Jean-Claude Larchet, you are one of the first to have developed a theological reflection on disease, suffering, medicine. Your book “The Theology of Illness” published in 1991 has been translated into many languages, and in connection with the COVID-19 epidemic, it will soon be published in Japanese translation. You have also published a reflection on suffering: “God does not want human suffering,” which has also appeared in various translations.
First of all, what is your general opinion on the epidemic we are currently experiencing?
I am not surprised: for millennia there have been about two major epidemics per century, and several other smaller epidemics. Their frequency is, however, increasing, and the population concentration in our urban civilization, the traffic favoured by globalization, and the multiplicity and speed of modern means of transport easily turn them into pandemics. The present epidemic was therefore predictable, and was predicted by many epidemiologists who had no doubt that it would come; the only thing they did not know was the precise moment when it would occur and the form it would take. What is surprising, though, is the lack of preparedness of some states, which, instead of providing the medical staff with the hospital structures and equipment needed to deal with the scourge, have allowed hospitals to deteriorate and the production of medicines, masks, and respirators, which are now sorely lacking, to be outsourced (to China, like everything else).
Diseases are omnipresent in the history of mankind, and nobody lives a life completely unscathed by them. Epidemics are simply diseases that are particularly contagious and spread rapidly until they reach a large part of the population. The characteristic of the COVID-19 virus is that it seriously affects the respiratory system of the elderly or people weakened by other pathologies, and has a high degree of contagiousness that rapidly saturates intensive care systems with the large number of people affected simultaneously in a short period of time.
The Orthodox Churches have responded in stages, at varying speeds, and in varying forms. What do you think about this?
It has to be said that different countries have been affected by the epidemic at different times and to differing degrees, and each Local Church has adapted its response to the evolution of the disease and the measures taken by the respective states in which they are located. In the countries most affected, the decision to stop the celebration of services was taken quickly, only a few days apart. Not foreseeing such a cessation in the immediate future, some Churches (such as the Russian Church) took measures to limit possible contamination during liturgical services or the dispensing of the sacraments; today they are forced to ask the faithful not to come to church.
These different measures have given rise to debate and even polemical exchanges, on the part of the clergy, monastic communities, the faithful, theologians…
A first topic of controversy was the decision of some churches to change the modalities of Eucharistic communion.
In this respect, two things must be distinguished: the practices accompanying communion and communion itself.
There can be a risk of contamination through how communion is distributed: the fact of wiping the lips of each communicant with the same cloth (as is done in a forceful manner in some parishes of the Russian Church), or of drinking (after communion, as is the custom in the Russian Church as well) zapivka (a mixture of cold water and wine) from the same cups. That is why the measures taken to use paper towels in the first case and single-use cups in the second case (both of which are then burned) do not, in my opinion, lend themselves to any objection.
With regard to communion itself, several Churches have abandoned the traditional way of giving it to the faithful, which is to place it in the mouth with the Holy Spoon. Some Churches have advocated pouring the contents into the open mouth while the priest keeps a certain distance from it; others—such as the Russian Church—have proposed disinfecting the Spoon with alcohol between communicants or using single-use spoons which would then be burned. I believe that no Church has assumed that the very Body and Blood of Christ, which all the prayers before and after communion remind us is given “for the health of soul and body,” is itself a vector of contamination (this last idea is only found in an article by Archimandrite Cyril Hovorun, which contains a slew of heresies and has gone viral on the Internet, for which reason I quote it). But doubts are being raised about the Spoon itself, and this is giving rise to debate, with some considering especially the fact that it touches the mouths of the faithful, and others considering especially the fact that being soaked in the Body and Blood of Christ, it is disinfected and protected by the consecrated bread and wine. The latter group note that there are priests who consume the rest of the Holy Gifts at the end of the Liturgy in large churches where there are inevitably sick persons of all kinds among the faithful, and who never contract any illness as a result. They also note that, during the great epidemics of the past, priests gave communion to the contaminated faithful without themselves being contaminated. With regard to this last point, I do not have reliable information from historical documents. On the other hand, the commentary that St. Nicodemus the Hagiorite (who lived in the second half of the 18th century) makes in his Pedalion (a collection and commentary on the canons of the Orthodox Church) on canon 28 of the Sixth Ecumenical Council, admits that “priests make some change in times of plague” in the way they administer communion to the sick “by placing the Sacred Bread in some sacred container, so that the dying and the sick may take it with spoons or something similar,” “the container and the spoons needing then to be placed in vinegar, and the vinegar to be poured into a foundry oven, or in any other way that is safer and more canonical.” This presupposes that in his time (and probably even before) it was accepted that communion should be given via several containers and spoons, and that these should then be disinfected (vinegar having, by its degree of alcohol and acidity, antiseptic and antifungal properties [which, however, would be quite insufficient against COVID-19]). It is on this text, also quoted in the reference manual of the great Russian liturgist of the 19th century, S. V. Bulgakov, that the Russian Church has justified the measures it has taken.
