The Breath of Life: Human Embryology & Spirituality

A Lenten Reflection by Fr Jeremiah

I was reading yesterday morning from a publication on human embryology put out by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences.  Consider an essential and fundament salient point that was written.  Here it is:  Each of us began as a single cell.  The text then goes on to highlight cell division that goes on and on and in time becomes a person.  The text does not say when it is that “the person” is produced or becomes; it just says in time.  If you ever took a course on human embryology this is likely what you were taught.  Arguments abound of course on when it is that “the person” emerges as a creation or product of this original single cell.

So, how do you feel about yourself?  How do you sense yourself?  Do you believe that the “you” that “is” “you” was made by a cell?  Do you believe the “you” that “you are” is a “product” of something, a “product” of cell division that appeared at some point in time?  Perhaps you’ve never even considered this.  Most people likely have not.  But this is the prevailing strictly scientific understanding.  Even, as a Christian, if you tack on the sense of a soul, it usually ends up being like that: it’s “tacked on” somehow to what the original cell is producing.  So we end up with our conventional scientific embryological understanding of producing a person and in some way “the soul” is in the mix but we can’t see it or locate it within that which is being produced. We end up with this very dualistic, fragmented, non-integrated understanding of ourselves as soul and body.  We don’t really know where the soul is and we can’t talk about it in scientific circles.  This is why we have difficulties with science and religion…because religion (or better spirituality) can’t intelligently interface with what science is seeing or understanding.  So we, as Christians, study science and what science teaches us and we by and large accept that, but from a conventional embryological standpoint we end up understanding ourselves in a very fractured way.  We’re trying to say there’s something about us that we refer to as “soul” but we can’t really integrate that aspect of ourselves very well with what conventional science teaches us we are:  that we are a product of cell division.

Now we can’t, or shouldn’t, just say that science is worthless and that we can’t believe scientific findings!  If something is true, it is always true and hence it has to be true for science and for religion.

Maybe there’s another way to look at all of this?

During the Divine Liturgy when the Bread and Wine are consecrated the priest currently says the following:

And make this Bread the precious Body of Thy Christ.

And that which is in this Cup the precious Blood of Thy Christ.

Changing them” by Thy Holy Spirit.

An older version of the Service Book uses the wording, “Transmuting them” by Thy Holy Spirit.

The word, transmute, means to change.  The Cambridge Dictionary defines it as to change something completely, especially into something different and better.  So here the simple, common, everyday bread and wine are changed into something different, something better.  The Bread and Wine are no longer simply bread and wine!  They are now the Mystical Presence of the Body and Blood of Christ.

Now let’s jump back to the cell for a different consideration.  Perhaps you didn’t begin as a cell!  You did receive a cell from your mother, but that fertilized cell was then no longer the same.  It was “transmuted” into something completely different.  It became now a living organism, a living whole (a zygote in scientific language).  To make it personal:  This is now You!  This is your original undifferentiated wholeness!  You now differentiate that undifferentiated wholeness but you can’t get anymore whole than what you’ve got in potential at that original point.  That is your wholeness.  In Osteopathy this is considered the Health that you have to draw upon.  When you are injured or ill you mend or heal according to what you have in this original wholeness.

Let’s now consider this new, something different than a cell, living organism, in which there are genes that are not, as one spiritual and osteopathic writer has said, “egotistical.”  In other words, contrary to what you may have thought, there is no “preformation” in our genes.  Genes are not “self-emergent.”  They do not have existing within them a preexisting miniature form of you that self-emerges.  While they are the building blocks of life, and the blueprints for expression of individual potentials for differences, they have no capacity to just turn themselves on and off.  There has to be an intelligence and there has to be a generative force, or forces, that guides this creative act of individual evolution.

From a Christian “integrative” perspective we can go back to Genesis, where we find recorded, “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.”  (Gen 2:7)  So it is this Breath of Life that carries a “potency” that enables a transmutation to occur where the material “form,” is actually changed into something different, something better.  Or, perhaps we could say, something more evolved.  The Book of Job also refers to this Breath of Life.  Here it is described how the cattle, the birds of the air, the creeping things of the earth, the fish, etc. all know and reveal to us that everything is of God’s making.  Verses 9 and 10 then speak of the Lord in whose hand is the soul of every living thing, and the breath of all mankind.  Job 12: 7-10

It is this intelligence of the Potency of the Breath of Life in the fluid body of the embryo* that you originally were, and in one sense remain, and genetic expression according to blueprint “possibilities” that enables each developmental emergence to occur. [* Of note:  you as an embryo are originally mostly fluid.]

