People often rush to the priest in anguish and even despair, imploring, “Help! I am seriously ill. Do something to heal me!”
This person is trying to establish some kind of “trade and economic relations” both with God Himself and with His servant, the priest: “What do you want, God and batiushka—prayers, money or something else? I will bring it, only heal me.”
And there is also a pagan connotation in such an attitude towards the priest. The priest is treated almost like a shaman or a sorcerer: “Please read something so that I can become healthy again.” At the same time, of course, there is despair, hysterics and tears. And this is understandable because the person is turning to the priest during a serious illness. It is a very difficult trial. I would like to elaborate point by point on the commandments of Christ and Patristic literature about how to have a proper attitude towards illness and to behave properly during it.
1. The memory of death
We will die. And our dying begins from the day of our birth. In the first moment after our birth, we are already on our way to death.
The memory of death is the yardstick and the foundation of our life. Let us recall a verse from the Old Testament Book of Wisdom of Jesus, the son of Sirach: Remember the end, and thou shalt never do amiss (Sir. 7:39). St. Ignatius (Bryanchaninov), summarizing the experience of the Holy Fathers, wrote a whole book on this subject entitled, A Word on Death. He says that we must always have the memory of death in order to arrange our spiritual life properly. And there is nothing that the devil tries to take away from us as much as the memory of death.
Therefore, we must always remember death, the meeting with the Lord that will follow it, what we will tell Him at the Last Judgment and what we will answer at it. And it is from this awareness that we must build our lives, cultivating virtues in ourselves and eradicating sins.
As mentioned above, we will inevitably grow old. And we must recognize and accept this also. What is aging? It is the gradual crumbling of our body.
We often fail to realize this. Or, rather, we realize it because nature tells us about it, for example, in the morning, when we look in the mirror. But we are disinclined to accept this fact. It still seems to us that our skin is like that of an eighteen-year-old. But it’s not! And we have to accept this fact! On the one hand, this is because the human soul is indeed eternally young. It is immortal and, in a sense, is outside of time. On the other hand, in realizing this fact we must also be aware that our body is subject to decay, like everything material in the earthly world. It grows old, which means it gradually crumbles.
St. Paisios the Hagiorite once said these beautiful and very poetical words: “Death comes when our hut (our body) crumbles to the state in which the soul no longer wants to be in it. And it flies out of it.”
By the way, among the last words of this saint before his death (and Abba Paisios was dying painfully—from cancer) were: “It’s martyrdom, real martyrdom.”
So, we must accept aging and illnesses as unavoidable in old age calmly, as the law of being, adopted by human nature after the fall of the holy Forefathers Adam and Eve. Of course, we must take care of the body and seek medical treatment. As the Book of Wisdom says: The Lord hath created medicines out of the earth; and he that is wise will not abhor them (Sir. 38:4).
But do not panic and do not lose heart during an illness or aging. What ought to be, will be.
3. Illness as the will of God
But let’s support our words and speak the language of the Holy Fathers.
St. Tikhon of Zadonsk: “Sorrow is the hidden mercy of God.”
St. Isaac the Syrian: “Illnesses are sent by God for the health of the soul.”
St. Ignatius (Bryanchaninov): “The bed of a sick person is often a place of the knowledge of God and self-knowledge. Sufferings of the body are often the cause of spiritual pleasures, and the bed of a sick person is watered with tears of repentance and joy.”
St. Theophan the Recluse: “It happens that God shelters some with illness from troubles that would not have been avoided if they were healthy.”
These are some great instructions for life!
God doesn’t want anyone’s death! He wants everyone to be saved! Accept sickness, accept sorrow. Endure them! Pray, of course, for healing. As the above Book of the Old Testament reads: My son, in thy sickness be not negligent: but pray unto the Lord, and He will make thee whole. Leave off from sin, and order thine hands aright, and cleanse thy heart from all wickedness (Sir. 38:9-10).
But be patient. And in this patience be patient with the Lord. As the Psalter reads: I waited patiently for the Lord (Ps. 39:2). Listen inside your heart to what God wants to tell you through this illness, what He is leading you to. And the Almighty definitely leads you to reform. Therefore, analyze and mend your ways! Don’t be discouraged, like an atheist. And don’t behave like a pagan trying to bargain with “gods” for material preferences. But first of all, immerse yourself in prayer. Invite a priest for the sacraments of confession, Communion and unction. Order a prayer service for the sick, forty Liturgies and other petitions. Give alms generously and pray.
And first of all, Leave off from sin, and order thine hands aright, and cleanse thy heart from all wickedness. And God will have mercy on you.