When St. Basil the Great was asked if going to a doctor and taking medicine were in keeping with ways of piety, he replied:
"Every art is God's gift to us, making up for what is lacking in nature....After we were told to return to the earth from which we had come [at the time of the Fall], and were joined to a pain-ridden flesh that is destined to die, and made subject to disease because of sin, the science of medicine was given to us by God in order to relieve sickness, if only to a small degree (The Long Rules).
Therefore we may have recourse to physicians and take medicine, for this science is a gift from God. "God has given the herbs of the earth, and its drugs, for the healing of the body, commanding that the body, which is of the earth, should be cured by various things of the earth....When man fell from Paradise, he came immediately under the influence of disorders and maladies of the flesh....God therefore gave medicine to the world for comfort, for healing and care of the body, and permitted them to be used by those who could not entrust themselves completely to God" (St. Macarius the Great, Homily 48).
When to go to the doctor, and how often, should be a matter of common sense. But when we go, we should "not forget that no one can be cured without God. He who gives himself up to the art of healing must also surrender himself to God, and God will send help. The art of healing is not an obstacle to piety, but you must practice it with fear of God" (Sts. Barsanuphius and John, Philokalia).
"To put our hope in die hands of a physician is the act of an irrational animal. Yet this is precisely what happens with those unhappy people who unhes' itatingly call their doctors their 'saviours'....On the other hand, it is surely foolish to entirely reject the benefits of the medical art" (St. Basil the Great, The Long Rules).
Elder Nektary of Optina advised that we should go to doctors not to be "cured" but just to be "treated" — recognizing that in this life we can never be perfectly "cured" or "healthy." And writing to the friend of a seriously ill man, Elder Macarius of Optina said:
St. Basil the Great teaches that "we should definitely not place our hope for relief from pain in medicine, but trust that God will not allow us to be tried beyond that which we can bear." Here he was addressing himself to those who run to a doctor on every pretext, and who forget this important guideline: "Whether or not we make use of the medical art, we should hold to our objective of pleasing God and helping the soul, fulfilling this precept: Whether you eat or drink or whatsoever else you do, do all to the glory of God (I Cor. 10:31)"...
This Holy Father also explains that "sometimes, when God judges it best, He cures us secretly, without visible means [such as a doctor and drugs].
At other times He wants us to use medicine for our sicknesses."
Therefore, "when we suffer the blows of illness at the hands of God, we should first ask understanding of Him, so that we might know why He has inflicted this blow. Secondly, we must ask Him to deliver us from our pains or, at least, give us the patience to endure them." Having this attitude, we can in good conscience seek medical treatment.
This way of complete abandonment to God's Providence is very high and very difficult, and it is not given to all men. But we need to at least know about it so that we can avoid self-satisfaction and "contentment" with our own attitudes. We see this way of abandonment and supreme confidence in the will of God in the lives particularly of monastic saints. The following incident from the life of
Elder Macarius of White Shores Hermitage shows how the righteous monk disdained earthly medicine for a heavenly medicine:
Such child-like trust in God is common among great souls. A similar simplicity may be seen in the life of Schemamonk Mark of Sarov: "Towards the end of his life, Elder Mark suffered very much due to his legs: from lengthy standing at prayer and the extremely laborious walks through the wilderness, the Elder's legs became dropsical, swollen, and covered with wounds, so that for a certain time he was unable to walk. Certain of the Sa-rov brethren, feeling compassion for the Elder in his ailment, advised him to turn to the help of earthly doctors.
"The Elder, however, did not pay attention to this advice and gave himself completely over to the heavenly Healer of souls and bodies. With faith he took some oil from the lamp which burned before the icon of the Most Holy Mother of God of the Life-giving Fount, located in the cathedral of the Sarov Hermitage, and venerated as a miraculous icon, and anointed his ailing legs with this oil. To the general amazement of those who knew of his disease, he was soon completely healed from it through the grace-given help of the Mother of the Lord, who did not put his hope to shame" (Orthodox Life, no. 6, 1970).
Shortly after he went to Sarov Monastery, St. Seraphim of Sarov fell ill. According to his Life, "his whole body became swollen, and he lay motionless in great pain on his hard bed. There was no doctor and the malady responded to no treatment. Apparently it was dropsy. It lasted for three years, and half of that time the sufferer spent in bed. But he never murmured; he had surrendered the whole of himself, body and soul, to the Lord, and he prayed to Him unceasingly. Fearing that the illness might prove fatal, the Superior, Elder Pachomius, firmly proposed to send for a doctor. But the Saint, with even greater firmness, refused medical help.
"'I have surrendered myself, holy father,' he said, 'to the true Physician of souls and bodies, our Lord Jesus Christ and His Immaculate Mother. But if your love sees fit, supply me, for the Lord's sake, with the Heavenly Remedy [Holy Communion]." Shortly after this he was healed by the Mother of God who appeared to him in a vision together with the Apostles Peter and John.
Living only for God and the life which is to come, repenting each day, and striving constantly to acquire the Holy Spirit of God, righteous men and women are able to use their suffering to mount still higher on the ladder of virtue, as did Hieroschema-monk Parthenius of the Kiev Caves:
"A suffocating cough gave him no rest, and all of his bones ached. But he continued to lie down as before on the narrow and harsh bench and with good-hearted patience bore his grave infirmity, giving thanks to God for his illness. Often he used to say: 'What shall I give to the Lord in return for His having sent me an illness, in addition to His other blessings?'" (Orthodox Life, no. 3, 1969).
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