Doctors and Medicine
Fr. Thomas Hopko · June 10, 2013
In this episode, Fr. Tom talks about how we should view the practice of medicine and medication from an Orthodox Christian perspective.
All my life as a priest, pastor, in the Orthodox Church, which this year will be for 50 years I’ve had that experience, I have had, of course, plenty of experience dealing with illness and sickness: physical illness, mental illness, and then, of course, spiritual illness, and these usually go together in some way. They’re interconnected in our lives. In more recent time, the last couple of years, I have had my own personal experience with sickness and having to take medication and visit many physicians and doctors. As a matter of fact, so has my wife, with some difficulties that she’s dealing with: arthritis and having knee replacements and so on.
So I have had in this recent time a lot of opportunity myself to think about the ministry of doctors, physicians, healers, nurses, physicians’ assistants. Because so many human beings have these particular occupations, and virtually all of us human beings are involved in this in one way or another and have to understand and make decisions ourselves relative to the ministry of doctors, the work of doctors, and the taking of medicines, of medication. It’s something that we really do have to think about a little bit, at least from time to time, and of course for Christians, Orthodox Christians, the interrelationship between the profession of being a physician and prescribing medications and treatments of various sorts, how this relates to our faith in God as the ultimate Healer and the meaning of salvation in Christ relative to healing.
We know that in the Scripture, God Almighty is said to be the Healer, and that that term, “save,” is a kind of synonym in Hebrew and in the New Testament Greek for being made whole or being healed. So often, when a blind man or a deaf man or a possessed person or a paralytic or an epileptic or whomever are healed by Christ according to the gospels, very often in English it says, “Your faith has made you whole” or “Your faith has healed you.” In Greek, however, it would be: “Your faith has saved you.”
So the term “salvation” and “healing” are virtually synonymous in Scripture, and we see, of course, Christ himself as the Savior; the Messianic Savior is also the Healer. And we see how even in Christ’s activity, when he was on the earth, he would bring together the forgiveness of sins and the healing of diseases. For example, he will say to a paralyzed person:
Your sins are forgiven. Stand up and walk. What is easier to say? that your sins are forgiven, or to rise, take up your bed, and walk? But that you may know that the son of man has power on earth, authority over illness and to heal illness, I say to you: Take up your bed and walk.
So we have the whole issue of salvation, healing, faith-healing (healing where the place of faith in God comes in for healing), and then of course where the profession of medicine and physicians and doctors come into the story.
I would just like to meditate a little bit on this very very relevant topic for our time. Of course, we’re all wondering about health care and Obamacare, and there’s all this kind of discussion also about healing in our own American life: insurance for healing, Medicare, Medicaid, and then of course the whole issue of drugs: pharmaceutical products and so on, pills. We are in this every day of our life, for ourselves and for our family members and for our children. I think that our five children that we have, grown up children already married, and one, our daughter, is already a grandmother—I don’t think that there’s one of our children that is not taking some type of medicine right now for one ailment or another that they are having to deal with in this fallen world.
Let’s just think about these things, just very briefly today, to try to kind of get an insight into this as much as we can. We say God is the Healer, and healing is spoken of in the Scriptures, and Christ is the Physician, the Healer of soul and body. Christ is not only the Physician and the Healer, but in our Orthodox tradition, he is also the Medicine. For example: St. Ignatius of Antioch, which is one of the first post-New Testament writings that our Church affirms as absolutely dependable, the letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch. He died in the first decade of the second century, probably a disciple of the Apostle John and within the Johannine community. He speaks about Christ’s body and blood in the holy Eucharist as pharmakon tēs athanasias, the medicine of immortality, the drug of immortality. So there’s a kind of medicinal relationship to the holy Eucharist, also.
