Illness and death are very real; they are inescapable realities of life. The existentialist philosophers Camus and Sartre suggest that facing the "ultimate inevitability of death" makes life meaningless, and often leads to hopeless depression.
Subject to Bondage
To understand the real meaning of illness and death, however, we have to go back to the beginning of creation. The story does not open with mankind, but with the evil one, Satan, and his cohorts. St. John tells us, "the devil has sinned from the beginning" (1 John 3:8). Jesus told the sinful Pharisees, "You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own resources, for he is a liar and the father of it" (John 8:44).
In His goodness, God created the material universe; "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" (Genesis 1:1). Then "God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them" (Genesis 1:27); the "LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being" (Genesis 2:7).
Mankind is meant for paradise, and paradise is eternal life in God. Illness and death, then, are foreign to the original purpose for which God created us. God never ceased to love that which He created. Rather, He wanted to test His creation. God wanted to see if Adam and Eve loved and would obey Him. After man's creation, God commanded, "Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die" (Genesis 2:16-17). We know our ancestors failed this test.
To God's question, "Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you that you should not eat?" our ancestors replied, "Yes." God told them, "'For dust you are, / And to dust you shall return.' . . . Therefore the LORD God sent him out of the garden of Eden to till the ground from which he was taken. So He drove out the man; and He placed cherubim at the east of the garden of Eden, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life" (Genesis 3:11, 19, 23, 24). St. Gregory of Nyssa tells us, "Thus man, who was so great and precious, as the Scriptures call him, fell from the value he had by nature . . . by his sin, clothed himself in an image that is of clay and mortal" (Musurillo, 1979).
But again, God still did not cease to love us. Salvation history now begins with God's covenant with Abraham and what followed it. This is so beautifully expressed in the Anaphora of the Liturgy of St. Basil: "Thou didst send forth the Prophets; Thou didst perform mighty works by the saints . . . who foretold unto us the salvation which was to come."
Each of us would inherit the consequences of the choices Adam and Eve made and have to undergo a test ourselves. We inherited brokenness in nature; we became prone to sin. We have to suffer illness and death, and each of us has to be tested to prove our love of God. Thus St. Paul tells the Corinthians, "Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man" (1 Corinthians 10:13).
Conquering Death in Christ
We all know of the depth of God's faithful love for us from the often-quoted Gospel of St. John: "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life" (3:16). Out of divine love, the Son, the second Person of the Blessed Trinity, emptied Himself and took on our human nature at His birth, was crucified, died, was buried, and rose again for our salvation, and by doing this conquered sin and death. There can be no greater love than this, except the love of the Persons of the Holy Trinity for each other.
St. Paul's message to the Romans summarizes the theology of illness and death: ". . . knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more. Death no longer has dominion over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God" (Romans 6:6-10).
We do not conquer death automatically by virtue of professing Christ. We all have to pass a test. As the angels and our ancestors had to be tested, we too have to prove our love of God. In the Book of Revelation, St. John tells us God's words: "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes I will give to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God" (Revelation 2:7).
True healing and life are not of this world, but will be granted in our resurrection in Christ. However, we must conquer or overcome here on earth. If we conquer in the way St. John suggests we must here on earth, illness and death become not only understandable, but a celebration, because they are the gateway into Our Lord's bosom in eternal life.
Approaching illness and death merely from a human view simply falls short of the divine life and divine meaning we are capable of giving it. Death from a human view is an existential vacuum. It is no wonder that the existentialists conclude life is meaningless and hopeless. Depression is inevitable. The more humanly we approach illness and death, the less it is a gateway into eternal life.
Our Church Fathers give us some insight into how we can use illness and acceptance of mortality (death) to grow in Christ. The conquering St. John refers to is explained by Illias the Presbyter: "Suffering deliberately embraced cannot free the soul totally from sin unless the soul is also tried in the fire of suffering that comes unchosen. For the soul is like a sword: if it does not go 'through fire and water' (Ps. 66:12, LXX)-that is, by suffering deliberately embraced and suffering that comes unchosen-it cannot be by the blows of fortune" (Ilias the Presbyter, Philokalia III). Thus we have to acquire an attitude of embracing both illness and the inevitable death of earthly life as an acceptance of God's divine will for us. This is not only for those undergoing illness themselves, but also for those whose loved ones are suffering and face death.
The depth of our commitment to Him and His will is the depth of our conquering sin and passing God's test of love. Daniel the Prophet is clear when he tells us the consequences of this test will only come to pass after the resurrection of the dead. This is when Michael the Archangel will look at the names written in the book: "And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, / Some to everlasting life, / Some to shame and everlasting contempt" (Daniel 12:2). For us living on earth, dealing with suffering and death is our last opportunity to conquer self-will and pride and give ourselves over to God's will. In human terms, it is the "fire and water" Illias the Presbyter tells us about.
