The Theology of Illness (Part VI)

Apostle Nicanor the Deacon of the Seventy

Apostle Nicanor the Deacon of the Seventy

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

By Jean-Claude Larchet

Christian Paths Towards Healing

The Limitations of Medical Science

These limitations curtail the potential presumption of physicians, of whom Sirach says: "[His] knowledge gives him high standing and wins him the admiration of the great" (Sir. 38:8). To those who believe that the power to heal comes from themselves or from medical science alone, Job cries out: "As for you, you whitewash with lies; worthless physicians are you all" (Job 13:4).

Thus, while they recognize the value of science and of the medical profession, the Holy Fathers of the Church clearly emphasize its limitations. They often caution the sick against the temptation of regarding medicine and physicians as absolute, thus forgetting that God is ultimately the only physician and the sole source of all healing. Saint Isaac the Syrian therefore attributes the lowest order of knowledge to any science or technique "governed by the body," that is "preoccupied only with this world," and "does not see that the Providence of God directs us." Likewise he rates any knowledge that leads man to believe that "through his own effort and behavior, he has naturally within himself every good thing, the salvation that frees him from him from harm, the attentiveness that allows him to avoid the difficulty of so much adversity that arises both secretly and openly." And so he says of those "who fancy that [knowledge] itself is the providence of all things, like those who say that there is no God ruling the visible world."

Saint Barsanuphius writes: "We must not place our hope [in medicine], but in God Who gives both life and death, who said: "I wound and I heal" (Dt. 32:39). Saint Basil the Great likewise says that "when we resort to medicine we must beware not to attribute health and sickness to it exclusively," and again, "It is foolish to place one's hope for healing in physicians as we see it done by some unfortunate souls who do not hesitate to call them their saviors." Saint Diadochus of Photike, while recommending the aid of physicians, says that "one must not however place one's hope for healing in them, but in our True Savior and Physician, Jesus Christ.

By their very nature the medical arts have limitations, so that as "sciences" they bear only on phenomena and naturally lead to regarding illness as a reality in itself, independent of the person suffering from it. The latter is viewed as a "case," reduced to a set of symptoms and ultimately treated as an object. However, an ailing body is always that of a person; its condition is always connected to the soul, the psychological as well as the spiritual state of that person. Given the person's relationship to God and the spiritual meaning that illness may assume in such a setting, which encompasses not only the person's immediate condition but his destiny as well, it seems impossible to understand perfectly either the cause or the development of an illness merely by observing its symptoms.

The root cause of illness and the reasons for which it affects one person rather than another, at one particular time rather than another, most often lies beyond the ken of a clinician. This is because he is able to grasp only natural causes, whereas illness has a metaphysical cause as well, as Saint Basil the Great reminds us: "The various not all have causes against which the use of medicine may be deemed effective."

The process of healing, from a clinical perspective, leaves the same issues unresolved: the variety of reactions to the same treatment, the disparity that often exists between the rate of healing and the cause or extent of the illness, the difficulty in healing benign illnesses and the "spontaneous" remission of severe ones. Mere science is often hard pressed to explain all of this and one must then refer to the sick person's own reality and destiny and to his relationship with God. Sometimes God saves a man directly and invisibly, apart from remedies, or together with them; at times it is in these remedies that His grace is active, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. Whatever the circumstances, the healing is subject to the will of God: "God restores health to the sick whenever He wills," Saint Barsanuphius reminds us, because His will tends toward what is most beneficial for each of us.

Man's entire nature and his eschatology, as these are depicted in Christian terms, reveal the limitations of medicine not only with regard to its ability to understand the illness or the sick person, but also with regard to its effective scope.

On the one hand, the relief brought by medicine can last only so long. Our corruptible bodies are bound to be affected by other illnesses, and ultimately by death. Theodoret of Cyrus notes that death "perturbs the physician and shows up the conceit of remedies."

Have a Care Also for the Healing of the Soul

On the other hand, man is not merely a body. This is why, Saint Basil the Great says, "Christians must avoid that which appears to direct their whole life toward caring for the body." To be concerned strictly with the body would amount to losing both body and soul for all eternity. By invoking God in times of illness, a Christian makes of these an occasion for the salvation of his body, but also, and more importantly, of his soul. Saint Basil the Great also gives this advice: "In every instance, whether we follow the rules of medicine or, for reasons previously stated, we set them aside, we must always have in mind the will of God, work toward the good of the soul and fulfill the precepts of the Holy Apostles: "So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, all to the glory of God" (I Corinthians 10:31). The important thing is to experience both the healing and the illness in God, whatever the means of healing may be.

Again, Saint Basil the Great advises: "When the grace of healing is given to us...let us receive it gratefully, without distinguishing whether God has saved us in some invisible way, or whether He has done so by way of visible things." In health as in sickness, man must not lose sight of the ultimate goal, the complete and definitive salvation of his entire being in Christ. To the young Panteleimon, who wanted to become a physician, Saint Hermolaos--his spiritual father, who was also a physician--said that "Esclapius, Hippocrates and Galen truly conveyed secrets to heal the body's ills and, for a time, to preserve the health and the life that must necessarily be lost, but that Jesus Christ was a far more excellent physician in that He healed the illness of both body and soul, and He gave eternal life." It is from this perspective that all Christian physicians have been sanctified by acting, within their practice, in accordance with the will of God, committing themselves above all to proclaiming to those in their care the complete healing of human nature in Christ. Following His example they reveal, through the miraculous healing of the body, the miraculous healing of the soul. While they continued to display the attributes of the medical arts, they break through its limitations by revealing to all the original, transcendent source of healing. They make of their practice and other assets a means for conveying the grace that is manifested in the miracles they perform as these become signs, tokens of a deeper and fuller healing brought about by Christ.



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!"--St. John Chrysostom


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

+Father George