Last fall I came down with a flu-like illness while staying at a monastery. It lasted for two weeks. It turned out to be the worst acute illness I’ve ever experienced, and months later I still have lingering deficiencies with my physical stamina. Armed with the faith, I was able to put the illness into spiritual context, instead of blaming bad luck as I would have before.
The initial symptoms of the illness were like the flu: I felt as if I had been hit by a Canadian truck. My lower back and legs were in sharp pain, making it impossible to sleep. Headache and sore throat were next. Then I developed a fever. Then came dry cough, runny nose, diarrhea, and a distorted sense of taste. Everything seemed to taste bad. My appetite soon disappeared. I couldn’t concentrate enough to read or do any sort of work.
When I got home from the monastery on day six of the illness, I checked my temperature: it was 104.7° F. My pulse oxygen was 93%. A reasonable person would tell me to seek emergency hospital care, but I refused because I wanted to live. I also developed lung inflammation where I’d feel a sharp pain inside my chest whenever I took deep breaths. I was incredibly weak and tired, like I had instantly aged forty years. I could not stand for more than a few minutes at a time and needed to take several naps a day. Only towards the end of the second week of the illness did things start to improve where I could resume my normal activities. By the time it was done, I had lost ten pounds.
While sick, I had serious difficulty practicing the faith. My cognition was impaired and I could not read the Bible or other religious texts. I could not stand before my prayer corner and could only robotically read abbreviated prayers while seated in a slump. I could not do prostrations or bows, and was even too weak to do the sign of the cross. I did miss church for one Sunday and so could not receive the Body and Blood of Christ. I was only capable of watching movies and light fare on YouTube, particularly car dashcam compilations, where I learned that the majority of car accidents are caused by impatience.
The external part of my faith was almost entirely wiped out, but there was one prayer I was able to recite throughout the day and night: the Jesus Prayer. I would lay in bed, on the cusp of sleep, and recite the prayer. I’d wake up in the middle of the night and recite the prayer. It was the only thing I was mentally fit enough to perform. This revealed to me a foretaste of what my deathbed will be like.
On my deathbed, I will not grow in the faith by reading more books and elongating my prayers. I will not be able to energetically get into my car and attend multiple church services each week. I will not learn new things or break new ground from my own efforts. I will not be able to handle long and deep conversations with fellow Christians, and will probably not want to talk to anyone. If given the Bible, I wouldn’t even be able to focus my eyes on the text. I would not want to prostrate or make any other physical movements that could take hours to recover from. I would just want to lie down on my bed and conserve energy while dispelling the tempting thought that God has forsaken me.
On my death bed, I will be capable of reciting the Jesus Prayer and other short prayers, ask God for forgiveness of my sins, and not much more. I’ll be lucky if I can do the sign of the cross. I surely will not be able to make up for years of lost time to build additional virtue. Whatever is my spiritual state on my death bed will likely be what I take with me into the next world. This means I must be fully prepared today for the end, because I do not know when God will demand my soul. If there are still spiritual tasks I must perform, but which I am holding off, I’m in great danger, because I am making the foolish assumption that I will continue to live for a long time, when the reality may be that my bed turns into my coffin on this very night. For acute illnesses and other health emergencies, you must make right with God before they hit, not during, because you may not even be fully conscious during the crisis.
I would have never chosen to be ill, but God does not give illnesses in vain. There is a spiritual lesson in each one of them. For most people, illnesses allow them to hit the pause button on their materialistic life and consider the life to come. For me, it helped me imagine the end of my life and how difficult it will be. It reminded me that while today I’m not on my death bed literally, I am symbolically, that I have already died to this world, which Lord Jesus Christ has chosen me out of upon reception into His Church, and that I must use my waking hours to prepare right now, so that when the end comes, my soul will be ready and I will not enter a panic. I was humbled to know that my otherwise healthy body could break down so quickly, that one day I could stand and the next day I could not.
The Orthodox Church teaches that illnesses are spiritual medicine. The medicine does not taste good, and you rather not take it, but it is required for your salvation. If we never got ill, we’d slowly become absorbed by the world and feel invincible. We’d imagine that we would never die, and are in no need of a savior because of how robust and vigorous we are in this life. It is in God’s infinite wisdom that he allows painful illnesses, not only to make us suffer for our sins, but to reorient our lives onto the spiritual and stay on the road to salvation. Glory to God for bringing a severe illness unto my body so that I will be ready for the next illness which may send me to Him to be judged for all of eternity.
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