During these difficult and turbulent times we are living in the question becomes, undoubtedly, spontaneous and loud too: What is the Christian attitude towards sickness? And how we, as Christian believers, should behave in these challenging waters we are swimming in?
The Fathers of the Church can certainly offer us a strong helping hand in both understanding and fruitfully responding to the painful situation each one of us, nationally and internationally, have to contend with. Once more, the Fathers of the Church are assuredly a vital source of understading, comfort, and beneficial direction in this quest for hope. For that matter let us present a simple set of attitudes which the Fathers give us, through their inspiring writings, at this particular juncture of world history.
Before the reality of sickness spiritual health is the first kind of health that must be nourished at all costs. In his Exegetical Works, St. Ambrose of Milan writes: If the occasion demands it, a wise man will readily accept bodily infirmity and even offer his whole body up to death for the sake of Christ… This same man is not affected in spirit or broken with bodily pain if his health fails him. He is consoled by his struggle for perfection in the virtues.
The time of sickness is one wherein we strive to grow in love. Thus, we start hesitating from serving one another mainly because of fear of God’s punishment. Instead, we opt to do so out of loving care and solicitude towards the person who is suffering. In his Institutes St. John Cassian reminds us: God leads you on by a still higher step to that love which is free of fear. Through this you begin effortlessly and naturally to observe all those things you originally observed out of fear of God and punishment, but now you do them no longer from fear of punishment, but from love of Goodness itself, and delight in virtue.
In St. John Chrysostom’s view sickness acts as a correction in a dual sense. First, to remind the human person that he and she is a creature and never the Creator. Second, to heal the soul from its sinful past. In his eleventh homily On the Statues, he observes that the Heavenly Physician
made the body [of man] subject to much suffering and disease, so that man might learn from his very nature than he must never again entertain the thought that he could be like unto God. Whereas in his thirty-eighth homily On the Gospel of St. John he writes: When the soul is afflicted by disease we usually feel no pain. But if the body suffers only a little, we make every effort to be free of the illness and its pain. Therefore, God corrects the body for the sins of the soul, so that by chastising the body, the soul might also receive some healing… Christ did this with the Paralytic when He said: Behold, thou art made whole; sin no more, lest a worse thing come unto thee.
Sickness opens us for spiritual solidarity that is greatly offerred by means of praying for one another. In On the Healing of the Paralytic, St. Ambrose says: Anyone who is sick should seek the prayer of others, that they may be restored to health; that through the intercession of others the enfeebled form of the body and the wavering footsteps of our deeds may be restored to health… Learn, you who are sick, to gain health through prayer. Seek the prayer of others, call upon the Church to pray for you, and God, in His regard for the Church, will give what He might refuse to you.
From their authentic life witness the Fathers constantly show us with how much seriousness they listened to, taught and practiced what they ardently instructed to their flock. In this they fully complied with what St. James teaches in his letter: But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if any one is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who observes his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But he who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer that forgets but a doer that acts, he shall be blessed in his doing (Jas 1:22-25). A case in point is that of St. Gregory Nazanzien. As a great man and an eloquent teacher on prayer life, even when his health was good, at the time of his illness which finally led to his demise, he wrote in his Letters: The time is swift, the struggle is great, and my sickness severe, reducing me nearly to immovability. What then is left but to pray to God?
For the Fathers, prayer at the time of sickness is important because the spirit and the psyche are relieved from the distress that ilness can bring in. St. Ambrose, in his treatise Jacob and the Happy Life, dramatically compares an infirm body to a broken instrument. Nevertheless, a sick person can maintain his and her spirit high and serene even if his and her body is greatly damaged by sickness. If a man used to singing to the accompaniment of a harp finds the harp broken, and its strings undone… he puts it aside and instead of calling for its notes he delights himself with his own voice. In the same way, a sick man allows the harp of his body to lie unused. He finds delight within his heart and comfort in the knowledge that his conscience is clear. He sustains himself with God’s words and the prophetic writings and, holding these sweet and pleasant in his soul, he embraces them with his mind. Nothing can happen to him because God’s graceful presence breathes favour upon him… He is filled with spiritual tranquillity.
It has repeatedly been demonstrated that prayer is essential at the time of sickness. Prayer opens our hearts to grow in the love of God and neighbour since it invites us to serve the Jesus we adore in the suffering ones with love and never out of fear from God’s punishment for not doing so. This we do both by prayer as well as by the works of mercy. Sickness can be a blessed time in which we can progress in our spiritual journey since it reminds us that we heavily rely on God, as His creatures. Hence, by trusting more in God’s mercy we can be healed from our sinful past. Most of all, even if our bodies will not be healed prayer relieves our mind, spirit and heart from the distress that illness can bring to us. Blessed are we if these things not only teach them but, and above all, practice them!
Fr Mario Attard OFM Cap