Philokalia

Philokalia

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Holy Fathers on Illness and Perfection

Diverting a bit from my approach to the writings of the Philokalia, I wish to put forward a few thoughts about how we often think about illness in our lives and how the Holy Fathers offer us fresh insight into the mystery of evil, sin, illness and their place in our struggle for holiness. 

Often, when we are young, we do not think much about physical illness and the spiritual life.  Life passes quickly as we are fully engaged in our work, studies and ministry and many of us rarely struggle with ill health except for the occasional flu or cold.  But when illness does strike, in one form or another, suddenly our busy and “productive” lives can be disrupted and we are forced, as it were, to reconsider a great deal of things; not merely the meaning of health, that we have perhaps taken for granted, but the nature of our relationship with God, the depth of our faith or lack thereof, the meaning of suffering and how to engage it and not to become discourage even when we have been completely humbled by the burden of our physical and emotional vulnerabilities.  When such circumstances arise, we are often unprepared for the trial - never imagining or wanting to think about the possibility of such a cross - a cross the comes to most all of us at some point.  When illness plunges us into unfamiliar territory, even to the point of death, what place does it have within our struggle toward holiness?  How do we pray when prayer seems impossible and when it feels as though our heart has been turned to stone?  Where do we find our hope and with what faith must we enter the mystery of illness and suffering in order to know the healing touch of Christ, the Physician of our souls and bodies?  

I offer for your consideration today brief excerpts from “The Holy Fathers on Illness” compiled by Bishop Alexander Mileant; in particular those thoughts from the Fathers on “Illness and Work of Perfection”.  Their words offer some perspective on sickness and redemptive suffering as a means of glorifying God.  There is much to say certainly about the meaning and origins of illness well beyond the purview of a simple post, but the Fathers show us in word and deed that it can be and often is a privileged way of holiness.  Through thankfulness, endurance, and patience one can realize the highest form of ascetic practice and follow a spiritual path to intimacy with God.  At such moments, one may exhibit no extraordinary virtue other than to suffer illness and its poverty with patience and so have this as one’s path to salvation.  Thus, the Fathers’ words are full of hope and challenge:

“The desert ascetic Father, St. Abba Dorotheus, exhorts his disciples to "take the trouble to find out where you are: whether you have left your own town but remain just outside the gates, by the garbage dump, or whether you have gone ahead little or much, or whether you are half way on your journey, or whether you have gone two miles, then come back two miles, or perhaps even five miles, or whether you have journeyed as far as the Holy City and entered into Jerusalem itself, or whether you have remained outside and are unable to enter" (On Vigilance and Sobriety).

Illness helps us to see "where we are" on life's road: "sickness is a lesson from God and serves to help us in our progress if we give thanks to Him" (Sts. Barsanuphius and John, Philokalia).

No one may use illness as an excuse for resting from the labor of spiritual living. "Perhaps some might think that illness and bodily weakness hinder the work of perfection since the works and accomplishments of one's hands cannot continue. But it is not a hindrance" (St. Ambrose, Jacob and the Happy Life).  

In the life of Riassophore-monk John, latter-day disciple of St. Nilus of Sora, we see how bodily infirmity is not allowed to interrupt the struggle for salvation. Riassophore-monk John was a cripple; because of this he had been compelled to leave the Monastery of St. Cyril of New Lake. Feeling sorry for himself, he shortly afterwards was standing for an all-night vigil in the deep of winter. "Suddenly he saw an unknown Elder in schema come out of the altar to him and say: 'Well, apparently you do not wish to serve me. If so, return to St. Cyril.

"At these words, the Elder struck him with his right hand quite strongly on the shoulder. Noting that the Elder exactly resembled St. Nilus as he is depicted on the icon over his relics, John was filled with great joy, all his grief disappeared, and he firmly resolved to spend the rest of his life in the Saint's skete" (The Northern Thebaid).

Even if we are bedridden, we are to continue the struggle against the passions, producing fruits worthy of repentance. This work of perfection demands that we acquire patience and longsuffering. What better way to do this than when we lie on a bed of infirmity? St. Tikhon of Zadonsk says that in suffering we can find out whether our faith is living or just "theoretical." The test of true faith is patience in the midst of sufferings, for "patience is the Christian's coat of arms." "What is it to follow Christ?" he asks. It is "to endure all things, looking upon Christ Who suffered. Many wish to be glorified with Christ, but few seek to remain with the suffering Christ. Yet not merely by tribulation, but even in much tribulation does one enter the Kingdom of God."

