Stephen sits in class on a December evening, thinking about dinner and about the nightly adventures that will follow: his wanderings through the prostitutes’ quarter. He remembers that the sights and sounds of the streets grate on his senses until the moment his lust is satisfied. Afterwards, he always feels cold and emptied. He was worried at first that his illicit sexual experiences would cause him physical and spiritual harm, but it seems to him that they have only brought his body and soul closer together. He knows that his actions are sinful and he worries about going to hell, but he can’t stop himself. He won’t pray, partly out of a strange sort of pride, partly because he thinks prayer and atonement can’t mitigate such a grave sin. At church on Sundays, he feels like a hypocrite.
A little later in the novel, Stephen thinks that the soul wants to be pure and worthy of god’s love, but the body wants sin: the two are irreparably at odds. If this were true, Stephen’s sexual experiences would tear soul and body apart. But in reality, they bring soul and body together. It’s a mystery Stephen is not quite ready to explore, but it does indicate that the model of exalted soul / lowly body is flawed, in his case. We also note that his sexual experience is closely allied to the senses: as his lust grows, his senses sharpen.
Stephen thinks of the scroll on his wall that indicates his role as leader of a religious group devoted to the Virgin Mary. On Saturday mornings, he leads a group of younger students in a special set of prayers in honor of the Virgin Mary. Though he does not feel the piety he pretends to, he is charmed by Mary's religious symbolism. Her motherly image makes him long for spiritual purity.
As Stephen grows more distant from religion, he tries to reattach himself to it in various ways. He directs his passion for literature at the deep and mysterious symbols with which Christianity abounds: he can appreciate their beauty and ambiguity just as he appreciates Byron.
Class ends, and Stephen walks outside with Heron and a few other boys. They go to listen to the rector speak. As they wait for him, Stephen thinks that the sin of lust has led him to all the other deadly sins – pride, envy, greed, gluttony, anger, and sloth. Then he coldly considers scriptural minutiae, almost poking logical holes in scripture. The rector comes in and announces that the entire school will be attending a three-day religious retreat in honor of Saint Xavier, the patron of the college.
Stephen’s conflict is not really between body and soul, as one (including him) might expect, but between his aesthetic and logical faculties and his thorough religious indoctrination – between beauty and boredom, between reason and belief. At this moment, Stephen is split in two: he cannot choose a side.