develops over time depending upon our inherited DNA structure, the experiences, influences and inputs it receives, and the reactions we have to them. Theists believe that God constantly tries to inform our souls to make good, right, just and loving choices in the way we live our lives. Some might call this internal communication our conscience, whereupon we have an intuition of what God would want us to do and what God would definitely not want us to. In a slightly different way to thoughts, people receive a sense of this right or wrong ; appropriate or inappropriate way of acting. By an act of free will people to act in conscience, or unconscionably.
Alternatives to Godly behaviour also emerge occasionally in this spiritual sphere. Whilst sometimes we can name people as having acted badly or inappropriately, over and above this we can be shocked by behaviour that is so inhuman, that we must accept that it might be other than human. Named over the ages variously as evil spirits , Satan , or demons there exist spiritual forces that are the antithesis of good and nurturing and loving behaviour. Rather than just philosophize about this concept, I must say that I have witnessed such demonstrably evil forces at play in the behaviour of people who have engaged in barbaric acts of torture and depravity associated with conflicts I have served in around the world. I have witnessed, face-to-face, demonic possession within a human body where the person’s natural human character was subsumed and overridden by a violent and aggressive caricature that departed from that person’s body when I ordered it out in the name of Jesus Christ. Human beings that are confronted or have witnessed such in-human behaviour can receive wounds to their soul. It is only possible to deal with spiritual evils, by accessing the power of spiritual goodness and specifically the power of God.
Not wanting to give too much credit to the reality of such evil , it is nevertheless necessary to acknowledge that most bad things are done purely by humans who make selfish and greedy or just outright bad decisions . Just as our souls are nurtured by love , they can also be damaged or wounded by guilt or the realisation that a person has acted wrongly. This may take the form of an action that has been done that was wrong, either intentionally or unintentionally , and has resulted in the death, illness or serious injury of another human being. Even the self-experience of illness or serious injury and the despair that may entail may lead to moral injury.
Equally a wound to the soul may result from inaction or avoidance that might have resulted in the saving someone’s life, or preventing serious injury. A common phrase among veterans in this regard is the notion of “survivor guilt”. A person who has avoided death or injury when someone else has taken their place on patrol and then has been killed or injured, can frequently be heavily burdened by their perception that they are responsible person’s demise. In psychiatric literature, such situations are now being commonly termed as “moral injuries”. Unresolved guilt can play havoc with a person’s body mind and soul.
The nurturing of the soul to enable us to live healthy well balanced and enjoyable lives requires something more than the rationale that cognitive behaviour therapy can offer the mind.
An acknowledgement of the importance of spirituality has underpinned every great civilisation in history. Spirituality provides the framework for positive nurturing of people’s souls and for healing of wounded souls.
In the first instance we might look at how the soul can be nurtured. St Paul in his letter to the people of Corinth said that the three most important things in life, are faith hope and love, and the greatest of these is love (1 Cor 13).
Clinical tests have proven that persons being nurtured in “love”, experience additional hormonal releases of endorphins and dopamine which lift the human spirit. Love also improves our immune response. A life lived in providing and receiving love, promotes good health. Spirituality in all its forms and in all religious traditions has identified that the source of love is God, and indeed Christians say that “God is love”. Whilst the importance of love could not be disputed by any sane individual, it is clearly in religious practices and traditions, that the nurturing of love through teaching and the practice of loving actions is promoted.
A second important component of a healthy soul is to have a strong sense of “hope”. Whilst the mind might form us of scientific realities and probabilities, a soul anchored in spiritual nourishment can be uplifted by a sense of hope. Within this paradigm a person who might otherwise worry about events in the future places a trust in God to shape future events, and even work through our human efforts, for a more positive outcome than might otherwise be expected. Hope based on faith in God has sustained many prisoners of war, in situations that were completely beyond their control.
The third element of this triad is indeed “faith”. Faith is a religious paradigm whereupon the person has belief in God or a divine or higher power. All faith traditions have teachings and stories that have nurtured and sustained behaviour of individuals and communities for centuries. Faith structures provide people with concepts of identity and life purpose that empowers them in lives lived with compassion for others. All faith traditions have practices and sacred rituals that nurture the soul. The most basic of these are personal prayer and meditation as well as regular community worship which can provide an individual with life-giving energy that promotes their health.
Conversely, spiritual and religious traditions have long established practices and concepts for healing of the soul. The “intentional” prayer for healing, involving the laying on of hands and appeal to God’s miraculous power to intervene in a person circumstances is the most basic form of spiritual healing. I have witnessed a number of miraculous physical healings through prayer, for people who would otherwise have died from gunshot wounds, tuberculosis and traumatic injuries. Indeed I credit my own survival today after being taken captive by gunmen in Iran, and more recently almost dying from cancer, and subsequently peritonitis, to the power of God’s intervention through prayer.
A particular form of prayer that has been most successful in healing the body and the mind as well as the soul is known as meditation. Essentially this spiritual practice involves quietening our minds to allow of God to place smoothing and restorative thoughts and emotions in our being. Some forms of meditation involve saying a repeated mantra prayer like “Come Lord Jesus” or an intentional desire or vision word like “Harmony” or “Peace” or “Contentment” to help obtain the state where communication with God is achieved. Meditative practices are clinically proven to lower heart rate and blood pressure , as well as stimulating the production of serotonin.
Where notions of guilt are wounding the soul, the spiritual actions of confession, desire for forgiveness, the receiving of absolution, the intention to make reparation for any wrong and the desire to behave appropriately, have provided many people with healing. This can be done best thorough another person as confessor, but also through an internal forum with God direct, recalling the traumatic event and asking and claiming spiritual, mental and bodily release from its hold on you.
Major Christian traditions have institutionalised such processes in sacred rituals variously called Confession or Reconciliation. Having confessed your concerns and being told and assured that you are forgiven and then commissioned to go forth “trying not to sin again” has a massive positive impact on our soul. Historical evidence from places of conflict have demonstrated that these rituals, both with individuals and by collective communities, have had significant success in restoring health of both victims and perpetrators, in ways that secular processes of Justice have only partially assisted.
The popular media personality, former SAS soldier, and survival expert Bear Grylls, states in his book, A survival guide for life, “Faith matters. Jesus Christ has been the most incredible anchor and secret strength in my life. It is so important to have his guidance as we navigate through any jungle”.
Just as you would approach a doctor to get assistance with matters affecting the body, and a psychologist to assist with matters affecting the mind, it is appropriate that a minister or spiritual guide assist us in dealing with matters affecting the soul.
I can but implore every person to explore experience and nurture the spiritual dimension to life. Jesus promised us in John 10:10 that, “I have come to give you life, and life in all its fullness”. It is a gift freely given and a remarkable source of health and nurture for which atheism or secularism have no comparable contributions to make.