In other words, you at conception were and remain matter (dust of the earth) who became a living soul through the infusion of the God-given Breath of Life at the moment of conception and you henceforth were and are involved in a process of creating yourself!  If you happen to be following the Genesis story literally, Breath of Life here must ultimately be understood not as the Original Breath of Life instilled into a single figure, Adam, but the Breath instilled into all human form of matter that enables it to come alive and develop as a living soul.  The Breath of Life then is not then subsequently just of the level of “nostril breathing” or “normal” or commonly called “physiologic respiration,” but it is to be understood as a much deeper “Breath of Life” that enlivens matter at all levels in human form, emerging from within the deepest layers and levels of individual human life, and in fact in all that we say is alive.

There has been a lot written about the Church being a hospital and in one sense it should be.  It should be a place of receiving compassionate and forgiving acts and words and a place of receiving spiritual medicine.  But one thing such a “primary” focus can imply is that we are fundamentally diseased or sinful.  We begin then with Original Disease, Original Illness, Original Fallen-ness and sinfulness rather than Original Blessing, Original Goodness.  To me it is very unfortunate that a lot of Western theological influence has crept into the Eastern Orthodox Church distorting accurate spiritual writings and liturgical wording.  It is difficult to realize and embrace our actual Original Blessing when often the liturgical wording and terrible sermons yet reinforce our inherent sinfulness.  Sometimes it seems to me that the Good News is so incredibly Good that we just can’t accept it – even as priests! – so we twist it into something that fits our own self-created distorted little-self ego-centric thinking and agendas!

When we focus on the Church, not primarily as a hospital, but as a Sacred Place for our continued evolutionary enlightenment in Christ – Holy Illumination of Soul – then we can truly enter into what the Lord Jesus proclaimed and taught; what He “pointed to.”  We can then truly enter into Life, into Heaven now.  We can be surrounded by a Light and breathe forth the Fragrance of a Holy Life that yields true Peace upon the Earth and not just truces or unending spiritual exercises trying to climb the ladder of holiness and never seeming to feel that we’ve gotten anyplace.

You are alive.  The Breath of Life has been breathed into the very depths and all layers of that which makes you a person, into the depths of every cell.  You were not conceived in sin*.  No matter what the conditions of your conception were, you were conceived in Love because nothing – absolutely nothing – can exist or be outside of Love.  Yes, you and I may make mistakes in judgment, but you and I are fundamentally good, and our mistakes and sins yet occur within this Sea of Divine Embrace.  It even seems to me it’s scientific!  Can you believe it?  Can you believe this Good News?  Or, do you prefer to live in the patterns and belief systems that focus on sin and remain blind to the Radiant Light of Love?

I am likely going to sound like a very “un-Orthodox” Orthodox priest but Lent should not be a time of simply “focusing” on how much you’ve messed up and how horrible you erroneously think you are, or becoming frustrated that you can’t complete the spiritual disciplines you’ve anticipated to “make you” a better person.  Try instead to equally, if not more so, incorporate practices that help you realize – not in an ego-centric manner but rather a humble manner – that you are a Beloved in Christ; that you have an “original goodness;” that you live and exist in a Sea of Divine Love (in spite of what you may see or hear on the news or even sometimes hear in sermons, or isolated portions of Holy Scripture or Church Service’s wording); that the Breath of Life has been breathed into you and into all that lives; and that you have a place and purpose in this One Life we all share in.

If you start from a place of human Fallen-ness the Lord Jesus comes to be seen as just a repairman or one satisfying a vengeful spiteful Father God.  If you start from a place of Original Blessing – which it seems to me is scientific, religious, and spiritual – the Lord Jesus becomes a Teacher of Divine Things, a Revealer of Divine Mercy and Love, a Guide, and one who reveals a pattern in the evolutionary unfoldment of human life where everything will ultimately – with our involvement as co-creators- be made new in Him.  Our primary focus changes from “conquering” sin to Holy Illumination.   When we can see and have our hearts centered from within such a Holy Gaze the desire to do any harm is simply not there.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” 

*: Someone asked me to clarify what I meant by “you were not born in sin.”
For any for whom this may have been confusing or unclear, what this refers to is the Western theological understanding that the “guilt” of Adam resulting from the “original sin” is transmitted to all the human race in the act of human procreation. Everyone therefore is conceived “in sin” and sex has a “dirty” connotation associated with it.
This whole theological perspective, as I mentioned, has unfortunately crept into Orthodoxy and when it is accepted as true the conception of a human being is seen as someone (the embryo) being conceived (born) in sin.

Check here other Lenten ressources

Read more reflections by Fr Jeremiah

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