The Theology of Illness (Part I)

Martyr Emilian of Silistria in Bulgaria

Martyr Emilian of Silistria in Bulgaria

My beloved spiritual children in Christ Our Only True God and Our Only True Savior,

by Jean-Claude Larchet [Source: The Theology of Illness]

If sickness and suffering can and should be spiritually transcended and transfigured in Christ, and if they can constitute an ascetic pathway capable of leading the ill person to spiritual heights, nevertheless they should never be either desired or sought after. This is because they require of us a great deal of strength that is lost in vain through the struggle of the body. It would be far more preferable that the energy which is spent in this fashion be used in the exercise of the commandments and in praise of God. For such holy works demand strength beyond measure, and the strength we have when we are in good health is minimal by comparison with what is really needed for us to celebrate the infinite glory of the Thrice-Holy God.

While from a certain point of view illnesses can be of aid to the spiritual life, from another, they are merely an obstacle, as Saint Nicholas Stethatos insists: "As much as [sickness] is useful to beginners, to the same degree it harms those who are more advanced in the struggles toward virtue. They effectively hinder them from giving themselves over wholly to the affairs of God, they limit the soul's effectiveness because of pain and affliction, they trouble the soul by placing it under a cloud of discouragement, and they undermine contrition by rendering their thoughts dry and sterile."

It goes without saying that health ought to be preferred to sickness, on condition, nevertheless, that it is lived in God and for God. It is not out of mere politeness that holy people, following the Apostle John (3 John 2), wish good health to their visitors or correspondents, nor that the Church, in all of its liturgical services, asks God to preserve or reestablish the health of all its members.

The Gospels clearly indicate that the reason a return to health is to be desired is primarily spiritual. In the episode in which Christ heals Peter's mother-in-law, it is stated that "the fever left her. She arose and served Him" (St. Matthew 8:15). And in the healing of the paralytic it is noted "he rose before them, and took up that on which he lay, and went home, glorifying God" (St. Luke 5:25). The same point is repeatedly stressed in administration of the sacrament of Holy Unction or Anointing of the Sick: "You who heal and help those who are in pain, the Liberator and Savior of the sick, Master and Lord of all things, grant healing to your ill servant..."so that he/she might glorify Your divine power" (Canon, Ode 3); grant him/her the healing of soul and body, "that he/she might praise You with love and glorify Your strength" (Verse from the Praises); "Hasten to visit Your suffering servants, deliver them from their illnesses and raise them up from their bitter suffering, that they might ceaselessly hymn and praise You" (Troparion); O Lord, send down from heaven Your healing Power, touch this body, calm its fever, put an end to its suffering and every hidden weakness. Be the Physician of this, Your servant, raise him/her up from this bed of pain and suffering, and "restore hem/her safe and sound to Your Church, well-pleasing to You and able to fulfill Your calling" (Prayer of the third unction). "Drive far from him/her all sickness and infirmity, so that, raised up by Your powerful hand, he/she might serve You and offer You unceasing thanks" (Prayer of the fourth unction); "Holy Father, Physician of souls and bodies, Who has sent Your Only Son our Lord Jesus Christ to heal every sickness and to deliver us from death, heal Your servant (Name) from the infirmities of body and soul which possess him/her, and enliven him/her through the grace of Your Christ, and preserve the life of this person "who according to Your good pleasure and by his/her good works will render to You the thanksgiving which is due" (Prayer at every unction).

Under these conditions, the quest for healing even appears to be the Christian's duty, as Saint Isaac the Syrian notes: "He who is ill and knows his illness owes it to himself to ask for healing."

In addition the fact that it hinders a person from mobilizing for God all the strength and capacity that he has been given, illness remains a disorder and even a negation of human nature as God created it in the beginning, and as the Incarnate Logos/Word restored it in His person as the enfleshed Logos. By its very origin illness remains linked to evil, to the "power of darkness," of destruction and death, that is, to the sin of Adam and to the subsequent corruption of human nature in its entirety. Rather than accept and give in to illness in a fatalistic way, the human person, benefiting from the victory obtained by the God-man over sin and the forces of evil, should do everything within his power to combat it. This struggle against illness indirectly constitutes a part of the larger struggle one is called to assume against the powers of evil. In this regard, Theodore of Cypus makes judicious use of a military metaphor: "Those who suffer the assaults of illness strive to drive away the sickness of their body as they would drive away their enemies."

(To be continued)



The Grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God and Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.


"Glory Be To GOD For All things!"


With sincere agape in His Holy Diakonia,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George