The experiment wasn’t just a biological wonder but also a metaphysical ponder.
University of Minnesota researchers recently created a living, beating heart by replacing the cells of a dead rat’s heart with those from newly born rodents, then feeding the new cells with nutrients. After eight days, the heart began pumping.
Besides holding out hope for producing replacement body parts, the so-called “whole organ decellularization” procedure poses the question of whether the body is truly a receptacle and instrument for the soul, or just the product of purely physical processes with the spirit merely another manifestation of electrochemical impulses in this integration of cells into tissues into organs called the body.
For Christians who truly believed and just celebrated last Sunday’s Corpus Christi Feast of the Body and Blood of Jesus, the Minnesota heart revival is but one more of many scientific and technological advances, especially in genetic engineering to psychiatric medicine, which may stir doubts about the presence and primacy of the spirit and, indeed, the divine in a human being and his or her life.
The metaphysical pondering on this question and how the decellularization process figures in it will be left for another column. In this one, this writer prefers to look upon the issue on a personal level, with the new perspectives and sentiments imparted by recent close experiences in the emergence of new human life.
This writer is now the elated grandfather of a six-week-old baby girl. The darling infant, born 7.7 pounds to my daughter and her husband, now tips more than 10 pounds on the scale. While much of her cries, grunts and kicks have to do with a grumbling stomach, a wet bottom, or some other bodily event, she managed the beginnings of a smile, if not a chuckle, captured by phone camera yesterday.
So was that episode we videoed entirely due to the promptings of physical processes, or was some part of it driven by a spirit expressing itself through the chubby, bouncy bundle of skin, hair, flesh and bones? The same question comes up about my daughter’s own giggles weeks after her Caesarian birth 32 years ago. Were those delightful moments more bodily impulses mistaken for parent-child bonding?
Parents and grandparents would be extremely biased on this issue, of course, with little chance of accepting or even thinking that the soft infant cuddling contentedly on their chest was, like them, a puppet of sorts with neural strings pulled by the same electro
chemical and instinctual pulses that stir Mama, Papa, Grandma and Grandpa.
On the other hand, not a few fathers and mothers have treated their children as little more than consumers to be fed, clothed, medicated, sent to school, indulged, and otherwise showered with the bounties of a material world. In that case, how much spirituality are such parents seeing, let alone, nurturing in their children?
There are, of course, even graver spiritual and emotional disconnects between infant and progenitor. This writer was deeply saddened of late over a would-be overseas worker who may have caused the miscarriage of her unborn child in an effort to comply with rules prohibiting the pregnant from taking employment in a country.
This young woman apparently saw the entity developing in her not as a human being with body and soul, but some physical condition that needed to be eliminated for economic reasons. (For those curious about how this episode turned out, the miscarriage did not yield the desired permission to work, since the jobseeker still tested positive for pregnancy despite the loss of the child.)
Then there are those unfortunate social mores that put pressure on unwed expectant mothers and fathers to wed and make the coming child “legitimate,” whatever the lawmakers mean by that, and the mother “respectable.” The love, pride and joy of parents and families bonded by a new life evidently counts little, overshadowed by concerns over perceived reputation and entrenched convention.
In sum, the mind, feelings and soul that are supposed to animate the child even in the womb and certainly once outside it, are perceived in a wide range of ways by parents and other family. They see the offspring anywhere from a cherubim gifted from heaven to a cause of shame before kith, kin and community, and an impediment to advancing careers and accumulating cash.
To this broad spectrum of regard for the spiritual in man comes the message of Corpus Christi: not just that a human being could have a spirit in his or her body and perhaps even outside it, but that God Himself became a man with body and soul, and walked the earth to show what God wants of man and his world, and to elevate humanity to divinity by His Passion, Death and Resurrection.
Plus: the redemptive event is renewed at every Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, where bread and wine are consecrated into the real Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ, God the Son, Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. For those with doubts about the existence of a human soul, Corpus Christi cannot but stretch such incredulity to the very extreme.
To this clash of perspectives, this writer’s grandfatherly view offers a simple thought: when one feels immense love, joy and peace in cradling the future of one’s name and clan, sometimes burping up her last feeding, one can only think of the grandchild and how one loves her. No thoughts about cellular bits or electrochemical pulses. Just the simple reality of a person being loved.
Just like the simple faith of kneeling before God become man and sharing His Body and Blood with His beloved sisters and brothers. Amen.