Father Ted’s June 2012 Message

PENTECOST: THE HOLY SPIRIT, HUGS AND OXYTOCIN.

By Fr. Theodore Stylianopoulos.

One of the amazing things about the early Christians is how much they loved each other. As men and women with new hearts and new minds in Christ, they experienced a communal intimacy of souls, a powerful spiritual and emotional bonding, rarely seen in human history. The Book of Acts reports that for a time Christians even practiced a form of voluntary communism: “Those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common” (Acts 3:32). In later centuries, seeing the love of Christians expressed through kindness, generosity, and philanthropy, philosophical critics of Christianity could not help but themselves note in their writings that the Christians not only helped each other but they helped pagans too when these were sick or destitute.

The early Christians attributed their vibrant sense of renewal and selfless love to the presence and workings of the Holy Spirit. On the day of Pentecost, fifty days after Christ’s death and resurrection, God poured out His Spirit upon the apostles and their followers (Acts 1:15; 2:1-4) and thus began the greatest religious movement ever known.

A most notable aspect of this extraordinary phenomenon was the experience that “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us” (Romans 5:5). Not only God’s love, but all of the moral and spiritual attributes and blessings that flow from a genuine experience of God. St. Paul writes: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control…” (Galatians 5:22), without feeling the need to close the list. As the conscious presence of God’s power in their hearts, the Holy Spirit became both the source of blessings as well as the moral guide for the early Christians. “If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25).

Modern medical science has connected the whole range of positive and negative aspects of human emotions with detectable and sometimes precisely measurable elements in our physical bodies–genes, molecules, hormones, and various chemicals. Neurologists have been hard at work mapping the human brain and studying how our neurons light up as we undergo various not only physical but also emotional and spiritual experiences, such as prayer. Although awesome to contemplate, these facts ought not to be surprising because each human being constitutes an integral psycho-somatic unity. When we become nervous, we sweat, and when we finish a project, we feel inner contentment. The physical and spiritual aspects of our being interact with inseparable immediacy and mutuality.

My son Spiro gets The Wall Street Journal which invariably finds its way to my desk at home. A recent article in the Journal by Paul J. Zak claims to have located the “trust molecule.” The author asks: “Could a single molecule–one chemical substance–lie at the very center of our moral lives?” He goes on to identify and explain, along with certain cautions about the complexity and ambiguity of human conduct, that the chemical oxytocin may well account for “why some people give freely of themselves and others are coldhearted louts, why some people cheat and steal and others you can trust with your life, why some husbands are more faithful than others, and why women tend to be nicer and more generous than men.”

In one experiment the author had people give money to others as they were willing and had their blood tested. He discovered that he was able “to quantify the increase in generosity (and the higher level of oxytocin) by the amount someone was willing to share.” In another experiment he took blood samples from bride and groom, parents, and a number of guests, before and after a wedding. He discovered that the positive and uplifting experience of the wedding ceremony increased the level of oxytocin “in direct proportion to the likely intensity of their emotional engagement in the event.” It is obvious that most people love and enjoy weddings. Would that the bride and groom, parents and guests, retain the afterglow of joy and well-being of the wedding throughout their lives!

In still another experiment the researcher sprayed man-made synthetic oxytocin into nasal passages for quicker impact on the brain and discerned in the subjects’ behavioral responses akin to generosity and kindness. We know very well that various medicines and drugs create all sorts of physical, emotional and even spiritual reactions, both positive and negative, in our bodies and consciousness. And for that reason, all external substances, not least smoking and alcohol, must be used, if at all, with due caution.

The message of the article was that morally-strengthening and socially-enhancing individual acts and communal activities expressing trust, kindness, generosity, and sharing cause the body to secrete certain hormones and chemicals, such as oxytocin, which generate feelings of affection and well-being in people and among people. To quote a conclusion of the author: “The experiments I have conducted show that many group activities–singing, dancing, praying–cause the release of oxytocin and promote connection and caring.”

The article ends with the recommendation to greet and say good bye to people with hugs because such a simple but concrete act connects people more closely to each other and carries with it immense moral and spiritual import. “Nothing grander than a hug is required for a virtuous circle to begin!”

After reading the article, I could not help but wonder how much oxytocin was present in the blood stream of the early Christians as they loved each other with the greatest love ever known. Or how much their neurons were lit up and danced with joy as they prayed and sang together, hugged each other with the kiss of peace, and worshiped the living God with fullness of heart. The annual Feast of Pentecost is on Sunday, June 3. But we do not have to wait to celebrate a true Pentecost once a year. The Holy Spirit is ever present and ready to do the life-renewing, healing, and joy-producing work of God in each of us, our Christian community, and in the world. It takes but a little willingness, a little care, a little attentiveness, and lots of hugs!

Thanks be to God for all His great wonders!

« »