I believe that whoever has sufficient faith to commune with confidence via the Spoon runs no risk, and that churches that have made special arrangements have done so, at best, with a view to the faithful with weaker faith and doubts. The Churches have in some way followed the precept of St. Paul, who says: “I have been weak with the weak, that I might win the weak” (1 Cor 9:22). It must be remembered that communion does not have a magical effect: as with all the sacraments, grace is given in fullness, but the reception of grace is proportional to the faith of the receiver (the Greek Fathers use the Greek word analogia to designate this proportionality) to such an extent that it is even said by St. Paul, and recalled in the prayers before communion, that whoever communicates indecently may become sick in soul and body (1 Cor 11:27–31), or may receive communion “for judgment or condemnation.”
In any case, each Local Church is within its rights to take, for reasons of oikonomia, all the necessary measures in each particular circumstance.
The second topic of controversy was the closure of churches and the cessation of liturgical services.
It should be noted first of all that most states have not ordered the closure of churches, rather, they have only restricted access to them to few people, and then to visits by isolated individuals; but the containment measures have made travel and visits impossible. In most local Churches, however, the celebration of Liturgies continues with the priest, a cantor, possibly a deacon and a server (except in Greece, where this has been proscribed even in monasteries, which is paradoxical in a country with a strong Orthodox identity and where the Church enjoys official recognition by the State).
Extremists have developed conspiracy theories, seeing behind the decisions of various states the desire of certain influential groups to destroy Christianity. They have drawn a parallel with the period of persecution in the first centuries, calling Christians to resistance and citing the martyrs as examples. These positions are obviously excessive, and the parallel with the period of persecutions abusive. Christians are not being asked to renounce their faith and worship another god. Churches have not been permanently closed, and the limits placed on their attendance are only temporary. States have only done their duty to protect the population by taking the only measure available—containment—so as to limit contagion, to provide the best possible care for those who are sick, and to limit the number of deaths.
I would add that a church is not a magical place, totally sheltered from the surrounding world, where one cannot contract any disease, especially if it is highly contagious. It is true that in ancient times, when there were epidemics, people had a different attitude: people gathered in churches and the number of processions multiplied. What we forget is that churches became a kind of hospice/mortuary. Thus, during the great epidemics of the Byzantine Empire, it was not uncommon to find hundreds of corpses piled up in churches.
The Church has a duty to protect the health and life of its faithful, but also to protect those whom they might contaminate outside, as well as a duty not to complicate the work of the healthcare staff, who, if the system becomes overrun, may no longer be able to treat everyone and may have to triage and, in other words, abandon and let the most fragile people die. Moreover, if there are too many dead at the same time, they can no longer be assured of a funeral: we were all saddened to see, in Italy, a line of army lorries taking dozens of dead directly to the crematorium, without any possible familial or religious presence. In China, thousands of corpses have been cremated one after another, and it was only several weeks later that families were able to come and collect the ashes of their dead relatives on pallets where the funeral urns had been piled up.
