Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Theology of Illness (3 of 3)

The third and concluding chapter of Jean-Claude Larchet’s book, The Theology of Illness, is entitled “Christian Paths toward Healing.” He begins:
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.
The struggle again illness is, indeed “a part of the larger struggle one is called to assume against the powers of evil.” The one true Physician is Christ. Indeed, “in order the show that it is the whole person Christ came to save, the Fathers and the entire Tradition of the Church are careful to present him as both ‘Physician of bodies’ and ‘Physician of souls.’” When the saints heal, it is precisely in the name of Christ.

Larchet then turns to a consideration of spiritual paths toward healing, beginning with prayer. He writes: “For the grace of God rests on all mankind – and in fullness upon those who are baptized. In order to receive it one need only face it and be open to it.” Praying for one’s neighbor and the prayer of the saints are also effective against illness. The saints are able to heal us through the deification they have received in Christ:
They can do so because they have been deified through grace and have become participants in divine Life and Power. We pray especially to the Mother of God, the first human being to have been fully deified and glorified, “the comfort of the afflicted and the healing of the sick,” “the hope of the hopeless,” ‘the strength of those who are struggling,” “unquenchable and inexhaustible treasure of healing,” “from whom marvels spring forth and healing flows out.
Healing from the saints also comes indirectly through their holy relics, “which are suffused with and radiate these energies.”

After considering the charism of healing and its nature and limits, Larchet turns to a treatment of Holy Unction. Speaking of the seven prayers read during the service of Holy Unction, Larchet writes:
Bringing to mind the mercy and compassion which God has always shown mankind, they ask him to preserve the life of the sick person, to alleviate his suffering, and to heal and strengthen his body. Most importantly, they ask God to forgive his sins, to confirm his spiritual life, to assure his salvation and sanctification, and to accomplish the regeneration of his entire being and the renewal of his life in Christ. Each prayer puts special emphasis on one or the other of these elements, but all of them connect the consolation of the soul with that of the body, spiritual healing with physical healing, and they emphasize the fundamental importance of the former without underestimating that of the latter.
The author also considers the use of holy water, which “conveys the healing energies of God by virtue of the Holy Spirit,” as well as that of the sign of the cross, which “invokes and effects the energies of the Holy Trinity, it is the effective sign of Christ’s victory over death and corruption, over sin and the power of the devil and of demons, and consequently over the illness connected with them.” He also considers the rite of exorcism, because according to the Church Fathers, “the devil and demons are at the root of certain illnesses. Larchet writes:
Thus, if we refer to the Gospels, we observe that possession and illness, or infirmities, are presented as orders of reality situated on two different planes, each with its own attributes, and not necessarily connected to one another. First of all, possession and illness, or infirmities, are clearly distinguished in a number of passages. This fact alone makes it impossible to equate the two. Secondly, the majority of illnesses, or infirmities, referred to in connection with the miracles of Christ are not shown to be in any way connected with possession. Thirdly, in certain cases, a person may be afflicted with both possession and illness (or infirmity) without the two conditions having any correlation.
Exorcism “is a sign that Christ has come to restore to mankind the kingdom which we had lost and to reclaim on our behalf the power we had given up to Satan. It has its place under the Name of the Lord of hosts.” The afflicted person, however, must be worthy to receive this grace: “To those invoke his Name, he grants this power only in proportion to their faith and to the purity of their hearts.” Exorcism, however, is not a technique; its “effectiveness depends above all on the spiritual well-being of the one putting it into practice.” The power of the demons, and the need for exorcisms, has changed over the ages. Nevertheless, especially with the expansion of Christianity, demonic activity, while manifesting its intensity, has changed shape and begun to manifest itself differently: it has become diluted, more subtle, harder to pinpoint and less overt.”

Larchet next turns his attention to the role of secular medicine, noting that “Christians have had recourse, since the beginning of the Christian era and in direct continuity with the Old Testament tradition, to any secular means of healing that the medical sciences of their age had to offer.” Medicine is “seen as a very special way of putting charity into practice,” and “from a spiritual perspective, the value of medicine lies in the orientation of the one who implements it.” During the Byzantine era, it was the Orthodox Church (including many individual Fathers) who “took the initiative to organize the medical profession into the systematic treatment and care of patients in a hospital setting,” and the Church itself took “the initiative in hiring, paying and organizing the services of professional physicians.”

There were also early Christians who took a “maximalist position,” rejecting the use of secular medicine, but they were always in the minority and, in a number of cases, heretics or schismatics (e.g., Tatian, Tertullian, and Arnobius of Sicca, who were linked to Montanism, Encratism, and Marcionites, respectively). There were likewise some Fathers, such as St Barsanuphius of Gaza, who looked askew on medicine, but in whose case his pronouncements were guided to the individual rather than universal in scope. “What actually seems important to Saint Barsanuphius,” Larchet notes, “is that one never forget, every time one resorts to medicine, that it is always God who heals through then”

Larchet goes on to consider a spiritual understanding of secular means of healing. The Fathers “emphasize that the remedies found in nature or created from natural elements, as well as the art of discovering, extracting and making them, just like the art of applying them beneficially, all have their origin in God.” St Diadochus of Photike even claims that God created herbs for their medicinal use: “As man’s experience would one day lead him to develop the art of medicine, for this reason these remedies preexisted.” “A physician,” Larchet writes, “through his art as well as through the medicine he prescribes, is merely implementing the divine energies that were generously poured out by the Creator, in all created beings as well as in the human spirit.”

It must always remembered, however, that “healing itself, while resulting from natural processes, actually comes fro God.” This stands in opposition to modern naturalism:
The Christian attitude is thus diametrically opposed to naturalism and sees as an illusion the belief that the medical arts and remedies are, in and of themselves, good and effective means of healing. St Barsanuphius emphasizes that “without God, nothing avails, not even the physician.” And he adds: “Do not forget that without God there is no healing for anyone.”

This is why Christians, while they rely of physicians, see them simply as mediators.
While recognizing the benefits of medicine, the Fathers also emphasize its limitations. St Isaac of Syria, for instance, “attributes to 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 the Providence of God directs us.’” But since man is more than a body, the soul need not be forgotten. The healing of the body symbolizes and foretells the healing of our whole being, and illnesses of the soul are more serious than those of the body, since the former “hinders man’s entire being, body and soul, from being saved.” The nature of health in this world is always relative, but we are promised future incorruptibility and immortality in the next world. Christ’s miracles “seem to be primarily visible signs of this coming restoration, where our bodies will be healed once and for all of every illness and we will experience a perfect and permanent health.”

Our Lord Jesus Christ came to save not only the soul, but also the body: “He dies so not only in this life where he calls man to know, in both body and soul, the first-fruits of divine blessings, but also in the hereafter where, once his body has been raised and made incorruptible, he can rejoice in them fully in his entire being for all eternity. At the resurrection, each person “will be clothed with his own body, but it will be free of the imperfections, the weakness, the corruptibility, and the mortality that are characteristic of its current nature.” Speaking of the resurrection, Larchet writes: “Then man will experience in his body a perfect, complete and permanent health, that he might receive – in this body as in his soul – the fullness of grace.” (What awaits those consigned to hell, Larchet doesn’t say.)

This exemplary work deserves a place in the library of every Orthodox Christian – and in every hospital as well.


Apophatically Speaking said...

Thank you for this review. Looks like an excellent work. I will order the book soon and the one on Mental Health as well.

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