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The Good of Feeling Bad.

We encounter in Christian history, any number of holy people, faced with their own illnesses or the illnesses of those in their care, who ask God not in the first place for a return to health, but for what is spiritually most useful. And rather than lament because of these illnesses, they rejoice in the benefits that can be drawn from them.

Dr. Jean-Claude Larchet

To consider illness strictly as a phenomenon unto itself is almost inevitably to see it in the negative, sterile light, and this only increases the physical suffering and moral pain which result from a sense of its absurdity. The consequence of such an attitude is generally to leave the way open to the activity of demons and to develop in the soul troubling passions, such as fear, anxiety, anger, weariness, revolt and despair. These states not only do not relieve the body, they most often increase the symptoms of the evil that affects it, thereby creating sickness even in the soul. The illness then serves no good at all, but it becomes for the ill person a source of spiritual deterioration which puts his soul in jeopardy perhaps more than it does his body.

It is because of this very danger that the Fathers stress the point that "it is not in vain, nor without reason, that we are subject to illnesses." This is why they encourage us to be vigilant when illness strikes, and not to trouble ourselves first of all with their natural causes and means to cure them. Rather, our first concern should be to discern their meaning within the framework of our relationship to God, and to throw light on the positive function they can have in furthering our salvation. In this respect St. Maximus counsels:

When you are exposed to unexpected out its purpose and you will find the means to profit from it.

The ideal, then, is to avoid from the beginning, allowing ourselves to be dominated by suffering when it exists, but to go beyond the limits in which the suffering tends to enclose the soul and even our entire being, our entire existence. In this double perspective St. Gregory of Nazianzus offers the following counsel to an ill acquaintance: "I don't wish and I don't consider it good that you, well instructed in divine things as you are, should suffer the same feelings as more worldly people, that you should allow your body to give in, that you should agonize over your suffering as if it were incurable and irredeemable. Rather, I should want you to be philosophical about your suffering, and show yourself superior to the cause of your affliction, beholding in the illness a superior way towards what is ultimately good for you."

As a consequence of Adamic sin and an effect of sin perpetuated in the fallen world, together with demonic activity, illness manifests the misery of humanity separated from God. In the corruption and suffering of the body, one experiences the weakness of one's earthly being, the ephemeral character of one's existence in this world, and generally speaking, one's fragility, inadequacy, contingency and personal limits.

The illness of the body reminds us of the illness of our entire fallen nature.

The loss of health appears as the symbol and perceptible sign of the loss of paradisiacal life. By confining the soul within the limits of the body, sickness and suffering destroy any illusions of fullness and self-sufficiency a person may previously have had, illusions fueled by a state of health he took for granted. They teach a person the extent of their poverty, even their ontological nakedness (Gen. 3:7) and remind him that he is dust (3:19).

Ultimately, by virtue of sickness, "man comes back to himself."

Glory to Thee our God.

+ Glory to Thee for All Things +

Dr. Jean-Claude Larchet is one of the most notable living philosophers and authors on Orthodox Christian Patristics.

He holds a Ph.D in philosophy from the University of Nancy and a Ph.D. in theology from the University of Strasbourg. A teacher of philosophy for nearly thirty-five years, he is an author of over thirty books and countless articles whose work has been translated into seventeen languages. His magnum opus, Therapy of Spiritual Illness, and several other works have been translated into English to wide acclaim.

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