The Theology of Illness (Part II)

Venerable Macrina the Sister of Saint Basil the Great

Venerable Macrina the Sister of Saint Basil the Great

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

By Jean-Claude Larchet (Source: The Theology of Illness)

Christ, Who dwelt among men to heal them of their spiritual ills, never hesitated to ease from their bodily illness and infirmities those who requested healing from Him. He did not see in such sufferings any necessary affliction. Far from being resigned or indifferent in the face of illness, Christ revealed clearly, by healing those who came to Him, that illness is undesirable. And He gave an example of the attitude to be adopted when it occurs.

Nor did He hesitate to present Himself as a physician: "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick" (St. Matthew 9:12; St. Mark 2:17; St. Luke 7:31); "Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, 'Physician, heal yourself" (St. Luke 4:23). And the multitude of healings that He worked--which the Gospels take pains to relate in detail--bear witness to the fact that He meant by his actions to be a physician not only of souls but also of bodies.

Significantly, it is after having recalled an episode in which Christ exorcised spirits and healed the illnesses of those brought to Him that Saint Matthew recalls Isaiah's prophecy, "He took our infirmities and bore our disease" (St. Matthew 8:16-17, Is 53:5). It is precisely as the Physician of bodies that Jesus appears to many of those who knew Him during His earthly life: His adversaries--who accused Him above all of working a healing on the Sabbath (St. Matthew 12:10; St. Luke 6:7; St. Mark 3:2)--but also those in the large crowds who drew near to Him to receive healing of their physical illnesses and infirmities.

At the beginning of the Christian era, Christ was often favorably compared to Asclepius, the healing god of pagan Greek and Roman cults. The first Christian apologists actually preserved this comparison for a while, for didactic reasons, taking care, of course, to insist that Christ is the only Physician, whereas Asclepius was nothing but an idol or a demon. This function as Physician of bodies, fulfilled by Christ and then in His name by the Apostles, is so striking that the pagan observers described Christianity" as a religion for the sick." Their surprise was due to the fact that at this period religions tended to despise sick people and seek their followers from among the healthy.

These represent distortions of early Christianity, however, in that they tend to limit their perspective so as to see in Jesus Christ a mere healer of bodily ills, and to assimilate Him to the mass of magicians and healers found in this period. Thereby they failed to grasp the fact that He is equally the Physician of souls. But an equal distortion would be to see Him as concerned only with spiritual healing. Consequently, in order to show that it is the whole person Christ came to heal and to save, the Holy Fathers and the entire Holy Tradition of the Church are careful to present Him as both "Physician of bodies" and "Physician of souls." Their concern is to stress the unity characteristic of the human person and the common destiny of both soul and body of each individual. Accordingly, they most frequently call Christ by the title "Physician, of the soul and body."

The Saints Heal in the Name of Christ

Having called His twelve disciples, Christ conferred His healing power upon them; He made them physicians like Himself, giving them power to command and cast out evil spirits (St. Mark 10:1, 8; St. Luke 9:2, Cf. St. Mark 6:13 and St. Luke 9:6). After the Apostles, this healing power was conveyed to all those who, through a divine-human asceticism, became like Christ. They are the holy "godbearers" whose lives attest to the many healings they performed and who, like Him, would be called "physicians."

Nevertheless, Christ is "the only Physician," for through the Apostles and the Saints it is always He who heals: they are able to heal only in His Name and deem themselves to be mere mediators. Thus the Holy Apostle Peter says to the crowd that has come to see him perform a miraculous healing: "Why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk? in [Jesus'] Name has made this man strong whom you see and know" (Acts 3:12, 16). And Saint Athanasius the Great has this to say about Antony: "Through him the Lord heals many." Theodoret of Cyrus expresses a similar thought with regard to the monk-healers whose lives he presents: "Those who have been initiated into the mysteries of the Spirit know the generosity of the Spirit and what miracles He has wrought in man through man." Then Saint Athanasius tells us that when Saint Antony performed a healing, "he always gave thanks to the Lord. He reminded those who were ill, that the healing was neither his nor anyone's, but that it was God's alone...Thus the sick learned to give thanks not to Antony but only to God. Saint Antony himself says: "I do not have this power to heal...healing is the work of the Lord. In every place He has mercy on those who call on Him. The Lord has heard my prayer and He has made known His love for mankind by revealing to me that He would heal..."

Such assertions are necessary in the event of a healing because men tend to give glory to the healer rather than to God. The people of Lystra did so with Saint Paul and Saint Barnabas, saying to them: "The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men," calling them Zeus and Hermes and attempting to offer them sacrifices (Acts 14:8-13). The two Apostles had great difficulty getting them to admit that they were also men of the same nature, and exhorted them to turn "to a living God" (Acts 14:15). It is to avoid just such a confusion, and so that none of the healings performed by the power of God would be attributed directly to them, that the holy healers, in their humility, often have recourse to material means. They perform rites or give strange prescriptions that most often have no therapeutic value in themselves, but serve to divert the attention and the gratitude of those who they heal so that these might turn more easily and more completely to the One Who is the only source of healing.

Out of faithfulness to Christ, His Holy Apostles and His Saints, Christians have always focused their efforts on caring for and healing the sick either through specifically religious therapeutic methods, or through secular medicine to which they nevertheless attribute a new, spiritual meaning. But since Christ is truly "the Only Physician of the body," these diverse therapeutic methods are simply, as we shall see, various means which He provides for us to ask for, convey and receive His grace: the energies which He has from the Father and gives to mankind through the Spirit, either directly, or indirectly through the works of creation.

(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!"-Saint John Chrysostom


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

+Father George