3 Powers of the Soul

Mind or Thought (intellect)

The mind or intellect (λόγος or and reason, and λογίσμοι or thoughts) is the part of the soul that is most open or accessible to us. This is where thoughts emerge, questions arise and answers are acquired and stored. It is the minds business to reason, think things over, and reach conclusions. The mind is where knowledge resides, as well as imagination and memory. The function of the mind often starts when something is observed with the senses. Then the imagination and memory process the information, which becomes the raw material for thoughts. From this point thoughts can translate into many different mental, physical and even spiritual activities.

Developing awareness of the part of the soul that is the seat of the mind and thoughts is crucial because the way we think defines who we are. As put forth by a more recent Serbian elder:

“Our life depends on the kind of thoughts we nurture. If our thoughts are peaceful, calm, meek, and kind, then that is what our life is like. If our attention is turned to the circumstances in which we live, we are drawn into a whirlpool of thoughts and can have neither peace nor tranquility.”

-- Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica

A large part of the spiritual life consists of observing the inner movements of the mind, guarding the thoughts and training the mind away from disturbance in thought to mental prayer.  

Will or Desire (appetitive)

The will (ἐπιθυμία or epithymia), also known as the appetitive aspect of the soul, is that which desires or wills to accomplish what is beneficial to the soul. It maintains or supervises all powers of the soul and body, and all functions which are at its disposal. This aspect of the soul always has a distinct objective and that is to fulfill the perceived need. This function starts with the choice or decision to assume a perceived need. Then the means are determined, the method of acquisition defined, and the will is carried out accordingly. This is the aspect of the soul that is most susceptible to the passions—to the influence of negative and self-destructive forces that darken the soul. The practice of spiritual discipline and unseen warfare help to govern the will and direct it towards God, which is ultimately that object of its desire according to its created nature.

As St. Gregory Palamas said in the Philokalia,

“‘There is within our soul’s nature a governing and ruling faculty, and there is also that which is naturally subservient and obedient, namely, will, appetite, sense-perception.”

-- St. Gregory Palamas

When the will is in accordance with nature, that is to say when this power of the soul is ordered and in a disposition as God intended, this power of the soul is godlike. As Nikita Stithatos said in the Philokalia,

“If when aroused an active a man's incensive, appetitive an intelligent powers spontaneously operate in accordance with nature, they make him holy godlike and divine, sound in his actions and never in any way dislodged from the nature's bedrock.”

-- Nikita Stithatos

He goes on to say what happens with the will or desires are disordered:

“But if betraying his own nature, he follows a course that is contrary to Nature, these same powers will turn on him, as we have said, into a polymorphic monster, compounded of many self antagonistic parts.”

-- Nikita Stithatos

Heart or Spirit (Incensive)

The heart or spirit (νοῦς or nous , and πνεύμα or pneuma) is the center of our inner life. The term ‘heart’ as it pertains to the soul should not to be confused with the organ (καρδία or kardia) in the body or emotions. Instead it is a term used in conjuncture with that higher aspect of human life, the core of the soul, the eye of the soul, the power of the soul, and the place of man’s spirit. It is the higher aspect of the soul and it is that which provides us with immortality. The heart or spirit is what makes humans markedly different from all other forms of life that have a soul. The most amazing thing about that heart is that it is the innermost part of the soul that can perceive and experience God. With the mind we can think about God, and with the will we can chose to believe in God, but in the heart we can realize and experience God.

In the scriptures this is how the word ‘heart’ is to be understood. In light of this fundamental understanding of the human soul all scriptures become illumined and take on a profound meaning for our interior life. For example Jesus was referring to this aspect of the soul when he said, “Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.”  When the heart or innermost spirit is pure God is perceivable. This is an important key to understanding spiritual life in general. After all it’s not called ‘spiritual life for nothing. God as Holy Spirit is perceived by us when our spirit (heart) is purified and made ready.

There are many scripture passages that make the distinction between the soul and the spirit, as well as the three aspects of the soul. Some examples would include: "and if thou turn unto the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul,"  and “serve him with a perfect heart and with a willing mind" , and "A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you" . However, there is one passage in particular that is succinct and completely compelling. Besides making this three-fold distinction, the passage also offers insight into the natural purpose for the soul. According to the scriptures, Jesus was pointedly asked what was the greatest of the commandments. His answer was so simple yet revealed volumes: “love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength” . Here Jesus entreats us to love God with ALL our mind (thoughts and reason), strength (execution of our desire and will) and heart (the very core of our spirit). This is a command to love with all our capacity, all of our being—all of our soul.

Regardless of how modern man has obscured, or even abandoned the ancient understanding of the soul, its three aspects are functioning within all of us. The mind is always active and thought processes of the intellect are perpetual, and the will is seeking every opportunity to be fulfilled. As for the heart, most of us haven’t really connected with the core of our being. Instead we allow the mind and will to run wild, which only allows the emotional side of the heart to be accessed. For the modern person, when the term “heart” is used it’s in reference to emotions or feelings and not the deep seat in the soul that is spirit. This minor difference in understanding of the heart seems trivial. However, this modern shift in understanding has lead to something very tragic. In changing the definition of “heart” from spirit to feelings, we end up neglecting that part of the soul which is intended to connect with God. This causes the heart to become closed off, which in turn causes thought, reason and the lower will take over.  Therefore, for most people this part of the soul is dormant or inactive, and for some it is even dead. When this part of a person is inactive the fulfillment of bodily senses invariably attempts to fill the void.

According to the Church Fathers, these three parts of the soul function together in specific ways. Nikita Stithatos continues,

“Our incentive power (heart) lies between the appetite (will) of and intelligent (mind) aspects of our soul; For both of them it serves as a weapon, whether it is acting in a way that accords with or is contrary to nature. When our desire and intelligence, in a way that the accords with nature, aspire to what is divine, then our incensiveness is for both of them a weapon of righteousness wielded solely against the hissing serpent that would persuade them to indulge in fleshly pleasures and to relish men's praise. But when we fail to act according to nature and direct our desire and intelligence to what is contrary to nature, transferring attention from what is divine to purely human matters, then our incentive power becomes a weapon of iniquity in the service of sin.”

-- Nikita Stithatos

In conclusion, it is important to recall the whole purpose of the soul, and that is to regain the state of Adam as initially created by God. This is a state of communion with God in perfection and harmony. Nikita concludes by connecting the dots all the way back to self knowledge:

“Unless through the labor of repentance and assiduous ascetic practice we first restore the souls powers to the state in which they were when God originally formed Adam and breathed into him the breath of life, we will never be able to know ourselves;  nor will we be able to acquire a disposition that is Master of the passions… Nor will our souls be kindled with God's love, never transgressing the bounds of self-control, but content with what is given to it and longing for the serenity of the Saints..”

-- Nikita Stithatos