Then, of course, we have in the Church the sacrament of holy Unction, one of the Mysteries of faith, which of course comes from the letter of James in the New Testament, where it is written in the letter of James: “Are any among you sick?” And then he continues: If so, if any among you are sick, then he says that we should call for the elders of the Church, and the term “elder” there is “presvyteros, presvyteroi,” which is “presbyter,” which is the primary name in Greek and Slavonic and all Orthodox peoples’ languages, it’s the name for what we now in English mostly call the priest. Sometimes I think it’s kind of sad that we call the bishops bishops and the presbyters priests and then the deacons deacons, because as a matter of fact, the high priest is the bishop and he is the archpastor as well; and that we are presbyters. My title in the Church, for example, is Protopresbyter, because I’m an old guy and served 50 years and at one point in my life for a decade headed a seminary, a theological school. So I think that it would be really nice if we would begin to use the word “presbyter” in English for what we call “priests,” because the bishops are the chief priests, and the presbyters do priestly activity when appointed to do so by the bishop.
In any case, it says in James: Is any among you sick? Let him call for the presbyters of the Church. Let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord, and the prayer of faith will save...
Notice it’s “save” here, not “heal” but “save,” but it could be “heal.”
...the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.
Now it says, instead of “saved,” “healed.”
The prayer of a righteous man has great power in effects. Elijah was a man of like nature with ourselves, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain. Then he prayed again, and the heavens gave rain and the earth brought forth its fruit.
So we’re talking here about the power of prayer and the place of prayer in the spiritual Christian life. We Christians, Orthodox Christians, do believe that the ultimate salvation, the ultimate healing, is going to be in the age to come. No one will be ultimately healed on this earth. There may be miraculous healings, and we know that there are all through Church history just down to the present day. We all probably could tell stories about what we believe are miraculous healings, the intervention of God to heal a person from their diseases for some very particular reasons. Sometimes the Church Fathers mention why the Lord God or the name of Christ would heal people—some people and not other people. Usually there’s a list of things that you could list as reasons why God would do this: (1) because people ask and he has compassion, [or] (2) because he wants to show his compassion and his love for man and his power of healing. It also may be that the person could live longer on this earth in order to do more good, bear more crosses, repent deeper.
St. John Chrysostom has that famous saying which I can’t find right now; he said if a person believes that he or she is healed by God from the sickness, then they have to know that it’s always for greater service. It’s always for more crosses, the way he put it. Of course, everyone who was healed on earth died again, even those whom Jesus raised: Lazarus, Jairus’ daughter, the only son of the widow. They died again. You’ve got to go through death, unless we’re alive when the Lord comes. So the healing on this earth is not ultimate. We all have to go through sickness and death or in whatever way we die, even in a tragic death like in an accident or being murdered or something like that.
Nevertheless, we have to say that in our life in this world, we want to be well. We want to be healed. We want to have strong bodies. As the holy Fathers say, the Lord did not tell us to kill our bodies; he told us to kill or to put to death, mortify, the passions of the flesh. But the body is a good thing. The body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. And we have to have a healthy body with a healthy brain, healthy nerves and all this kind of thing, in order to live a fullness of life, because illness and sickness is something that is not natural, according to the Christian faith. It comes from the fall of man. It comes from messing up our world.
Even look at the issue of wheat. When I was young, wheat and bread and everything, that was like the main thing: bread, daily bread in the prayer. Now we discover that, because of the way wheat has been genetically produced and redone in our society, it becomes a kind of a causer of ill-health, and some of the people can’t eat wheat without becoming ill. By the way, I’m one of them myself now. In the last few years, I have [had] to go on this rather disgusting but gluten-free diet just because of stomach troubles that have to do with processing wheat. Although, of course, I celebrate the Eucharist; I eat the bread of the Medicine of immortality in church with the wine and so on, but outside of that, I have to be careful with my consumption of wheat.