Imagine if our original ancestors, when the evil one said, "For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil" (Genesis 3:5), had answered differently than by eating of the fruit against God's will? Imagine, for example, they had answered the evil one saying, "We are creatures; we are not to be like God, knowing good and evil the way He does. We are content to know only what He wants us to know; we accept His will. Be gone, Satan."
We have the same opportunity as our original ancestors. How? If, when facing illness that appears to our human minds unexplainable, and death that seems in human terms unfair and without meaning, we embrace them as God's will, we thwart the plans of the evil one and align ourselves with God. This is our opportunity to say, "Be gone, Satan," in the desert of our lives. This is what our first parents did not say in the garden of paradise; this is what Christ did say when confronting Satan in the desert (Matthew 4:1-11).
This is what Christ did when He embraced the Cross for our salvation by conquering sin and death. As St. Basil in the Anaphora of the Divine Liturgy so aptly expresses, "Having descended into hell through the Cross, that He [Christ] might fill all things with Himself, He loosed the pains of death, and rose again from the dead on the third day, making a way for all flesh through the resurrection from the dead."
The Church Fathers tell us illness and death can, in some mysterious way, be a cleansing of soul. St. Maximus the Confessor writes, "Suffering cleanses the soul infected with the filth of sensual pleasure and detaches it completely from material things by showing it the penalty incurred as a result of its affection for them. This is why God in His justice allows the devil to afflict men with torments." Acceptance of our illness and death as God's will for us therefore is the means of embracing the saving grace of Christ, who by His death opened the gates of paradise. God understands what we do not understand.
Not only do illness and acceptance of death bring cleansing for the suffering Orthodox Christian, they can bring cleansing for those looking on as their loved ones die. Elder Ambrose of Optina told parents who had lost their son, "Although his death has brought you great grief and sorrow, this same grief can serve to strengthen you in the Christian life, in the practice of good deeds and in a Christian disposition of soul. What the Lord works in us is not only good but often exceedingly kind." Without Christ this is impossible to comprehend.
The Meaning of Illness and Death
In confronting illness and death, the prayer and thought of all should be the words of St. John in the Book of Revelation: "'Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.' Then He who sat on the throne said, 'Behold, I make all things new'" (Revelation 21:3-5).
Psychologists have attempted to find the meaning of illness, suffering, and death. Just the titles of some books by one well-known psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl, illustrate such attempts: Man's Search for Meaning (1959); The Will to Meaning (1969); The Unheard Cry for Meaning (1978). Unfortunately, such worthy attempts simply reduce meaning to a human level. Frankl unknowingly states this himself: "The noölogical dimension goes beyond the psychological dimension and thus is the higher; . . . his humanness, does not contradict the fact that . . . he is still an animal. The man who knows how to suffer molds his sufferings into a human achievement" (1978).
Following Frankl's logic, if terminal illness and death are merely human achievements, we have ultimate meaninglessness. In the Orthodox funeral service, we pray the Idiomelon by St. John of Damascus: "I called to mind the Prophet, as he cried: I am earth and ashes; and I looked again into the graves and beheld the bones laid bare, and I said: Who then is the king or the warrior, the rich man or the needy, the upright or the sinner?" Or, in the words of a popular contemporary song: "Is that all there is?"
But St. John of Damascus' prayer does not end there. Because of Christ we have divine eternal meaning. The last line of that Idiomelon is, "Yet, O Lord, give rest unto Thy servant with the righteous." Later in the funeral service we pray, "May Christ give thee rest in the land of the living, and open unto thee the gates of Paradise and make thee a citizen of His kingdom." The meaning of illness and death is eternal life.
Elder Ambrose of Optina. Letters of Spiritual Counsel, Letter LXXXIII http://www.roca.org/oa/96/96b.htm. (2006, February 14).
Frankl, V. (1959). Man's Search for Meaning. NY: Simon & Schuster.
Frankl, V. (1969). The Will to Meaning. NY: New American Library.
Frankl, V. (1978). The Unheard Cry for Meaning. NY Simon & Schuster.
Musurillo, H. (ed., trans.). From Glory to Glory: Texts from Gregory of Nyssa's Mystical Writings. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press.
Palmer, G.E.H., Sherrard, P., & Ware, K. (eds). (1986). The Philokalia: The Complete Text compiled by St. Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain and St. Makarios of Corinth (Vol. III). Winchester, MA: Faber and Faber.
St. Maximus the Confessor. On Suffering. http://www.orthodoxphotos.com/readings/ambrose/suffering.shtml (2006, February 14).