THE SPIRITUAL MEANING OF ILLNESS

By Jean-Claude Larchet

“Among human affairs,” Saint Cassian writes, “nothing merits being held as good in the true sense of the word except virtue, which leads us to God and makes us adhere to this immutable Good. On the other hand, there is no evil other than sin, which, by separating us from God Who is Good, unites us to the devil who is evil.” (Saint John Chrysostom).

It is true that physical health corresponds to the normal state of human nature–that is, its prelapsarian state–and for that reason health can be considered as good in itself. (Saint Maximus the Confessor). Nevertheless, from another point of view health is worthless to the human person–it does not constitute a true good but is only good in appearance–if it is not used well, that is, if it is not used with an aim toward the Good: to fulfill the commandments of Christ and to glorify God. This is why Saint Basil declares: “Insofar as it does not render good those who possess it, health cannot be counted among those things that are good by nature.” In fact it is evil if it contributes to making a person indifferent to his salvation, keeps him away from God by giving him the false impression that he is self-sufficient, and bestows on him that strength of the flesh which actually weakens, rather than giving him that weakness in which God reveals Himself, which constitutes true strength (2 Corinthians 12:9-10). Health is an even greater evil if it is used to give free rein to the passions, thereby becoming an instrument of iniquity (Romans 6:13). “Know, then,” Saint Gregory of Nazianzus counsels us, “how to despise an insidious health that leads to sin.”

As for illness, it is in itself something evil to the extent that it arises as a consequence of the sin of Adam and as an effect of demonic activity within the fallen world. As such, it is a negation of the order God intended when he created the world and mankind. Nonetheless, it is evil only on the level of physical nature and the body. If one does not give oneself over to it entirely, illness cannot injure one’s soul, nor can it affect one’s essential being, one’s spiritual nature. According to Christ’s own teaching, a person should fear whatever can make him perish in Gehenna both body and soul, but he need have no fear of what can affect his body alone, without bringing death to his soul (St. Matthew 10:28). By itself illness does not have the power to separate man from God; therefore from a spiritual point of view it cannot be considered to be a source of evil in his life. Saint John Chrysostom notes: “If the soul is in good health, bodily illness can in no way harm a man.”

Illness, then, is only evil in appearance. (St. John Chrysostom). It can even constitute a blessing for man in the sense that, if one uses it appropriately, one can draw from it considerable spiritual benefit, thereby making what was originally a sign of mortality into an instrument of salvation. (St. John Chrysostom). Saint John Chrysostom adds: “There is evil which, properly speaking, is not evil, even though it bears that name: such as illness, and other things of that sort. If they were truly evil, they would not be able to become for us the source of a multitude of blessings.” (Saint John Chrysostom). In the same vein Saint John Cassian states: “How can we see [in illness] something that is essentially evil, since it serves as a blessing to so many by granting the means to attain to abundant and eternal joy?”

Finally, Saint Gregory of Nazianzus offers the following counsel: “Do not admire every form of health, and do not condemn every illness.”

Consequently, in certain cases and from the point of view of that which is spiritually good for man, illness can be paradoxically considered as a higher good than health and therefore as preferable to health. (Saint Barsanuphius). Saint Gregory of Nazianzus observes that the aim of medical treatment “consists in reconfirming health or the good condition of the flesh if such exists, or in recovering it if it has been lost. But it is not clear that these advantages are really useful. Often, in fact, the opposite conditions are more advantageous to those who are affected by them.” Accordingly, we encounter any number of holy people, faced with their own illnesses or the illnesses of those in their care, who ask God not in the first place for a return to health, but for what is spiritually the most useful. And rather than lament because of these illnesses, they rejoice in the benefits that can be drawn from them.

The Positive Meaning of Sickness and Suffering

Such an attitude, however, presupposes that we attribute to illness a meaning and a finality that transcend physical nature.

To consider illness strictly as a phenomenon unto itself is almost inevitably to see it in a negative, sterile light; and this only increases the physical suffering and moral pain which result from a sense of its absurdity. The consequence of such an attitude is generally to leave the way open to activity of demons and to develop in the soul troubling passions, such as fear, anxiety, anger, weariness, revolt and despair. These states not only do not relieve the body, they most often increase the symptoms of the evil that affects it, thereby creating sickness even in the soul (St. John Chrysostom). The illness then serves no good at all, but it becomes for the ill person a source of spiritual deterioration which puts his soul in jeopardy perhaps more than it does his body.

It is because of this very danger that the Fathers stress the point that it is not in vain, not without reason that we are subject to illnesses.” This is why they encourage us to be vigilant when illness strikes, and not to trouble ourselves first of all with their natural causes and means to cure them. Rather, our first concern should be to discern their meaning within the framework of our relationship to God, and to throw light on the positive function they can have in furthering our salvation. In this respect Saint Maximus the Confessor counsels: “When you are exposed to expected testing…search out its purpose and you will find the means to profit from it.” The ideal, then, is to avoid from the beginning allowing ourselves to be dominated by suffering when it exists, but to go beyond the limits in which the suffering tends to enclose the soul and even our entire being, our entire existence. In this double perspective Saint Gregory Nazianzus offers the following counsel to an ill acquaintance: “I don’t wish and I don’t consider it good that you, well instructed in divine things as you are, should suffer the same feelings as more worldly people, that you should allow your body to give in, that you should agonize over your suffering as if it were incurable and irredeemable. Rather, I should want you to be philosophical about your suffering and show yourself superior to the cause of your affliction, beholding in the illness a superior way towards what is ultimately good for you.”

To be philosophical about one’s illness and suffering means above all for a person to consider what they reveal to him about his condition.

One’s spiritual intelligence–purified of these burdens that alienate it from the flesh, and refined by suffering–perceives another, spiritual world; and purified will aspire to it, and elevates the soul to participate in it. Thus Dostoyevsky can write: “A healthy man is always an earthly, material man…But as soon as he falls ill, and the normal, earthly order of his organism is disturbed, then the possibility of another world makes itself known to him at once; and as the illness worsens, his relations with this world become ever closer.”

Understood and experienced in this perspective, illness does not crush a person under the weight of their “mortal body” (Romans 7:24), but to the contrary turns the person toward God. It reunites the person to God, drawing him toward God as the true source and end of his existence. It offers wisdom to his intelligence–that is, true knowledge of the world, of himself and of God–and to his will it offers conformity to the Will of his Creator. God does not permit illness to debase us,” Saint John Chrysostom declares, “but because He wanted to make us better, more wise and more submissive to His Will, which is the basis of our salvation.”

It is in our Christian worship that we find strength, comfort and assurance that God is always with us and loves us unconditionally. It is especially true for those who had a loved one fall asleep in the Lord recently. Each person grieves in his/her own way which is natural. But as Orthodox Christians we need to remember the words of Saint Paul writing to the Thessalonians (I Thess. 4:13-18) “Brethren, we would not have you ignorant concerning those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep.” Excessive sadness and uncontrollable grieving is not good either for you or the diseased. Orthodox Christians find comfort in prayer and worship in the Church in the presence of God.

Source: The Theology of Illness