In the Diary of a Russian Priest, Fr. Alexander of blessed memory, shortly before his repose wrote:
The Christian gift of healing is not something all-powerful, nor a victory over nature. Many righteous men suffered up to the very end of their lives from diseases, which remained uncured. The Apostle himself was sick while curing others. How can this be explained? By the fact that so long as we live in this body of death, we bear all its consequences – until the final restoration of all things.
Physical death is a reality and an inheritance of each of us, yet it is not an end, nor is it to be feared. Bishop Nikolai of blessed memory explains: “A righteous man does not fear death; he is ready for death and he sees that, through death, he passes from a life of toil to eternal rest.”
Not fearing and being ready for death though does not imply that we devalue the life that we’ve been given. We are to sustain life, as it is a gift from God. In time of illness, we appropriately turn to the Lord as well as to His servants for healing.
Within the Byzantine East, there existed two approaches to healing. First, the faithful looked to physicians trained in the world, realizing that the science of medicine was a gift that came forth from God. Speaking to a physician friend, St. Basil the Great lauds the science and healing of physicians:
Humanity is the regular business of all you who practice as physicians. And, in my opinion, to put your science at the head and front of life’s pursuits is to decide reasonably and rightly. This at all events seems to be the case if man’s most precious possession, life, is painful and not worth living, unless it be lived in health, and if for health we are dependent upon your skill. In your own case, medicine is seen, as it were, with two right hands; you enlarge the accepted limits of philanthropy by not confining the application of your skills to men’s bodies, but by attending also to the cure of the diseases of their souls. It is not only in accordance with popular report that I thus write. I am moved by the personal experience, which I have had on many occasions.
Second, the faithful called upon the Physician of our souls and bodies, Jesus Christ, through the prayers of a living holy man or woman. Our history recounts the wonders of countless holy men and women who lived such and wrought miracles in the name of Christ, a few examples being Anastasia of Rome, Cosmas and Damianos, Kyros and John, Panteliemon and Ermolaos. A commonality amongst these saints was that they approached God, His humanity and the miracle of healing with humility. It is said, for instance, when St. Auxentios performed healings, he approached the healing humbly: either he asked all present to pray with him for the sick persons, or he told them God would give according to their faith, or he said over the head of the person: “The Lord Jesus Christ heals you.”
Bishop Nikolai of blessed memory also suggests that God works healings through the relics of a saint, by visiting a shrine, through anointing with holy oil or holy water, and even kissing the tomb of a saint. Why is this so? Ultimately, it is “…by God’s providence, [that] the power of healing is given to blessed water and blessed oil… [and] icons.”
With respect for both medical science and faith, Saint Clement of Alexandria, concludes that the ideal therapy is logically a balance.
The art of healing strictly speaking is the relief of the ills of the body, an art learned by man’s wisdom. Yet, the only true divine Healer of human sickness, the holy Comforter of the soul when it is ill, is the Word of the Father….Wisdom Himself, the Word of the Father, who created man, concerns Himself with the whole creature, and as the Physician of the whole man heals both body and soul.
The Fifth century Saint, Diadochos of Photiki likewise taught:
There is nothing to prevent us from calling a doctor when we are ill. Since Providence has implanted remedies in nature, it has been possible for human experimentation to develop the art of medicine. All the same, we should not place our hope of healing in doctors, but in our true Savior and Doctor, Jesus Christ.
When asked: “When we have a certain problem with our health, is it sufficient for us to call upon divine aid or can we take refuge in medical science, also?” Faher Epiphanios of blessed memory, in Counsels for Life, provides a like response:
God accepts both: “And give the physician his place, for the Lord created him, let him not leave you, for there is need of him. There is a time when success lies in the hands of physicians, for they too will pray to the Lord that he should grant them success in diagnosis and in healing, for the sake of preserving life….healing is from the Highest…the Lord created medicines from the earth, a wise man does not reject them.
Taking refuge in medical science does not preclude calling upon divine aid. That is, the Christians, without rejecting medical aid, must pray that God enlighten the doctors to make the correct diagnosis, to proceed to the necessary tests and to determine the appropriate therapy. They should also ask God to enlighten them to cooperate with the doctor, to strengthen them in patience so that they come out gaining profit of soul from their trial and, if it is His will and for the advantage of their soul, to deliver them from the illness.
In his words, we again learn of the importance of both piety and the use of medical science.
Father Paisios of blessed memory though makes a very interesting point, when asked “Geronda, concerning physical and mental health, to what extent must one put himself in to the hands of God?” Although he universally agrees that medical science is a means to bring healing, in this particular response, He suggests that all of us have been given the ability to bring about healing, in other words, to perform miracles, if – and that’s a big if - we were in a right spiritual state. It is with his words that I conclude:
When, for example, I see a blind man, I feel guilty because, if I was in a proper spiritual state, I would be able to heal him. God has given us the potential to become saints, to do miracles, as He himself did. We acknowledge our great or small spiritual illness and humbly ask for the physical health of our fellow human being, as being responsible for his illness. For if we had spiritual health, he would have been healed long ago and not suffered. When we realize that we are responsible for the condition of all the people and say, Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy upon us, everyone benefits. We should grieve over our own many faults, but also seek God’s mercy.