St. Gregory the Great comments that the heavenly temple described by Ezekiel (chs.40-48) is a type of the soul. Because this part of Ezekiel and much of the rest of the book are apocalyptic in nature, we must realize that these images refer to spiritual realities that cannot be nailed down in tight correlations such as X only and always represents Y. Nevertheless, within the Church certain interpretations of apocalyptic images have stood the test of time. One of those interpretations is that of the temple as the image of the human soul. Of course, this is not new to St. Gregory. In the New Testament, believers both corporately and individually are referred to as temples.
As I was reading Ezekiel’s account of the heavenly temple and reflecting on how the layout of the temple reveals the architecture of the soul, the following impressions came to me. These reflections use some contemporary psychological categories--not because I think contemporary psychology accurately describes the human psyche (“psyche” is the Greek word for “soul”), but because we have very few words in English that can be used to describe the inner workings of the human being. Therefore, I ask you to bear with me. Please use the psychological term to help you look inside yourself to see beyond the term to what is actually going on inside yourself.
Ezekiel’s temple, like all of God’s temples described in the Bible, has three areas. The outer wall delimits the first area called the outer court. This is the area of the ego. Here I would like us to understand ego as the story we tell about ourselves. That is, the outer court corresponds to the self we choose to see ourselves as, the self we present to others. This outer self is not a reference to anything that can be seen by others. It is hidden within us by the outer wall, but it is the self we see ourselves to be. This identity is based largely on the story we have told ourselves about our own life.
We all like to say things like, “that’s just the way I am”; however, it doesn’t take too much reflection to realize that “who I am” is really “who I have become,” or “who I want to be based on the options I seem to have.” As our psyches (souls) develop from childhood, we are assailed by impressions, urges, fears, desires, and thoughts all of which are influenced by real and imagined experiences. We observe people and imagine what may be motivating them (because actually we really do not know what goes on inside someone else). We experience neglect, misunderstanding, lack of restraint, too much restraint, want, abundance and thousands of inherited and biologically induced tendencies and proclivities. All of these are at work in and upon us, and how we relate to them--influenced a great deal by how we have observed others relate to what seem to us to be similar experiences--all of this together forms our story of ourselves, who we tell ourselves we are.
However, this outer court, this story of ourselves, is overseen by a deeper self: the inner court. The inner court might roughly be thought of as the super ego (but please try to leave the Freudian baggage behind). This is the self that ponders and considers and chooses. This inner self interprets experience and can reinterpret the story of the self. It is this part of ourselves that has the ability to change the self. When I realize that I do not like who I have become or I do not what to become the person my story of myself is telling me I will be, the inner self is the part of me that has the power to change. It has the power to retell the story. The power to repent.
Of course, our story of ourselves is not directly a story of outcomes or of behaviors, it is an inner story of who we are striving to be or of who we are just letting ourselves become. Life circumstances and habituated thought patterns and behaviors make it difficult (but very seldom impossible) for us to change our thoughts and behaviours in ways that are apparent to others. However, the inner story can be changed dramatically, even if the outward behavior does not seem to change much or changes very slowly. A person who is addicted to a substance or a behavior or a relationship (or set of relationships) may repent, may begin to retell the story: “No, this is not who I am. No, this is not who I want to be. No, I will not be defined by this mess I have gotten myself into.” And although the inner self may begin to retell, and indeed fight to retell, the ego’s story, finding ways to actualize the better, new, retold self takes time, persistence and patience. While the inner story may change dramatically and even relatively quickly, changes to our outer lives seldom come in bucketfuls. Drop by drop we seek out and find ways to manifest ourselves according to the new story, the story of who we are becoming, of who we want to be.
And by the way, as a side note, this is part of the reason why we cannot judge others. We do not know who a person is striving to become based merely on what we can observe.
When Ezekiel describes the inner court of the temple, the only decoration he mentions are icons, images painted or engraved on the walls of palm trees and cherubim. The cherubim are angels who are depicted each with two faces: that of a man and of a lion. I think these images function as the conscience of the soul. That is, they represent both the sweetness (date palms) and the severity of God imprinted in us as unalterable images by which our inner selves may continually evaluate our outer story of ourselves. This image of God’s sweetness (God’s unchanging love for us) and severity (God’s unchanging nature) acts as a spur in our mind prompting us to evaluate our lives and encouraging us to repent.
However, as everyone who has seriously tried to change the story of themselves knows, it is not easy to repent. Our old selves and the circumstances of our life and our habits operate as a great inertia. Really our habits of thought, of thinking about ourselves according to the old story, operate like a huge flywheel ever turning in one direction. Our small drops of resistance seem futile (they are not futile, but they seem futile). Without help, we despair, and we slide back into old patterns. We slide back into the self we hate, the self we don’t want to be, the self whom we tell ourselves can be no other, the story (the life) we are trapped in. And if we cease resisting the flywheel of old habit long enough, even the conscience becomes dull, maybe even silent.
But the temple has three courts. The inner court is the court of the priests. The priest is the mediator. While the priest watches over the outer court (the ego, the story of the self) the priest (high priest in the Old Testament) also has access from the inner court to a court that is still deeper. In the temple, this innermost court is the Holies of Holies. There is no English word that I know that roughly equates to this as it applies to the psyche, to the soul. However, a Greek word is often used by Orthodox spiritual writers that I think equates to this innermost chamber of the self. The word is nous. Nous is commonly translated “mind” or “intellect,” but what these words mean in English is not what the Orthodox spiritual writers mean when they use this word. For the purpose of this essay, let’s just say that the nous refers to that inner, inner self, the place where we can meet God.
As a culture, we imagine heaven (the place where God is) as some place far away, some place “out there.” However, according to the image of the biblical temple, God is not “out there,” but “in there.” The spiritual writers of the church say that the doorway to the kingdom of heaven is in our heart. By heart, I do not mean the seat of the emotions. For the fathers of the church, heart is generally (but not exactly) synonymous with nous. The doorway to God is within our innermost self.
Repentance, changing the story of my self, is only really possible with the help of God. In fact, often the very difficulties I encounter as I try to repent, to retell the story of myself, force the inner me (the priest) to turn more inward still, to turn to God for help.
“Vain is the help of man,” the psalmist tells us. I think we all learn this lesson the hard way. We all learn that the help we need to become our better selves seldom comes from outside ourselves. Sure there are those who help us, who make it easier for us to do what we want to do (that is, what we really want to do, not what is easy or habitual or what we are driven to do). And certainly there are many who make it harder for us to be who we want to be, people whom we need to avoid, if possible, if we are going to retell ourselves. However, even the best mentor and the most holy spiritual guide, in the end, will fail us. In the end, the only helper is God Himself. And the only way to find God is to enter the holy of holies within our own hearts.
What a good spiritual father or mother will do is help you enter the holy of holies within yourself. A good spiritual father or mother will not tell you what to do (except, perhaps, to suggest specific disciplines [“obediences” or practices] to help you strengthen one area or another). A good spiritual father or mother will help you accept the blood of Jesus, the perfect temple sacrifice by which the priest may enter the most holy place. He or she will help you accept the forgiveness of sins that cleanses our hearts and makes it possible to enter “with boldness” the holy of holies, the innermost court, the presence of God within our hearts. And meeting God in our hearts, we find “grace and help in time of need.”
We are living temples, both as persons filled with the Holy Spirit (or at least potentially filled with the Holy Spirit) and as “living stones” built together as one “spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5). Interpreting our inner life according to the three spaces of the biblical temple (outer, inner and innermost), may help us better understand ourselves and help us better find our way through repentance to God. May God grant it.