The monastic communities (including those of Mount Athos) have all taken the decision, by closing their doors, to protect their visitors and pilgrims from contaminating one another, but also to protect their own members, thus enabling them to continue to celebrate the Liturgy and to carry out one of their essential tasks, which we particularly need at this time: to pray for the world.
The fact that it has become impossible to receive communion for some time poses a serious problem for some of the faithful. Here again, some extremists see the successful effect of an anti-Christian conspiracy…
I do not share these conspiracy theories, insofar as they involve people or organisations, and especially since, as I have said, epidemics are recurrent and cyclical in the history of humanity; nevertheless, I believe that in this epidemic and its consequences, the devil is at work; I will tell you why in the rest of our interview.
With regard to the deprivation of communion, several things can be said. Those who are accustomed to weekly (or more frequent) communion and draw from communion great strength for their lives are suffering a lot in this situation and we understand them. As a consolation, we can recall that the Life of St. Mary of Egypt, whom we solemnly commemorate on the fifth Sunday of Great Lent, recounts that she received communion only twice in her life: immediately before embarking on her life of ascesis, and just before her death; and that in her time (as is recalled in her Life which we read in church on the occasion of this commemoration), the custom was that monks living in community withdrew individually into the desert at the beginning of Great Lent, and returned to the monastery only on Holy Thursday to receive communion. It may also be recalled that many Fathers who withdrew to the desert only communed at most once a year. We are by necessity subject to the same distance from communion during this Great Lent, and thanks also to the confinement in our apartments and homes (which for many, in our world of incessant movement and outside occupations, have become as austere as any desert), we can share a little of their experience. We can benefit from this. First of all, today—especially in the Diaspora—communion has become frequent (whereas a few decades ago, in Orthodox countries, it was rare), to the point that there is a risk of it becoming commonplace. A few years ago, I spoke about this with Bishop Athanasius Jevtić, who told me that it is useful to fast periodically from communion in order to regain a sense of its seriousness and to approach it with a genuine desire and need. Second, we can recall that the effects of communion do not dissipate after receiving it. Its effects are proportional to the quality of our receptivity, and this receptivity concerns not only our state of readiness for communion, but our state towards it after receiving it. To help us, the Church provides us with a series of prayers before communion and after communion. I know of several spiritual fathers who encourage their spiritual children to read the prayers after communion each day until the next communion, so that they may remain aware of “the precious gifts that have been received” and continue to actualise the grace they have brought to us.
With regard to the impossibility of participating in liturgical services, what can be said?
I think that it is possible to celebrate them at home in the forms provided for in the absence of a priest, especially by reading the Typika in place of the Liturgy, although obviously this cannot completely replace it and even lacks the essential feature, namely, the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice which can only be carried out by a priest. Many of the faithful have the liturgical texts at home (especially the small Book of Prayers [euchologion], which is intended precisely for domestic celebration in the case of the absence of a priest); otherwise, most of the texts can be found on the Internet. The practice of the Jesus Prayer can also be developed: on Mount Athos, small communities or hermits who live in the “desert” and have no priest replace the offices with a given number of invocations addressed to Christ, the Mother of God, and the saints. St. Ephrem of Katounakia, referring to St. John Chrysostom, said: “People in the world who do not have the possibility of going to church either on Saturday or Sunday can at that time make their souls an altar by saying the Prayer.”
It is also possible, in Orthodox countries, to follow the Liturgy transmitted live on television or on the Internet, as many elderly or sick people who are unable to travel usually do. This does not replace real participation, with a physical presence in the community, but one can nevertheless be associated with the celebration and experience a sense of identity of belonging and community action at the same period of time, with the ecclesial community extending beyond the visible and those present (this is called “the communion of saints”).
In a recent interview, the Metropolitan of Pergamos, John Zizioulas, condemned the decision of some Churches to close churches and stop celebrating the services, saying that when the Liturgy is no longer celebrated, there is no longer a Church. What do you think of this?
