The poet W. H. Auden’s matter of fact observation that makes up the first line of his great poem “Musée des Beaux Arts” could be applied to the writings of the Church Fathers: “About suffering they were never wrong.”
Reflecting on Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” Auden speaks in the poem about how we go about our lives while others suffer and die. As we go about our lives, he tells us, we often miss amazing things that occur, even if they are disastrous, such as how the ploughman misses a boy’s falling out of the sky and into the water.
For Auden, the Old Masters are always right about suffering because they recognize its “human position.” The Church Fathers, however, are always right about suffering, because they recognize its position in our salvation, something many of us resist.
And because they are right about suffering, the Church Fathers are right, too, about illness, one of the ways we suffer in life.
The Orthodox philosopher Jean-Claude Larchet examines the teachings of the Church Fathers on illness in his book, The Theology of Illness. The book, an excellent companion to Larchet’s Theology of the Body (recently discussed on this site), is rich with quotations and insight from the Church Fathers and insight from Larchet, which give us a proper Christian perspective of illness.
Many of us fail to see that with illness comes the opportunity to accept our suffering and through our suffering to grow closer to God. Instead, we give in to the illness and suffering, grumbling or complaining, sometimes even wondering why God has abandoned us and so afflicted us.
We forget when we are ill what the Fathers knew so fully: That everyone suffers illness, even saints; that no matter how healthy and fit we are, we will never be perfectly healthy in life.
The Fathers see illness in a completely different light. Illness, they tell us, can be a blessing if it does not separate us from God. In fact, illness may even be better than health. St. John Climacus writes: “Sometimes the purpose of illness is to humiliate our spirit.”
Health actually can be bad for us when we misuse our healthy bodies. While the Fathers teach that illness is not a source of evil, they point out that some vices are the source of our illnesses. This is true of sins usually made when physically healthy, such as gluttony, porneia or sexual passions, and acedia.
Illness is a consequence of the sin of Adam and Eve, but it provides us with a way to address our sins and to be purified from them – if, of course, we approach illness in the right way.
“It is for our good that we are victims of illnesses,” St. John Chrysostom writes. Adam and Eve were proud and so sinned, and through illness, he says, “pride . . . finds a cure in this weakness and in these afflictions.”
Illness, the Fathers teach, can help us imitate Christ. This occurs, St. Macarius of Egypt writes, when the Christian accepts “courageously and patiently the afflictions he encounters, whether these be bodily illnesses, slander and vilification from men, or attacks from unseen spirits.”
Prayer is essential to our acceptance of illness and to our healing. Through prayer, Larchet writes, the ill person can turn to God. Some may have the ability to pray for endurance of an illness and to be thankful for the illness. Others, however, can pray simply that God will do what is best for them.
Prayer may help some lose their awareness of suffering. Suffering for others will be so great that they will not be able to pray. In such cases, Larchet writes, the ill person can remain in silence and not lose faith that God is with him.
We may even suffer illness the closer we grow to God. Larchet writes: “Evagrius several times stresses that when the spirit of a man is united to God in prayer, the devil—having no direct control over his soul and nevertheless trying to create trouble for him—has no other recourse than to act upon the body.”
The Fathers, Larchet shows us, challenge the Christian to ask these questions: Can I accept my illness and suffering instead of giving in to it? Can I struggle with my illness and suffering and trust that the Lord will come to my assistance?
The Christian prays to accept his illness, but he also prays to be delivered from it. Jesus Christ is the physician of souls, but he also healed the physically sick and infirm. Larchet writes: “He did not see in such sufferings any necessary affliction.”
Jesus Christ is equally the physician of soul and body, Larchet notes, and this is a title the Fathers give him. Healing, in fact, always comes through Jesus Christ, the Fathers tell us. This is why the ill can pray for the intercession of the saints, why we pray for those who are ill, and why the Fathers promote medicine and hospitals and care of the sick as a charitable act.
What is most important, the Fathers teach, is that we have an attitude of patience and thanksgiving when we are ill. Larchet writes: “The Fathers celebrate both of these virtues, stressing the power they possess to lead the ill person to the highest summits of the spiritual life and to grant him salvation.”
About suffering and illness they are never wrong, the Church Fathers. How well they know its salvific position. In their theology, Larchet shows us, they help us see the amazing truth about illness.