Why am I sick? What does illness and suffering have to do with my spiritual life?

Why is there Illness and Suffering from an Orthodox Christian Prospective?

Beginning the conversation about illness and suffering – how both have actually helped my spiritual life.  The more I accept that suffering is part of life, especially my life, as a result of “The Fall”, the more I find I can be at choice about how to respond to what befalls me.  I use the Jesus Prayer (more on the Jesus Prayer is under Eastern Orthodox Christianity category in my blog) and my daily prayers/scripture readings to help me through tough times, especially related to my health.

I have chronic health issues that literally force me each day to choose to make what I suffer from good and use my suffering to move me towards what is good, love and God. I do not know how I would manage my pain and struggles without prayer, the Church and a relationship with God. Like an iron in the fire – my soul is being refined by how I react and interact with my health issues. I am so thankful for the prayer and sacramental life of the Eastern Orthodox Church, which give me the strength and support to live with chronic pain.

A passage from my book from Part III, My Conversion, Chapter 6, The Fall

In the days following our marriage in the Church, my studies in the Orthodox faith encouraged me and fulfilled my spiritual hopes and yearnings. To prepare for my baptism, I had studied the teachings of the Orthodox Church relating to The Fall of mankind, as described in Genesis. I had turned my back on the Church, in part, because of my misunderstandings and struggles over the meaning of The Fall and Original Sin. In my 20s, I had happily embraced evolutionary theory, which supported my choice to leave the Catholic Church and the traditional Judeo-Christian teachings about the origins of life and sin. If we had evolved, I didn’t need to feel guilty—it was that simple for me then.

By my late 30s, however, I realized that the theory of evolution didn’t answer my deeper spiritual questions pertaining to suffering. Why was there so much suffering in the world? Where did suffering come from, if we had evolved from primates? Where do our negative thoughts and actions come from? While preparing for my baptism, I realized that the evolutionary perspective ultimately held no answers to these questions. The Church’s teachings, however, on the profound tragedy of mankind’s fall from grace, and the loss of our life in Paradise with God, made sense to me.  Understanding the personal and collective consequences of The Fall gave me a new key which helped me clarify my lifelong confusion over suffering’s meaning, and my desire to escape it.

I was dumbstruck when I learned, according to renowned saints in the Orthodox Church, that Adam and Eve most likely lasted somewhere between six hours and forty days in Paradise! It occurred to me that I might have lasted for perhaps two minutes in that state of purity. How easily I had taken the virtues of goodness and peace for granted throughout the majority of my life. Perhaps I wasn’t so different from Adam and Eve, whose first step towards their loss of grace began with ingratitude?

Then I thought about how much I had struggled with authority, rules and obedience. At least I had that excuse. Adam and Eve were in Paradise. Goodness surrounded them. The only rule God gave Adam and Eve was to not eat of the fruit from the tree in the middle of the garden. This seemed to me to be a fairly simple demand, especially considering the consequences that accompanied God’s request. “But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, ‘Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.’” (Gen 3:3)

Perhaps Adam and Eve were not truly listening to God or taking his words to heart? I had to admit, failing to listen was also one of my frequent faults and because of this, I had often hurt others. Would I have broken that rule if I had known that I would be throwing Paradise away by doing so? Well, I had unknowingly or knowingly thrown away what was precious to me because of self-interest and self-righteousness. I often just needed a little provocation from an outside source. Eve had the suggestions of the serpent, the devil. So did I – I had even seen him! I, too, had struggled with the desire to possess what was forbidden, with disastrous results.

Then Adam and Eve decided that they wanted to be God. So did I. They acted on their desires – they disobeyed, lied, blamed each other and then hid from God. So did I. Adam and Eve didn’t repent when God gave them the chance. How often had I not properly regretted my actions? Adam and Eve didn’t take responsibility for what they had done. My journey was a carbon copy of what I was reading in Genesis, only it was Polly’s version, over and over again. When the consequences of Adam and Eve’s actions became reality, they lost Paradise.[i] “Adam sat outside of Paradise and wept.”  St. Silouan developed this theme with haunting poetic beauty: “Adam (who represents all mankind) knew the love and beauty of God, yet cast it aside and in turn cast himself out of the presence of God.”[ii]

I wept when I realized that I, too, had lost my connection with God and Paradise. How many years had I lived outside of Paradise and the grace of God before my conversion? It had taken me thirty years to change my heart and mind. The morning after our marriage in the Church, I awoke to the awareness that I was, indeed, made in the “image and likeness of God.” (Gen. 1:27) I was created by God to dwell in communion and love with Him and others; everything outside of Paradise is what we inherited after The Fall.

The words in the pages of my Orthodox Dogmatic Theology book were no longer just words, but spiritual realities I was now experiencing in my mind, heart and soul. I learned that it was the transgression of Adam and Eve (Original Sin), which had permanently altered them and all their descendents, and the physical earth as well. Original Sin had altered me too; however, since my reentry into the Church, I had frequently experienced the sense of being free from the captivity of the fallen world.

[i]   The Fall”

[1] Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field, which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?

[2] And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden:

[3] But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.

[4] And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die:

[5] For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.

[6] And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.

[7] And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.

[8] And they heard the voice of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day: and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God amongst the trees of the garden.

[9] And the LORD God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where art thou?

[10] And he said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.

[11] And he said, Who told thee that thou wast naked? Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat?

[12] And the man said, The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat.

[13] And the LORD God said unto the woman, What is this that thou hast done? And the woman said, The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat.

[14] And the LORD God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life:

[15] And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.

[16] Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.

[17] And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life;

[18] Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field;

[19] In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.

[20] And Adam called his wife’s name Eve; because she was the mother of all living.

[21] Unto Adam also and to his wife did the LORD God make coats of skins, and clothed them.

[22] And the LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever:

[23] Therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the Garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken.

[24] So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the Garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword, which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life. (Genesis, chapter 3)

[ii] Streams of Inspiration, Monastery of St. John of San Francisco, vol.1, issue 3





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