His position is understandable because of his personalist doctrine which gives primacy to the relational, and thus identifies the Liturgy with the synaxis (the assembly of the faithful) more than with the Eucharistic sacrifice itself. In fact, the Liturgy continues to be celebrated in all Churches (in monasteries, but also in very small groups in many churches). And that is what is important. The value of the Liturgy does not depend on the number of participants present, nor does the value and scope of the Holy Sacrifice depend on the number of Liturgies celebrated. When hundreds of thousands of churches celebrate the Liturgy simultaneously, they actualise (this is the meaning of the word anamnesis, which designates the heart of the Liturgy) the one Sacrifice of Christ. If there were only one Liturgy being celebrated, by only one of the local Churches, this one Sacrifice would be celebrated equally, with the same scope, since it extends to the whole universe. With regard to the faithful, it should be recalled that the Liturgy of St. Basil, which we celebrate on the Sundays of Great Lent, explicitly foresees their possible absence, with one of the prayers asking God to remember “those who are absent for just reasons,” thus associating them in a certain way with the faithful present and with the grace dispensed to them.
How do you live with containment? This apparently poses problems for our contemporaries…
We are fortunate that the state-imposed quarantine coincides in part with the “holy quarantine” of Great Lent. It is the tradition for us Orthodox during this period to limit our outings, leisure activities, and consumption; it is also the tradition to take advantage of this period of calm and greater solitude, to return to ourselves, increase our spiritual readings, and pray more. For all this, we have the experience of the past years; it will only be necessary to prolong the effort by a few weeks.
Overall, the confinement is a good opportunity to experience the hesychia dear to Orthodox spirituality, a state of solitude and especially of exterior and interior calm; to rest from the incessant movement, noise, and stress linked to our usual living conditions; and to re-inhabit our interior dwelling—what the Hesychastic Fathers call “the place of the heart.”
Confinement also allows couples and children to be together more often than usual, and this is beneficial for everyone. Of course, this is not always self-evident, since some are not used to living together for a long time, but it can be an opportunity to strengthen relational bonds positively.
This return to oneself and to married and family life should not be a forgetting of others, however. Almsgiving, which is part of the usual practice of Lent, can take the form of a more sustained and regular assistance to people we know who suffer from illness, loneliness, or excessive worry. For this activity, modern means of communication are good…
I note that many of our fellow citizens have had to come up with sports activities in their homes and apartments. During Lent, we are used to making great prostrations. We can multiply them (the monks have a rule of doing at least 300 a day, some of them do up to 3000!). Patriarch Paul of Serbia, who did them every day until he was 91 years old (only a knee injury could stop him!), said, with the strength of his medical studies and his good health, that they were the best gymnastics people can do to stay in shape…
Let’s turn now, if you don’t mind, to some more theological questions. First of all, to whom or to what can we attribute the current epidemic and diseases in general?
An epidemic is a contagious disease that spreads. All that can be said about disease can be said about it as well, except that its massive character that is imposed on a region, a country, or the whole world (as is the case at present), raises additional questions. It is not surprising, in religious discourse, to see the theme of Revelation, the end of the world, or the idea of divine punishment for the sins of men, with allusions to the flood (Gen 6–7), the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19), the plague that decimated the camp of David after the census (2 Sam 24:15–) or the seven plagues of Egypt (Ex 7–11). Some clarifications are therefore necessary.
According to the Orthodox conception developed by the Fathers from the Bible, ancestral sin (which in the Western tradition is called original sin) had, on the physical level, three effects: passibility (of which suffering is a major form), corruption (of which sickness is the main form), and death, which results from the latter. The sin of Adam and Eve consisted in separating from God, which resulted in the loss of the grace that assured them of impassivity, incorruptibility, and immortality. Adam and Eve, being the prototypes of mankind, consequently transmitted to their descendants their human nature that had been altered by the deleterious effects of their sin. The disorder which affected human nature also affected the whole of nature, for man, separated from God, lost his status as king of creation, and deprived the other creatures of the grace he transmitted to them as mediator. Whereas creation was originally entirely good, as God had created it (as we are told in Genesis chapter 1), evil has entered into it as it did into man: an evil that is not only moral but also physical, and which results in the disorder that affects the original order of creation as well as the processes that destroy what God has established. God’s Providence, as Vladimir Lossky notes, has prevented creation from being completely destroyed, but nature has become a battlefield in which good and evil constantly clash. Living organisms are constantly fighting to eliminate microbes, bacteria, viruses, or genetic alterations (due to aging or environmental factors) that seek to destroy them, until, weakened by old age (which diminishes their immune defences), they are finally defeated and die. For millennia, bacteria or viruses can affect only animal species, or be hosted by them without affecting them, and then suddenly be transmitted to humans. This is what has happened to the different species of viruses that have caused epidemics in recent decades.
