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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 live—in 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 animal—i.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 Gospel—Get thee behind me, Satan—thou 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 life—use 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 ancients—among physicians in the age of the Egyptian Pharaohs, for example—that 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 eyes).

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 reason—and 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 monasteries—rather 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 an autopsy.

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 incomplete faith.

From Orthodox Tradition, Vol. VII, No. 2, p. 15