ON THE FIRST FEW SUNDAYS of the paschal season we recall the events surrounding the Lord’s resurrection: the empty tomb, the appearance to the disciples, and the confession of Thomas. The next Sundays speak of the effects of the resurrection in the Church through the risen Christ. Each Sunday we find ourselves near water – today it is the pool by the Sheep Gate – because we first experience these effects at baptism.
The first effect, mentioned today, is healing. The man in John 5:1-15 is described as paralyzed, unable to move, in other words powerless. The woman presumed dead and resuscitated by Peter in Acts 9:36-40 was even more powerless. But as Christ had foretold about the emerging Church, “Whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12).
In the Church’s imagery both these people represent all of us who have been rendered helpless through the fall. Separation from direct communion with God renders mankind powerless to reach its intended goal: the true fulfillment of human nature, created after the image and likeness of God.
Our human nature remained broken, unable to heal and restore itself until the coming of Christ. As Christ’s coming to Siloam transformed the life of the paralytic and the coming of the Church in the person of Peter to Joppa, so too the kingdom of God in our midst transforms our human frailty. We become capable once more of growing into communion with God.
We find many images in the Scriptures, the Fathers and in the works of Christian writers meant to illustrate what Christ has done for us by His coming. We hear of “salvation,” “redemption,” and “deliverance” or – more recently – “liberation.” One of images more likely to be found in the Eastern Fathers is “healing.” Christ treats our bruised and wounded nature with therapy rather than with judgment or punishment. As St. John Chrysostom taught, Christ tends our wounds like the Samaritan, with wine and oil – His precious blood and the gift of the Holy Spirit – and entrusts us to a spiritual hospital, the Church, for our ongoing therapy.
In the Gospel story of the paralytic Christ prescribes such an extended treatment for His “patient”. “See, you have been made well. Sin no more, lest something worse come upon you” (John 5:14). Our nature can suffer a relapse without some form of ongoing rehabilitation. And, as often happens in physical conditions, a spiritual setback can make us worse than our original conditions. Spiritual healing, then, is not an instant cure but a lifelong remedy.
The Church’s Course of Therapy
The early Church set as the goal of this therapy the continual remembrance of the presence of God. Only to the degree that we live consciously in His presence will we become strangers to that spiritual infirmity which is sin. To achieve this awareness that God is ever with us, the Eastern Churches have generally prescribed three ongoing “medications” to be taken together:
- The Purification of the Heart
- Unceasing Prayer
- Sharing in the Holy Mysteries
The heart – that innermost core of our being – is meant to be “wholeheartedly” turned to God. We are called to “serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deuteronomy 10:12); yet we know that it is often far from God and His ways. We desire to be “independent,” of God and of others who stand in the way of our “fulfillment.” In order to attain that fulfillment we may find ourselves seeking to control, to manipulate, to possess whatever we can, not realizing that we have fallen into the same trap that Eve did. Any “success” we may have in contriving to dominate others or the world only results in shame at our nakedness.
The true course of our life is meant to reflect our creation after the image and likeness of God. We are created to reflect the heart of God in our own hearts, so often far from Him. As Christians we see this true humanity perfectly fulfilled only in Christ “…who being in the form of God did not consider it robbery to be equal with God but made himself of no reputation, taking the form of a servant and coming in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:7-9). At the same time we aspire to imitate Him by pruning our hearts of our selfish cravings to mirror His heart of love for the world.
We begin the therapy of the heart by examining the cravings that distract our heart from serving God. According to a number of the Fathers, denying even our most innocent needs or wants can help train our hearts to control rather than follow the lead of its cravings. “If you have the urge to ask something, don’t ask! If you have the urge to drink two cups of coffee, drink only one! If you have the urge to look at the clock, don’t look! If you wish to smoke a cigarette, refrain! If you want to go visiting, stay at home!” (Tito Colliander, Way of the Ascetics, chapter 5).
To the degree that we are no longer captive to our passions will we be free to put God and others first in our lives. In that our hearts will be renewed after the pattern of Christ. As St Diadochos of Photiki wrote in his Hundred Texts on Spiritual Knowledge, “Only when we do not belong to ourselves do we become like Him who through love has reconciled us to Himself” (#4).
Just as some medications must only be taken with others, purification of the heart must be accompanied by a commitment to a fuller prayer life. As eliminating or controlling our passions empties the heart of its distorted cravings, working towards the constant recitation of the Jesus Prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.) fills the heart with the awareness that we are constantly in the presence of God.
Our path to spiritual healing is marked by milestones, the Church’s mysteries. Each time we approach the chalice or humble ourselves in the mystery of repentance we are reaffirming our baptismal commitment to die with Christ in order to live with Him. In turn we are receiving the help for our journey that only the indwelling presence of the Lord can bring.
Few of us would undergo any physical therapy under our own direction. In the same way spiritual therapy should be followed with the help of an experienced therapist. The elder or spiritual guide – one who knows the proper course of therapy and the needs of the individual patient – is necessary for truly effective treatment. When the Lord asked the paralytic, “Do you want to be made well?” (John 5:6) he responded that he had no one to help him. Our willingness to seek out a spiritual guide to help us is an important indication that we too want to be restored to spiritual health through the therapy of the Church.