You’re pointing out the guilt of the first parents in this process. Do the sins of their descendants, our own sins, play a role in this process? The prayers found in the Great Euchologion (the official prayer book of the Church) for times of epidemic, but also the speeches of some bishops, priests, or monks, blame here the sins of all, seeing in what is happening a kind of punishment on their account, and call for repentance.
According to the Orthodox conception (which differs on this point from the Catholic conception of original sin), the fault of Adam and Eve themselves is personal and is not transmitted to their descendants; only its effects are transmitted. However, their descendants, from the beginning to the present day, have, as St. Paul says in chapter 5 of the Epistle to the Romans, sinned in a manner similar to that of Adam; they have imitated him and have confirmed his sin and its effects by their own sins. There is, therefore, a collective responsibility for the evils that affect the fallen world, which justifies that one can blame sin and call for repentance. However, this applies on a general level so as to explain the origin and sustenance of sickness and other evils, and not on a personal level to explain whether it happens to a particular person or group of people. While some illnesses can be traced to personal faults or passions (e.g., illnesses related to excessive eating or drinking, or sexually transmitted diseases), others occur regardless of the spiritual quality of the people they affect. Sick children are not guilty of any fault; saints do not escape illness and often have more illnesses than others who are morally disordered. Epidemics sometimes strike down entire monasteries; for example, an epidemic of plague struck the monasteries of the Thebaid after Pascha in 346, killing a third of the Desert Fathers who lived there, including St. Pachomios, the father of cenobitic monasticism; the successor he had appointed; and nearly a hundred monks in each of the great monasteries of the region. During the great plague epidemics of the past, Christian observers were forced to observe that the disease struck people randomly in terms of their moral or spiritual quality. The question of the relationship of disease to a person’s sin or the sin of his parents was put to Christ, who replied to his disciples about the man born blind: “Neither he nor his parents have sinned.” The illness therefore has an original, principal, and collective relationship to sin, but only in a minority of cases does it have a present and personal relationship. I think, therefore, that the question of sin and repentance in prayers or sermons can be addressed but must be addressed in a discreet manner. People who suffer from illness do not need accusations of guilt added to their suffering, but need support, consolation, compassionate care, and also help to take spiritual responsibility for their illness and suffering so that they can spiritually turn it to their advantage. If repentance has a meaning, it is as a turning point, a change of state of mind (which is the meaning of the Greek word metanoia). Illness gives rise to a series of questions that no one can escape: why? Why me? Why now? For how long? What am I going to become? Every illness constitutes a questioning that is all the more lively and profound because it is not abstract or gratuitous, but rather part of an ontological experience. This questioning is very often a kind of crucifixion. For sickness always calls into question more or less the foundations, framework, and forms of our existence, the acquired equilibrium, the free disposition of our physical and mental faults, our reference values, our relationships with others, and our very life, because death always appears more clearly than usual (this is the case in particular for this epidemic, which has unpredictably and rapidly felled people, especially the elderly, but also younger people without there being serious underlying pathologies in every case). Illness is an opportunity for each person to experience his ontological fragility, his dependence, and to turn to God as the one who can help overcome it: if not physically (for there do occur, in response to prayer, miraculous healings), then at least spiritually, and give it a meaning by which one builds oneself up, and without which one only allows oneself to be destroyed.
