The Purpose of Illness


But if we are sons, we are heirs also: heirs indeed of God and joint heirs with Christ, provided, however, we suffer with Him that we may also be glorified with Him. (Rom. 8:17)
Our Saviour and the God-bearing Fathers teach that our only concern in this life should be the salvation of our souls. Bishop Ignatius says: "Earthly life — this brief period — is given to man by the mercy of the Creator in order that man may use it for his salvation, that is, for the restoration of himself from death to life" (The Arena). Therefore, we must "look upon everything in this world as upon a fleeting shadow and cling with our heart to nothing of it...for we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal" (St. John of Kronstadt, Spiritual Counsels). For Orthodox Christians, the center of our life is not here, but there, in the eternal world.
How long we live, what disease or illness accompanies our death — such things are not the proper concern of Orthodox Christians. Although we sing "many years" for one another at Namesdays and other celebrations, this is only because the Church in her wisdom knows that we indeed need "many years" to repent of our sins and be converted, not because a long life has any value in itself. God is not interested in how old we are when we come before His Judgment, but whether we have repented; He is not concerned about whether we died of a heart attack or cancer, but whether our soul is in a state of health.
Therefore, "we should not dread any human ill, save sin alone; neither poverty, nor disease, nor insult, nor malicious treatment, nor humiliation, nor death" (St. John Chrysostom, On the Statues), for these "ills" are only words; they have no reality for those who are living for the Kingdom of Heaven. The only real "calamity" in this life is offending God. If we have this basic understanding of the purpose of life, then the spiritual meaning of bodily infirmity can be opened for us.
In the preceding chapter we learned how the all-wise God allowed suffering to enter the world in order to show us that we are but creatures. It is a lesson still not learned by the race of Adam which, in its pride, ever seeks to be like "gods": for every sin is a renewal of the sin of the first-created ones, a willful turning away from God towards self. In this way we set ourselves in the place of God, actually worshipping self instead of the Creator. In this way the suffering of illness serves the same purpose today as it did in the beginning: for this reason it is a sign of God's mercy and love. As the Holy Fathers say to those who are ill: "God has not forgotten you; He cares for you" (Sts. Barsanuphius and John, Philokal' ia).

Yet, it is difficult to see how sickness can be a sign of God's care for us — unless, that is, we understand the relationship that exists between body and soul. Elder Ambrose of Optina Monastery spoke of this in a letter to the mother of a very sick child:
"We should not forget that in our age of 'sophistication' even little children are spiritually harmed by what they see and hear. As a result, purification is required, and this is only accomplished through bodily suffering... You must understand that Paradisal bliss is granted to no one without suffering."
St. Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain explained that since man is dual, made up of body and soul, "there is an interaction between the soul and the body" (Counsels), each one acting on the other and actually communicating with the other. "When the soul is diseased we usually feel no pain," St. John Chrysostom says. "But if the body suffers only a little, we make every effort to be free of the illness and its pain. Therefore, God corrects the body for the sins of the soul, so that by chastising the body, the soul might also receive some healing... Christ did this with the Paralytic when He said: Behold, thou art made whole; sin no more, lest a worse thing come unto tbee. What do we learn from this? That the Paralytic's disease had been produced by his sins" (Homily 38, On the Qospel of St. John).
On one occasion a woman was brought to St. Seraphim of Sarov. She was badly crippled and could not walk because her knees were bent up to her chest. "She told the Elder that she had been born in the Orthodox Church but, after marrying a dissenter, had abandoned Orthodoxy and, for her infidelity, God had suddenly punished her... She could not move a hand or foot. St. Seraphim asked the sick woman whether she now believed in her Mother, our Holy Orthodox Church. On receiving a reply in the affirmative, he told her to make the sign of the Cross in the proper way. She said that she could not even lift a hand. But when the Saint prayed and anointed her hands and breast with oil from the icon-lamp, her malady left her instantly." Behold, thou art made whole; sin no more, lest a worse thing come unto thee!
This connection between body and soul, sin and sickness, is clear: pain tells us that something has gone wrong with the soul, that not only is the body diseased, but the soul as well. And this is precisely how the soul communicates its ills to the body, awakening a man to self-knowledge and a wish to turn to God. We see this over and over in the lives of the saints, for illness also teaches that our "true self, that which is principally man, is not the visible body but the invisible soul, the 'inner man'" (St. Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain, Christian Morality).
But does this mean that the man who enjoys continual good health is in "good shape" spiritually? Not at all, for suffering takes many forms, whether in the body or in the mind and soul. How many in excellent health lament that life is not "worth the living"? St. John Chrysostom describes this kind of suffering:
"Some think that to enjoy good health is a source of pleasure. But it is not so. For many who have good health have a thousand times wished themselves dead, not being able to bear the insults inflicted upon them... For although we were to become kings and live royally, we should find ourselves compassed about with many troubles and sadnesses... By necessity kings have as many sadnesses as there are waves on the ocean. So, if monarchy is unable to make a life free from grief, then what else could possibly achieve this? Nothing, indeed, in this life" (Homily 18, On the Statues).
Protestants often "claim" health in the "Name of Christ." They regard health as something to which the Christian is naturally entitled. From their point of view, illness betrays a lack of faith. This is the exact opposite of the Orthodox teaching as illustrated by the life of the Righteous Job in the Old Testament. St. John Chrysostom says that the saints serve God not because they expect any kind of reward, either spiritual or material, but simply because they love Him: "for the saints know that the greatest reward of all is to be able to love and serve God." Thus, "God, wishing to show that it was not for reward that His saints serve Him, stripped Job of all his wealth, gave him over to poverty, and permitted him to fall into terrible diseases." And Job, who was not living for any reward in this life, still remained faithful to God (Homily I, On the Statues).
Just as healthy people are not without sin, so too, God sometimes allows truly righteous ones to suffer, "as a model for the weak" (St. Basil the Great, The Long Rules). For, as St. John Cassian teaches, "a man is more thoroughly instructed and formed by the example of another" (Institutes).
This we see in the Scriptural case of Lazarus. "Although he suffered from painful wounds, he never once murmured against the Rich Man nor made any request of him... As a result, he found rest in the Bosom of Abraham, as one who had accepted humbly the misfortunes of life" (St. Basil the Great, The Long Rules).
The Church Fathers also teach that illness is a way by which Christians may imitate the suffering of the martyrs. Thus, in the lives of very many saints, intense bodily suffering was visited upon them at the end, so that by their righteous suffering they might attain to physical martyrdom. A good example of this may be found in the life of that great champion of Orthodoxy, St. Mark of Ephesus:
"He was sick fourteen days, and the disease itself, as he himself said, had upon him the same effect as those iron instruments of torture applied by executioners to the holy martyrs, and which as it were girdled his ribs and internal organs, pressed upon them and remained attached in such a state and caused absolutely unbearable pain; so that it happened that what men could not do with his sacred martyr's body was fulfilled by disease, according to the unutterable judgment of Providence, in order that this Confessor of Truth and Martyr and Conqueror of all possible sufferings and Victor should appear before God after going through every misery, and that even to his last breath, as gold tried in the furnace, and in order that thanks to this he might receive yet greater honor and rewards eternally from the Just Judge" (The Orthodox Word, vol. 3, no. 3).
You who believe when you are well, see to it that you do not fall away from God in the time of misfortune.

St. John of Kronstadt



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