To those who suppose that they can only progress in the spiritual life when all else is "well," St. John Cassian replies, "You should not think that you can find virtue when you are not irritated — for it is not in your power to prevent troubles from happening. Rather, you should look for patience as the result of your own humility and longsuffering, for patience does depend upon your own will" {Institutes). Towards the end of his life, St. Seraphim of Sarov suffered from open ulcers on his legs. "Yet," as his Life tells us, "in appearance he was always bright and cheerful, for in spirit he felt that heavenly peace and joy which are the riches of the glorious inheritance of the saints."
"You are stricken by this sickness," the Holy Fathers say, "so that you will not depart barren to God. If you can endure, and give thanks to God, this sickness will be accounted to you as a spiritual work" (Sts. Barsanouphius and John, Philokalia). 

Bishop Theophan the Recluse explains: "Enduring unpleasant things cheerfully, you approach a little to the martyrs. But if you complain, you will not only lose your share with the martyrs, but will be responsible for complaining besides. Therefore, be cheerful!"

In order not to lose heart when we fall sick we are to think about and mentally "kiss the sufferings of our Savior just as though we were with Him while He suffers abuses, wounds, humiliations...shame, the pain of the nails, the piercing with the lance, the flow of water and blood. From this we will receive consolation in our sickness. Our Lord will not let these efforts go unrewarded " (St. Tikhon of Zadonsk).

The patience we can learn on a sickbed cannot be overemphasized. Elder Macarius of Optina wrote about this to one who was ill:

"I was much pleased to hear from your relation how bravely you are bearing the cruel scourge of your heavy sickness. Verily, as the man of the flesh perishes, so is the spiritual man renewed."

And to another he wrote: "Praised be the Lord that you accept your illness so meekly! The bearing of sickness with patience and gratitude is reckoned highly by Him Who often rewards sufferers with His imperishable gifts.

"Ponder these words: Though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed."
St. Ambrose of Milan compared an infirm body to a broken musical instrument. He explained how the "musician" can still produce God-pleasing "music" without his instrument:

"If a man used to singing to the accompaniment of a harp finds the harp broken, and its strings undone...he puts it aside and instead of calling for its notes he delights himself with his own voice.

"In the same way, a sick man allows the harp of his body to lie unused. He finds delight within his heart and comfort in the knowledge that his conscience is clear. He sustains himself with God's words and the prophetic writings and, holding these sweet and pleasant in his soul, he embraces them with his mind. Nothing can happen to him because God's graceful presence breathes favor upon him....He is filled with spiritual tranquility" (Jacob and the Happy Life).

Quite often the most God-pleasing spiritual "music" of all is produced in anonymity, by unknown or nearly-unknown saints. But such holy "melodies" are all the more sweet because they are heard by God alone. One such modern sufferer who lived an angel-like life in spite of advanced and terrible sickness was the holy New Russian Martyr, Mother Maria of Gatchina. Her story is known to us only because it pleased God to providentially arrange for one of her visitors, Professor I. M. Andreyev, to record his memories of her.

Mother Maria suffered from encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) and Parkinson's disease. "Her whole body became as it were chained and immovable, her face anemic and like a mask; she could speak, but she began to talk with half-closed mouth, through her teeth, pronouncing slowly and in a monotone. She was a total invalid and was in constant need of help and careful looking after. Usually this disease proceeds with sharp psychological changes, as a result of which such patients often ended up in psychiatric hospitals. But Mother Maria, being a total physical invalid, not only did not degenerate psychically, but revealed completely extraordinary features of personality and character not characteristic of such patients: she became extremely meek, humble, submissive, undemanding, concentrated in herself; she became engrossed in constant prayer, bearing her difficult condition without the least murmuring.

"As if as a reward for this humility and patience, the Lord sent her a gift: consolation of the sorrowing. Completely strange and unknown people, finding themselves in sorrows, grief, depression, and despondency, began to visit her and converse with her. And everyone who came to her left consoled, feeling an illumination of their grief, a pacifying of sorrow, a calming of fears, a taking away of depression and despondency" (The Orthodox Word, vol. 13, no. 3).

"Thus God has acted. Like a provident Father and not like a kidnapper has He first involved us in grievous things, giving us over to tribulation as it were to schoolmasters and teachers, so that being chastened and sobered by these things we may, after showing forth all patience and learning, all right discipline, inherit the Kingdom of Heaven" (St. John Chrysostom, Homily 18, On the Statues).”

Excerpts taken from:

Missionary Leaflet # EA30
466 Foothill Blvd, Box 397, La Canada, Ca 91011
Editor: Bishop Alexander (Mileant)