It is not uncommon, however, to find in the prayers of the Great Euchologion itself or in others (e.g., canons and akathists), as well as in the speeches of the clergy which have recently multiplied on the Internet, the idea that this epidemic has been sent by God (or by his archangels or angels) to awaken men, to bring them to repentance and conversion, in a world which has become completely materialistic and totally forgetful of God.
As I have just said, I agree that this trial (like any trial in life) is an opportunity for questioning, awareness, and a return to God and to a more spiritual life.
I have spoken about this with regard to individuals. But it is obvious—and there are many articles in the press noting this—that this epidemic also calls into question the foundations, the organization, and the materialistic and consumerist way of life of our modern societies; the false feelings of security that they have derived from the progress of science and technology; it also shows the illusions of transhumanism, because, as specialists are currently saying, new viruses will continue to appear and epidemics will not only persist but will multiply in the future, often leaving man powerless (just think: no vaccine or cure has yet been found for the common cold, which affects a large part of the population every year, and which is caused by a virus of the coronavirus family).
But with all due respect for these prayers and to these clerics to whom you allude, I am shocked by how they conceive of God and his action towards humankind. This is a view that was common in the Old Testament, but which the New Testament has changed. In the Old Testament, there was the idea that the righteous were prosperous because they were rewarded by God, while sinners were righteously punished by all kinds of evils. The New Testament put an end to this “logic,” and its view is foreshadowed by Job. The speeches of the clergy to which you refer resemble those of Job’s friends, which correspond to this syllogism: “You have all kinds of woes, therefore God has punished you, and if he has punished you, it is because you are a sinner.” Job refuses to accept the idea that God may have punished him. The New Testament reveals to us a God of love, a compassionate and merciful God, whose purpose is to save humankind through love, not through punishment. The idea that God would have spread this virus in the world or would have had it spread by his angels or archangels (as we read in some texts) seems to me almost blasphemous, even with reference to a divine pedagogy which would use evil for good, and would thus, strangely enough, make good out of evil. God is for us a Father, we are his children. What father among us would have the idea of inoculating his children with a virus for a supposedly pedagogical purpose? What father does not suffer, on the contrary, to see his children fall sick, suffer, and risk dying?
Some theologians attribute the causes of sickness, suffering, and death to God, because they fear that, in the manner of the Manichaeans, if we do not attribute them to God, we can consider that there is beside God (the principle of good) a principle of evil that competes with him and therefore limits the omnipotence that is one of his essential attributes. But if everything comes from God, we must also admit that he is the cause not only of epidemics, but also of wars, genocides, concentration camps, and that he put Hitler, Stalin, or Pol-Pot in power to make them instruments of his alleged justice and to educate people…
In fact, according to the Fathers, evil has only one source: sin, itself caused by man’s misuse of his free will. They are also an effect of the action of the devil and the demons (angels fallen for having also made a bad use of their free will), whose power, following the sin of the first man, was able to become established in the world: with man having ceased to be “the king of creation,” Satan was able to become “the prince of this world.”
In what is happening now, it is the action of the devil that must be pointed out, and not that of God, and secondarily also the fault of the person in China who, having consumed or touched an animal carrying the virus (this was also the case in all previous epidemics), transmitted the effect of his fault to all mankind, just as Adam transmitted the effect of his sin to all mankind.
What you have just said raises several questions. First of all, some say that God created all germs, all viruses, and that death itself is included in creation from the beginning, and that, as Genesis says, everything God created is good.
This is indeed an idea found among some modern Catholic theologians (e.g., Teilhard de Chardin and his disciple Gustave Martelet), and which has been taken up by some Orthodox theologians (e.g., John Zizioulas, Metropolitan of Pergamon, and most recently Archimandrite Cyril Hovorun). They have a naturalistic conception, which is partly based on that of modern science. Our Orthodox faith is different: the Fathers are unanimous in affirming that God did not create death, and that death is a consequence of sin, as well as sickness and suffering, which did not belong to the original paradisiacal condition, and which will moreover be abolished in the future paradisiacal condition, in the Kingdom of Heaven.
