Sunday, August 24, 2008: 10th SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST — Tone 1. Hieromartyr Eutychius, disciple of St. John the Theologian (1st c.). Translation of the Relics of St. Peter, Metropolitan of Moscow and All Russia (1479). Ven. Arsény, Abbot of Komel’ (Vologdá—1550). Martyr Tation (Tatio) of Claudiopolis (305). Virgin Martyr Cyra (Kira) of Persia (558). St. George Limniotes the Confessor of Mt. Olympus (8th c.). St. Kozma of Berat, Evangelizer of Southern Albania (18th-19th c.). Repose of New Hieromartyr Cosmas of Aetolia, Equal-to-the-Apostles (1779). The “PETROVSKAYA” Icon of the Most-Holy Theotokos.
We need to be careful in how we understand the idea that illness (whether physical or mental) is the result of sin.
While it can be, and at is, the result of my personal sin, for the Fathers of the Church sickness is a symptom of the fallen condition of all humanity. In other words, while I might be sick because of something I did, it is also possible that my sickness is the result not of my personal actions but rather a consequence of Adam’s transgression all those many years ago in the Garden.
And even here, with the idea that illness is a result of our fallen condition, or of human sinfulness, we must exercise great caution. Again for the Fathers, illness, like physical death and all our other experiences of our own limits, is not a punishment. Rather sickness is given to humanity by God to help remind us of our absolute dependence on Him and our relative dependence upon each other. In other words, physical and mental illness are therapeutic, they are part of how God heals us–personally and communally–of our sinfulness.
With this in mind we can turn to the Gospel for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost. In line with the general patristic understanding of sickness, in his own comments on this passage, Origen (Commentary on Matthew, 13.4) says that “every disease and weakness which our Savior cured” during His ministry on earth “represents different symptoms in the soul.” So, for example, “the paralytics” represent those who paralyze the soul by wedding it to the desire of the flesh. The “blind” symbolize for Origen those who are indifferent, and even hostile, to the “things seen by the soul alone,” for example, faith, hope and love the three great virtues of the Christian life. (see, 1 Cor 13.13) The “deaf” remind us of those he says of those who close their hearts and will not receive “the word of salvation.”
For Origen, as for the Fathers of the Church more generally, the meaning of the material world was found on two levels simultaneously. The physical (which includes the body and society) and the spiritual (which permeates the physical and both undergirds and transcends it). As with paralysis, blindness and deafness, so to with epilepsy, it has a physical, or we might say medical meaning, but also a spiritual meaning that transcends (but does not minimize or invalidate) the physical meaning. Origen tells us:
In other words, Origen see epilepsy as symbolic of the passions.
We hear a great deal about the passions in Orthodox theology and spiritual writings but often we might not know what the word means. The word itself comes from the Greek word, pathos, meaning to suffer. It has the connotation of something in the face of which I am passive. So a passion is something that controls me that can come and (like an epileptic seizure) take over my life and rob me of my autonomy.
In coming then to heal the epileptic boy Jesus demonstrates His desire as well to heal all humanity of our passions, of those things in our life that rob us of self-possession, that enslave us and rob us of our freedom.
Thinking about it for a moment, the connection between my passions and my own lack of inner freedom should become clear to me. For example, I might be the nicest guy in the world (I am not I assure you. Nor, I hasten to add do I aspire to be, but that is for another day). But (and we all know someone like this, we might be related to this person, or even be this person) there are just little things that set me off–cause me for example to fly into a rage or sink into depression. When these things happen, I am no longer in control of my actions or (especially in extreme cases) my thoughts. What is in control? anger or despair.
Likewise we can see something similar happening with lust, or envy, or greed, or any of the Seven Deadly Sins in classical western theology or the eight evil thoughts about which Evagrius warns his monastic readers. Whatever list we use, the point is the same: We need to struggle against those habits of thought and action that have the power to rob us of our ability to act freely.
How do we do this? There are I think four things we can do.
There is first of all Holy Confession. When I come to confession I do so not simply to say what I have done wrong (much less what my spouse, children or co-workers have done wrong), but also to seek the help of Christ and the priest to understand why I have behaved as I have. In other words, not just what sins have I committed, but what are the particular passions that have control over me? This is what the father does when he confesses to Christ his own unbelief.
Second, it is important that as I come to understand what particular passions have gripped me, I need to learn two things: when are these passions likely to be aroused in me and how do I avoid feed into them when they do? The second of these is by far the harder of the two tasks since, especially early on, I am often unaware that I am consenting to the passion until it is too late. As a quick aside, this is why we have in the Church formal periods of communal fasting–so that we can slowly wean ourselves from our addictions to different passions.
Third, I must pray. Not only do I have to ask God, like the boy’s father, to heal me, I also must be in the habit of setting aside time to simply sit in the presence of God with a listening and obedient heart. It is all too easy for me to always run to God with the things I want, asking Him in effect to bless my passions (especially if I have a passionate need to be seen by myself and others as a “good Christian”!). While it is good and proper to ask for what I need (as the father does, “Help my unbelief!”), it is also important that I allow God to instruct me in how He would have me live. I should ask Him to make me a good Christian, but to be a good husband or priest according to His will for my life.
Fourth and finally, I must be willing to bear patiently with not simply the will of God but the timing of God. Often it seems God allows me to suffer my own passions as a way to break me of my habits. In effect God seems to practice the spiritual equivalent of aversion therapy with me. There are times when God will keep giving me what I want until I realize I really don’t want it. This actually seems to be Origen’s opinion. He writes:
Again, while it is important to distinguish physical and spiritual illness, it is clear that for Origen, the spiritual epileptic is so as a result of his own foolish desires. God has given him over to what he (imagine) he wants until, finally, he repents.
My friends, Christ has offered us, and through us the whole human family and indeed the whole creation, the possibility of being free. This freedom does not come as the result of human action, I don’t make myself free. It comes rather as a free gift of divine grace. When you or I struggle against are passions what we are really doing, is struggling against our own tendencies to reject the gift of freedom and divine life. Again as Origen says in his sermon, “they are free who abide in the truth of the word of God, and on this account, know the truth, that they also may become free from sin. If, any one then, is a son simply, and not in this matter wholly a son of the kings of the earth, he is free.” Let us turn from our own willful, and unintended, rejection of divine grace and instead, with open and obedient hearts, stand together in Christ in Whose will for us personally and as a community we can find true freedom and life everlasting.