Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Theology of Illness (2 of 3)

The second chapter of Jean-Claude Larchet’s remarkable study, The Theology of Illness, is entitled “The Spiritual Meaning of Illness.” The author begins with a treatment of the ambivalence of health and illness. The meaning of the two is ambivalent: neither is an absolute good nor an absolute evil. Larchet writes:
By itself illness does not have the power to separate man from God; therefore from a spiritual point of view it cannot be considered to be a source of evil in his life. St John Chrysostom notes: “If the soul is in good health, bodily illness can in no way harm a man.” Illness, then, is only evil in appearance. It can even constitute a blessing for man in the sense that, if one uses it appropriately, one can draw from it considerable spiritual benefit, thereby making of what was originally a sin of mortality into an instrument of salvation.
Indeed, “in certain cases and from the point of view of that which is spiritually good for man, illness can be paradoxically considered as a higher good than health and therefore as preferable to health.” But such an attitude requires looking at illness as something more than a simple biological reality. “In the corruption and suffering of the body,” Larchet writes, one experiences the weakness of one’s own earthly being, the ephemeral character of one’s existence in this world, and, generally speaking, one’s fragility, inadequacy, contingency, and personal limits. Understood correctly, one’s spiritual intelligence is “refined by suffering.”

To take a philosophical attitude towards illness, as the Fathers urge us to, “means to strive to discover the intentions and aims of God with regard to ourselves.” The suffering that accompanies illness “should be considered in the same way as the usually inevitable side-effects of medicines used by physicians. St John Chrysostom writes:
The physician is not only a physician when he orders baths, adequate nourishment, and when he order the patient to walk through flower gardens, but also when he burns and cuts... Thus knowing that God loves us more than all the physicians combined, we need not worry not have any need to ask him to justify the means he employs. Rather, whether he wants to be indulgent or severe, let us abandon ourselves to him. For by either of these means, his desire is always to save us and to unite us to himself.
The author next turns to a consideration of illness as an opportunity for spiritual progress:
There are two ways in which we can say that illness is due to sin. In the first place, illness occurs as a consequence of “original” sin, a factor common to the descendants of Adam, or as the result of some person sin. In the second place, illness occurs as a means given by God for man’s purification from sin.
Sickness and suffering can even take the place of ascetic practices. St Syncletica writes: “Fasting and sleeping on the ground are prescribed for us because of pleasures. But if illness weakens these pleasures, there is no longer any justification for these practices.”

To emerge victorious from the testing of illness, “a person must first of all avoid passively submitting to the illness and its suffering, and allowing himself to be dominated, enclosed and beaten down by it. To the contrary, it is essential that the person do all possible to preserve a dynamic attitude of vigilance, in expectation of receiving divine assistance.” In the face of suffering, the virtue of patience is necessary above all others, and it is chiefly by prayer that an ill person receives help from God. Larchet writes:
God gives us what is spiritually the best for us. From this point of view, restoration of health is sometimes beneficial. But sometimes continuation of the illness provides a providential opportunity to receive an even greater benefit.
By praying only for health, “the ill person merely seeks the fulfillment of his own will, because the human will always desires the lessening of pain and suffering.” Prayer during illness “should not be limited to requests; it should also include thanksgiving.” For illness to be a way of holiness “patience and thanksgiving [must] come first.” With regard to patience, St John Cassian writes:
The advantage that illness can sometimes present appears quite close with the beatitude illustrated by the poor, ulcerated Lazarus. Scripture makes no mention at all in his regard of any virtue. His great patience in supporting his poverty and illness alone merits the blessed fortune to be admitted into the bosom of Abraham.
God willing, I’ll post on the third and final chapter, “Christian Paths toward Healing,” tomorrow.

Illustration: The parable of Lazarus and the rich man.

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