The question of whether sickness, suffering, and death are evils calls for a twofold answer.
On the physical level first of all, they are unquestionably evils, because they are, as I said earlier, disorders, disturbances introduced into the proper functioning of living organisms created by God. Even from a naturalistic point of view, health and life correspond to the normal state for a living being, whereas illness, infirmity, and death constitute an abnormal state. Illness, as I said earlier, is a form of corruption; it is a process of deterioration, destruction, annihilation; and suffering is an element that accompanies this process and testifies that something in our body is “not right.” The diabolical nature of diseases is very clear in some of them: for example, autoimmune diseases, where the organs use the body’s resources to destroy themselves (this is a kind of suicide); cancer, which from a genetic alteration produces absurd tumours (which play no sensible role in the organism) and have no other purpose than their own growth to the detriment of other organs, which they then vampirise and destroy little by little, using, against the therapeutics implemented against them, all the resources that the living being has accumulated for millions of years to develop and protect itself; the current virus, which, like others of the same family, infiltrates the cells of the lungs and secondarily other vital organs, invades them (like an enemy does a country), colonises them, and prevents their functioning or seriously disrupts this to the point of causing death.
On the spiritual level, sickness, suffering, and death remain evils by their first origin (sin) but can be approached and experienced spiritually in a constructive way, and in this way become goods—but only spiritual goods. On the occasion of sickness and suffering, when man, as I have already said, approaches death, he can turn to God, come closer to him, and develop various virtues (that is, permanent dispositions or states, which assimilate him to God and unite him to him). St. Gregory Nazianzen says that through sickness, many men have thus become saints.
If Christ died for us, it is to overcome death and allow us, at the end of time, to rise again as he did himself. But his passion and agony on the cross also have another meaning, which we do not emphasise enough: by suffering and dying, he has abolished the power of suffering and death; he has granted us, if we unite ourselves to him and thus receive the grace he has acquired for us, to no longer fear suffering and to improve ourselves spiritually through it, and to no longer fear death, but to put our hope in eternal life, so that we can say with St. Paul in chapter 15 of the first Epistle to the Corinthians: “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”
Your earlier remarks raise another question: why does God, if he is good and all-powerful, not abolish sickness and suffering in this world, and why do they persist when Christ has overcome them for all humanity, which he has assumed in his person?
This is a strong objection among atheists, and often raises doubts among believers.
The answer of the Fathers is that God created man free, and respects man’s free will even in its consequences. Because sin is perpetuated in the world, its consequences continue to affect human nature and the entire cosmos.
Christ removed the necessity of sin, put an end to the tyranny of the devil, and made death harmless, but he did not remove sin, the action of demons, physical death, or the consequences of sin in general, so as not to force and deny the free will that caused it. On the physical level, the fallen world remains subject to its own logic. For this reason, too, illness affects each person differently, and this is particularly striking in the case of an epidemic: according to individual physical constitutions, it affects some and spares others; it affects some slightly and affects others severely; it causes some to die and leaves others alive; it kills teenagers and spares great old men.
Only at the end of time will the restoration of all things take place and there will appear “a new heaven and a new earth,” where the order and harmony of nature destroyed by sin will be restored in a nature raised to a higher mode of existence, where the goods acquired by Christ in his redemptive and deifying work of our nature will be fully communicated to all who have united themselves with him.
The man who lives in Christ in the Church, where the fullness of grace is found, receives the “pledge of the Spirit,” knows spiritually the first fruits of the goods to come. On this spiritual plane, sin, the devil, death and corruption no longer have power over him, cannot affect him; he is spiritually free from them. But incorruptibility and immortality, if thus assured to him, will become real for his body only after the Resurrection and the Judgment, just as the deification of his whole being will find its complete fulfillment only at this ultimate moment (cf. 1 Cor 15:28).
