An Orthodox View of Heart Transplantations
by Metropolitan Philaret
The world, including most people who would identify themselves as "Christians,
receives every new attainment of modern science as an undoubted blessing to be accepted as
a matter of course. Orthodox Christians, however, must be more discriminating, for our
hope is not in this world that passes, but in eternal life. Here the [former] chief
hierarch of the Russian Church Abroad speaks on the latest such attainment, to and for
those whose spiritual consciousness has not been totally deadened by modern worldliness
and rationalism (Orthodox Russia, no. 4, 1968).
THIS AGE IS a strange age. We know that throughout the extent of human history there
have been moments of spiritual and cultural crisis, of moral decline and restoration;
there have been moments also of a so-called "revaluation of values." But only in
our age has there arisen in the world a manifestation much more frightening and
menacing: namely, the loss of values, their catastrophic disappearance from the
life, from the spiritual and intellectual horizon, of contemporary humanity.
One may readily observe today the loss of normal conceptions of nation and family, the
loss of the value of life itself, in itself and as the greatest gift of God, and the
striving to get away from the obligation to livein the fantasy-world of
narcotics, so to speak in a temporary suicide And parallel to the disappearance of true
values there appear counterfeit values. For today literally everything is counterfeited:
Christianity is counterfeited, religiousness is counterfeited, the very Gospel is
counterfeited; culture in its best manifestations, the striving for peace, etc.,
etc.everything is steeped in lie and falsehood, and a man With a living soul and
conscience suffocates in the reign of the lie and the counterfeit.
And in this stifling atmosphere of evident and undoubted spiritual decomposition, the
"last word" is the most terrible of all. We speak of the newest
"attainment" of medical science: the transplantation of the human heart.
Here before us is the most terrifying of all counterfeits: the counterfeit of life
itselfthis greatest gift of the Creator! A man lives out his life, his powers
ebb, the organism dies away, and the heart, this center of the organism's life, is just
about to stop... No medicines, no remedies or attempts to prolong, to detain this
departing life, can help any longer... But nowa solution is found! The man is
given a new, strange heart, and with this is introduced into his organism a new, strange
life, belonging to another man...
The heart is the center, the mid-point of man's existence. And not only in the
spiritual sense, where heart is the term for the center of one's spiritual
person, one's "I"; in physical life, too, the physical heart is the chief organ
and central point of the organism, being mysteriously and indissolubly connected with the
experiences of one's soul. It is well known to all how a man's purely psychical and
nervous experiences joy, anger, fright, etc.,are reflected immediately
in the action of the heart, and conversely how an unhealthy condition of the heart acts
oppressively on the psyche and consciousness... Yes, here the bond is indissolubleand
if, instead of the continuation of a man's personal spiritual-bodily life,
concentrated in his own heart, there is imposed on him a strange heart and some
kind of strange life, until then totally unknown to himthen what is this if
not a counterfeit of his departing life; what is this if not the annihilation of
his spiritual-bodily life, his individuality, his personal "I"? And how and
as whom will such a man present himself at the general resurrection?
But the new attainment does not end even here. It is intended also to introduce into
the organism of a man the heart of an animali.e., so that after the general
resurrection a "man" will stand at the Last Judgement with the heart of an ape
(or a cat, or a pig, or whatever).* Can one imagine a more senseless and blasphemous
mockery of human nature itself, created in the image and likeness of God?
Madness and horror! But what has called forth this nightmare of criminal interference
in man's lifein that life, the lawful Master of which is its Creator alone,
and no one else? The answer is not difficult to find. The loss of Christian hope, actual
disbelief in the future life, failure to understand the Gospel and disbelief in it, in its
Divine truthfulnessthese are what have called forth these monstrous and
blasphemous experiments on the personality and life of man. The Christian view of life and
death, the Christian understanding and conception of earthly life as time given by God for
preparation for eternityhave been completely lost. And from this the result
is: terror in the face of death, seen as the absolute perishing of life and the
annihilation of personality; and a clutching at earthly lifelive, live, live,
at any cost or means prolong earthly life, after which there is nothing!
How far from this is the radiant Christian view of life and death I Imagine a
deeply-believing Christian who has labored his whole life on the fulfillment of the Lord's
commandments and on the purification of his own heart, and who finally draws near
to that Christian end for which he has prayed and for which he has been preparing his
whole life; if suddenly one were to say to him: "Don't you want to live a while
longer? Herewe will cut out your heart and put in its place a different one,
perhaps an ape'sand you will live for a while yet..." What would a
believing Christian answer to this but the words of the GospelGet thee behind me,
Satanthou savourest not the things that be of God, but these that be of men (St.
Matt. 16: 23).
See then that ye walk circumspectly, cried once the Apostle, not as fools, but
as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil. Wherefore be ye not unwise, but
understanding what the will of the Lord is (Eph. 5: 15-17). Oh, how circumspectly we
must walk in our daywith caution, lest we apostatize spiritually and fall
into the snare of the enemy. For in truth our days are yet more evil than the times of the
Apostles... And it was not for nothing that in these latter, already post-revolutionary
days, one of the Far-Eastern archpastors prayed constantly to God thus: "Cut off the
allurement of lies, loosen pressing temptations, and With the power of Thy Grace protect
and keep all of us, and grant our hearts to sense the truth."
