Volume > Issue > The Empty Self vs. the Rich Soul

The Empty Self vs. the Rich Soul


By Mitchell Kalpakgian | January 2004
Mitchell Kalpakgian is author of The Mysteries of Life in Children's Literature.

On any given weekend many individuals will enter a video store and take home not a classic movie, but five or six videos of mediocre to vulgar quality. On any typical school day a large percentage of children will receive their daily dosage of Ritalin. On any weekday night many families will pass long hours in front of the TV or on the Internet, and on the weekend spectator sports events will occupy most of Saturday and Sunday — and even Monday nights. Estimates by the Couple to Couple League indicate that over 80 percent of married couples of childbearing age will purchase their supplies of contraceptives and pills as a staple of modern life. These indisputable facts reflect an emotional, spiritual, and intellectual starvation which finds relief, not in real nourishment, but in the junk food of modern civilization — the ersatz instead of the real. Hollywood movies imagine themselves as great art, so-called information highways are touted as the equivalent of education, the news media and television assume an aura of reality, and professional sports pose as noble heroism. Despite these attempts at pleasure, peace, entertainment, excitement, and garnering tidbits of information, man has an inner life that these substitutes for the real thing do not satisfy.

In The City of God Augustine explains the hierarchy of Being in the order of nature. Of the beings that exist, those which have life (plants) rank above those which have none (rocks); among living things, “the sentient are higher than those which have no sensation, as animals are ranked above trees.” Among the sentient, men, endowed with intelligence, occupy a higher place than animals, and above men are the pure spirits, the angels. In this order of nature only God, angels, and men experience an inner life. While rocks have being, plants reproduce, and animals experience pleasure and pain, only God, angels, and men possess a rational and spiritual nature endowed with the power to know, love, and choose. This inner life, which John Donne in his Devotions describes as “a little world,” is the intellectual, emotional, and moral realm in which man discerns the true, the beautiful, and the good:

It is too little to call man a little world; except God, man is diminutive to nothing. Man consists of more pieces, more parts, than the world…. And if those pieces were extended, and stretched out in man as they are in the world, man would be the giant, and the world the dwarf; the world but the map, and the man the world.

Indeed, this inner world is one of profound depths that encompass a vast range of thoughts, sensitivities, and perceptions. St. Thomas Aquinas writes that man is capax universi, capable of understanding the whole of reality. Man philosophizes about all of reality from the origin of life to the end of human existence, and he contemplates all the mysteries and miracles of creation from the glory of the stars to the wonder of love. Man experiences a full range of emotion — the tenderness of adoring a baby, the affection between parents and children, the bonds of close friendship, the ecstasy of eros, and communion with God. Man senses beauty in all its myriad expressions, from the human form and nature’s glory to music, painting, dance, poetry, and architecture. The inner life spans a wide distance from the lightheartedness of mirth to the sorrow of tragedy to the peace that passes all understanding. Thus, the inner life of man is a world copiously rich and full, capax universi, capable of loving and knowing, and designed to grasp the transcendentals of truth, goodness, and beauty.

Just as the body requires nourishment and rest, the soul also demands completeness. The inner life is intended for fullness and wholeness, for as Christ said, “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly” (Jn. 10:10). The inner life requires the food of joy, love, truth, goodness, beauty, and God to experience the depths of happiness. A bona fide moral education in homes and a real intellectual cultivation in schools enrich the resources of the inner life and deepen the sense of this capacious “world.” Teaching the young the riches and traditions of the Christian faith develops in them an inner life of prayer, reflection, and contemplation, and lifts the mind and heart to the reality of God. The purpose of civilization and culture is the transmission of ideals that enhance the inner life and inspire the soul to seek the things that are above. The sacrament of marriage, like all the sacraments, deepens this inner life by penetrating the mystery of the heart’s profound desire to give and to receive. A human life, then, requires a steady diet of the wholesome, life-giving food for the mind, heart, and soul that refreshes the entire being of the person. Families, schools, societies, churches, and culture all play vital roles in the formation — or deformation — of this inner life.

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