With this expectation, Christianity is concerned with alleviating human suffering and healing diseases, and it has always encouraged the means used to do so…
Love of neighbour is, together with love of God, the main virtue advocated by Christianity. Love of neighbour implies compassion, a willingness to help him in everything, to console him, to support him, to relieve him of his suffering, to cure his illnesses, to keep him healthy. The miracles performed by Christ and the apostles set an example. This is why Christianity, from the very beginning, has recognised the merits of medicine, has not hesitated to integrate the “profane” medicine practiced in the society where it was born and developed, and has even been one of the founding figures in the creation of hospitals. For centuries, in both East and West, and until relatively recently, nurses were nuns (in Germany, nurses are still called Krankenschwestern, “sisters of the sick”!). In the current epidemic, all researchers, doctors, nurses, ambulance drivers, but also all technical and maintenance staff, have shown a dedication and spirit of sacrifice, even to the point of endangering their own health and lives, which is in every way in keeping with Christian values. All the churches bless them, and we must strongly support them with our prayers.
Since you have said that somehow fallen nature follows its own logic, can our prayers have an effect on this epidemic, to slow it down or stop it?
Our duty is to pray to God to stop this epidemic. But for this to happen, everyone would have to turn to him and ask him for it. Otherwise, out of respect for their free choice, he will not impose his omnipotence on those who do not want to acknowledge him and ask for his help. This is the reason why divine action has not manifested itself to stop the great epidemics of the past. God, on the other hand, has responded to the request of small united groups and has miraculously stopped localised epidemics. In the same way, breaches in the logic of the fallen world have always been made in favour of particular persons through the intervention of God, the Mother of God, or the saints. But by definition, miracles are exceptions to the common and usual order. Christ himself did not perform collective healings, but always individual healings, and always, it must be emphasised, in connection with a spiritual goal and concomitant spiritual action (the forgiveness of sins) related to a person’s life and destiny. This gives me the opportunity to recall that just as sickness can be spiritually turned to our advantage, the health preserved or regained is useless if we do not make good spiritual use of it. Likewise, one of the questions posed to us by the current epidemic is: what have we done so far with our health, and what will we do with it if we survive?
With regard to the miraculous healings accomplished by Christ, we see that they were granted sometimes at the request of the people he healed, sometimes at the request of their relatives. This reminds us that it is important to pray for ourselves, in order to obtain protection and healing, but also for our loved ones, and more broadly for all people, as do all the saints who pray for the whole world, because in their own person, they feel solidarity with all.
Prayers of all kinds have flourished on Orthodox websites in recent weeks. Which prayer(s) do you particularly recommend?
Every prayer is good, because it brings us closer to God and to our neighbour. One can address Christ, the Mother of God, and all the saints, because, as St. Paisios the Athonite told me during one of my meetings with him, every saint can cure all illnesses and the saints are not jealous of each other.
Nevertheless, I remain somewhat sceptical about certain forms of piety which border on superstition, but which are inevitable in such circumstances: for example, a Saint Corona has recently been brought out of oblivion; she will no doubt soon be joined by Saint Virus (the bishop of Vienna in the fourth century).
For my part, I like very much and use several times a day the prayer composed by Patriarch Daniel of Romania, which is short, simple, and complete at the same time. I have modified the text very slightly:
“O Lord our God, who are rich in mercy and who with diligent wisdom guide our lives, hear our prayer, receive our repentance for our sins, put an end to this epidemic.
You who are the physician of our souls and bodies, grant health to those who are afflicted by sickness, making them rise promptly from their bed of sorrow, so that they may glorify You, the merciful Savior.
Preserve those who are healthy from all sickness.
Preserve us, Your unworthy servants, and our parents and relatives.
Bless, strengthen, and guard, O Lord, by Your grace, all those who, with love for humankind and a spirit of sacrifice, care for the sick in their homes or in hospitals.
Remove all sickness and suffering from Your people, and teach us to appreciate life and health as gifts that come from You.
Grant us, O Lord, Your peace and fill our hearts with an unshakeable faith in Your protection, hope in Your help, and love for You and for our neighbor.
For it is Yours, O our God, to have mercy on us and to save us, and we glorify You: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.”