For contemporary humanity for the most part has lost completely the feeling, the sense,
the acceptance of truth and the ability to discern in its spiritual essence what is
happening in the world. And the threatening, sorrowful prophecy of the Apostle is being
accomplished concerning those who did not learn to love the truth: God shall send them
strong delusion, that they should believe a lie, that they all might he damned who
believed not the truth, but bad pleasure in unrighteousness (II Thes. 2: 11-12).
Christian! Remember what life is, and what is death! And thanking your Creator for the
most precious gift of His goodnessfor your lifeuse this gift as
is proper, so that at the end of your earthly life you may, without clutching
faintheartedly at this passing life, die in such a way that upon you may be fulfilled the
joyful promise of the Apocalypse: Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from
henceforth: Yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labors; and their works
do follow them (Apoc. 14: 13).
* Since this was written, a transplant has indeed been made into the human organism of
a sheep's heart; and an unsuccessful attempt four years ago utilized a chimpanzee's heart.
A recent operation in California presents yet another frightful picture: the transplant of
the heart of a suicide. (Trans. note.)
From The Orthodox Word, Vol. 4, No. 3 (May-June 1968), pp. 134-137.
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Facts About the Faith
The Human Heart. It was a belief among
the ancientsamong physicians in the age of the Egyptian Pharaohs, for
examplethat the heart is the center of the body, responsible for regulating all of
its functions. The teachings of the Orthodox Church also hold that the heart is the center
of the person, containing not only our individual identity, but harboring, in its
chambers, many of the spiritual virtues to which we strive. The hesychastic teachings of
St. Gregory Palamas, drawn from an ancient tradition of the Church, concentrate human
activity in the heart. It is the physical regulation of the heart beat and breathing
which, in part, accounts for the intensity of concentrated prayer achieved by those who
reach up in prayer with their bodies to touch and be transformed by the Grace of God. Our
bodies correctly used, St. Gregory Palamas tells us, are not evil, but are the very temple
of the Holy Spirit. And the heart is the repository of Divine Grace.
In our times, when the brain is considered the center of
the human person and the repository of the personality, it seems absurd to imagine that
the heart, a "mere pump," could literally play a role in spiritual life. For
that reason, many Orthodox theologians have begun to speak of the heart as a metaphor for
the soul and deny that the heart plays a physical role in our spiritual life.
Nonetheless, some contemporary scientists are beginning to
take a new look at the heart. Dr. Nikolai Khokhlov, a member of the advisory board of the
Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, spoke informally at the St. Gregory Palamas
Monastery some years ago of research that he was about to investigate during an
appointment at the prestigious Max Planck Institute. This research suggested that the
heart, contrary to current theory, is a kind of regulating mechanism for the human body,
controlling metabolism, overall body functions, and even some brain activity. This
research wholly supports the assumptions of the ancients and the experience and teachings
of the Orthodox Fathers.
We must be very cautious, then, about dismissing the
teachings of the Fathers on the human heart simply because modern science, which may not
yet fully understand the more subtle workings of the heart, seems to attribute to the
brain those things which the Fathers attribute to the heart. Science may yet vindicate the
Fathers and once again show us the divine source of their knowledge.
Embalming and Autopsies. In the Orthodox
Church we do not make the dualistic distinction be-tween the body and the soul that one
finds in some ancient, pre-Christian sects and in certain early Christian heresies. The
body and soul, according to Orthodox teaching, are integrally bound together. The good
health and correct, moral use of the body can affect the soul, just as a healthy and sound
soul can reflect itself in the external appearance of the body (and especially in the
When a Christian dies, we show tremendous respect
to his body as the place where the spirit of the human being resided. The body of a holy
person, for example, is highly revered, since even his flesh and blood have been permeated
by the holiness of his life. To embalm and disfigure the dead body for no reasonand
embalming is not required in most states in the U.S.is to show disrespect to it. And
autopsies, when they are done for no specific purpose and routinely, are blasphemous. One
need only attend an autopsy to understand that this statement is not hyperbolic, but
wholly accurate. Except when indicated by forensic considerations or specific needs in
medical research, autopsies should be discouraged among Orthodox Christians.
The bodies of monastics and bishops, whose lives
are dedicated to spiritual principles and aims, should under no circumstances be embalmed
or, except in the case of suspected foul play, subjected to post-mortem examination. This
is a rule which every Orthodox Christian physician should understand and one which he
should attempt to uphold with every possible means. Since monastics should, if possible,
repose in their monasteriesrather than in the hospital, as is usually the case in
the Western world now, Orthodox physicians should be available and ready to assist
in the preparation of the needed certificates of death, so as to avoid the eventuality of
If our faith is one limited only to intellectual
precepts, and not to the world of our bodies as well, then it is an artificial and
From Orthodox Tradition, Vol. VII, No. 2, p. 15