Everyone, whether or not he is a Christian, must expect a certain amount of sickness and discomfort to enter his life. Physical pain is universal; no one escapes it. Therefore, how much we suffer from illness, or how intensely, does not matter so much as how we understand these infirmities.The understanding is all.
It a man supposes that life should be one long, luxurious “vacation,” then any amount of suffering that comes to him is unbearable. But if a man views life as a time of sorrows, correction, and purification, then suffering and pain become not only bearable, but even useful.
St. Ambrose of Milan says of the Christian attitude toward sickness: “If the occasion demands it, a wise man will readily accept bodily infirmity and even offer his whole body up to death for the sake of Christ…This same man is not affected in spirit or broken with bodily pain if his health fails him. He is consoled by his struggle for perfection in the virtues,” (Exegetical Works). Hearing this, the man of the world is quite likely to exclaim: “What an idea! How can a man ‘readily accept’ illness and disease?”
To an unbeliever this is indeed an incomprehensible thing. He cannot reconcile the fact of human suffering with his own idea of God. To him, the very thought that God would allow pain is repugnant; usually he sees every kind of suffering as evil in an absolute sense.
Without the aid of Divine Revelation man cannot understand the origin and cause of pain, nor its purpose. Many people, not having help in understanding, are haunted by the fear of pain, terrified at the thought of a lingering illness, and quick to seek medical relief because they believe illness is only the result of “chance.”
If it is true that infirmity comes through mere “bad luck” (which even common sense tells us is not so, since much disease is the result of immoderate living), then indeed it is permissable and even desirable to use all means to avoid the pain of illness and even the illness itself. Furthermore, when a disease becomes irreversible and terminal, worldly wisdom teaches that is acceptable to end the life of the patient — what is called euthanasia, or “mercy-killing” — since, according to this view deathbed suffering
is useless and cruel, and therefore “evil.”
But even in everyday life we know that suffering really isn’t “absolutely evil.” For example, we submit to the surgeon’s knife in order to have a diseased part of the body cut away; the pain of the operation is great, but we know that it is necessary in order to preserve health or even our life. Thus, even on a strictly materialistic level, pain can serve a higher good.
Another reason why human suffering is a mystery to an unbeliever is because his very “idea” of God is false. He is shocked when the Holy Fathers speak of God in the following way: “Whether God brings upon us a famine, or a war, or any calamity whatsoever, He does so out of His exceeding great care and kindness” (St. John Chrysostom, Homily 7, On the Statutes).
The God-bearing Elder Macarius of Optina, in 19th century Russia, wrote thusly to a friend: “Being weak in health as you yourself are, I cannot fail to feel much sympathy for your plight. But kind Providence is not only more wise than we are; it is also wise in a different way. It is this thought which must sustain us in all our trials, for it is consoling, as no other thought is.”
Wise in a different way…Here we can begin to see that the Patristic understanding of God’s ways is contrary to the world’s view. In fact, it is unique: It is not speculative, scholarly, or “academic.” As Bishop Theophan the Recluse has written: “Christian faith not is a doctrinal system but a way of restoration for fallen man. Therefore, the criterion of faith — true knowledge of God — is not intellectual.
The measure of truth, as Professor Andreyev wrote, “is life itself…Christ spoke of this clearly, plainly, and definitely: I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6). That is, I am the Way of perceiving the Truth; I am Myself the incarnate Truth (everything I say is true)…and I am Life (without Me there cannot be life)” (Orthodox Christian Apologetics). This is very far from the wisdom of this world.
We can either believe or disbelieve Christ’s words about Himself. If we believe, and act upon our belief, then we can begin to ascend the ladder of living knowledge, such as no textbook or philosopher can ever give: Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this world? Hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? (I Corinthians 1:20).
One of the difficulties in compiling a handbook of Patristic teaching on illness is that sickness cannot be strictly separated from the general question of pain (e.g. psychological pain and the suffering which results from war, famine, etc.). Some of what the Holy Father’s have to say here about illness also establishes a foundation for their teaching about adversity, which will be the subject of the fourth book in this series.
Another difficulty is that the Orthodox Fathers sometimes use such words as “sin,” “punishment,” and “reward” without limiting themselves to the meanings our modern society gives them. For instance, “sin” is a transgression of the Divine Law. But in Patristic thought is it also more than this: it is an act of “treachery,” a faithlessness to God’s love for man and “arbitrary violation of [man’s]sacred union with God” (Andreyev, Ibid.). Sin is not something we should see within a strict legal framework of “crime and punishment;” man’s faithlessness is a universal condition, not limited to just this or that transgression. It is always with us, for all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).
God’s dealings with man are not limited to our legalistic ideas about reward and punishment. Salvation, which is the ultimate goal of Christian life, is not a “reward,” but a gift freely given by God. We cannot “earn” or “merit” it by anything we do, not matter how pious or self-effacing we think ourselves.
In everyday life we naturally think that good deeds should be rewarded and crimes punished. But our God does not “punish” on the basis of human standards. He corrects and chastises us, just as a loving Father corrects his erring children in order to show them the way. But this is not the same thing as being “sentenced” to a “term” of pain and suffering for some misdeed. Our God is not vindictive; He is at all times perfectly loving, and His justice has nothing to do with human legal standards.
He knows that we cannot come to Him without purity of heart, and He also knows that we cannot acquire this purity unless we are free from all things: free of attachments to money and property, free of passion and sin, and even detached from bodily health if that stands between us and true freedom before God. He instructs us, through both Revelation and correction, showing us how we may acquire this freedom, for Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free (John 8:32).
As St. John Cassian teaches: God “leads you on by a still higher step which is free of fear. Through this you begin effortlessly and naturally to observe all those things you originally observed out of fear of God and punishment, but now you do them no longer from fear of punishment, but from love of Goodness itself, and delight in virtue” (Institutes).
Keeping in mind this deeper spiritual meaning of such words as “sin,” “reward,” and “punishment,” we can proceed to study the divinely-wise discourses of the Holy Fathers on the subject of illness, thanking God that “our Faith has been made secure by wise and learned Saints” (St Cosmas Aitolas), for “truly, to know oneself is the hardest thing of all,” as St. Basil the Great writes. The Holy Fathers point the way. Their lives and writings act, as it were, like a mirror in which we may take the measure of ourselves, weighed down as we are by passions and infirmities. Illness is one of the ways by which we can learn what we really are. ~ Fr. Seraphim Rose, introduction to the booklet “The teaching of the Holy fathers on Illness” Nikodemos Orthodox Publication Society