So there are illnesses that come to us in this world, and we have illnesses. There’s cancer illnesses. I’ve had that with the prostate. There are stomach illnesses. There are heart illnesses. All kinds of illnesses that we would then go to physicians and doctors and take medication for in addition to our faith in God and our prayer to God, that God’s will would be done; if he wants us to be healed, we should be healed; if he doesn’t, we don’t. Either way, we we believe God has his reasons for that.
We know, even, of course, the famous case of the Apostle Paul, recorded in the second letter to the Corinthians, the twelfth chapter, where St. Paul said that he had a thorn in his flesh also, and that he begged God to heal him. He called it “a messenger of Satan, sent to harass” him. And God said, “No.” He said, “My power is made perfect in weakness. My grace is sufficient for you.” When St. Paul asked to be healed of this thorn in the flesh, which I think that the best theory of what that thorn actually was, I believe was his eyesight, that he had very grave trouble with his eyes. For example, to Galatians, he said, “We work together so closely, that when I preached the Gospel to you that you were ready even to pluck out your eyes and give them to me.” And then sometimes St. Paul says, “I’m signing this letter with my own hand. See how big that I write.”
So people think that his particular illness, ailment, this thorn that he had to deal with, that God wanted him to deal with all his life, he was never healed from it as far as we know, although he was a healer of other people’s illnesses, St. Paul, definitely, like with Peter and the apostles, they also had the gift of healing, but at that point Paul himself wasn’t healed. But we do know that, according to Paul’s letters as well—Ephesians, I Corinthians, and so on—he lists healing or the gift of healing, the charism of healing, as one of the particular gifts that can be given to Christians; that not all people have it, but some have this gift of healing: healing souls, healing spirits, healing mental disorders, healing bodily, physical disorders. That’s part of the Church life.
There’s a wonderful set of books that just came out in English by a Dr. Jean-Claude Larchet—that’s L-a-r-c-h-e-t—published by Alexander Press in Canada, and it’s three volumes on the Therapy of Spiritual Illnesses, an introduction to the ascetic tradition of the Orthodox Church. This is an absolutely marvelous three-volume set. I have to say I haven’t finished reading all three volumes so far—I did the first; I’m in the middle of the second—and so far it’s just a wonderful, wonderful work; I mean excellent. I couldn’t praise it too highly. When I was dean of St. Vladimir’s, actually, just the year when I retired, our SVS Press published a book called The Theology of Illness by this same Jean-Claude Larchet (L-a-r-c-h-e-t) on the theology of illness and how we understand that illness is part of the fallen world, as part of the corrupted universe. It’s brought in by the sins of human beings.
It is not the will of God that we would be ill or sick or die. In the coming kingdom we will not have sickness, sorrow, sighing, or anything. We will have life everlasting in the fullness of a glorified body. Sometimes in the lives of the saints, it even says, like for St. Anthony the Great, that he already had his healed, resurrected body in this life, even before he died. At the age of 105 when he fell asleep in the Lord, his body was, according to the Life of Athanasius, already very glorified. In fact, in the Coptic Life of Anthony, written by St. Athanasius, it said that he had his resurrected body before he died. He had no signs of senility, old age; he had all his teeth; he was shining with the [un]created light. He was a very strong person, physically, and so on, and all this was attributed to his ascetical life in God and for suffering for so many years in the ascetic life in the desert that he endured. If you read the life of St. Anthony, you’ll see that.
Speaking about saints, we have to also mention here in this very, very general talk today, this reflection today, that there are saints who are known for having the gift of healing. They are healers, holy healers. In the category of saints in our Menaion, in our preparation of the bread and wine for the Eucharist, when we lists the various kinds of saints and ask them to pray for us and be with us, there is a category of saint in Greek called Anargyroi. Anargyroi, the silver-less, or the unmercenary. In Slavonic, it would be Bessrebrenriki: without silver. “Without money” is what it means.
These were people who had the gift of healing, but very interestingly for our reflection today, they were doctors. They were physicians. It wasn’t just a person who, through prayer, was having the gift of healing. It was people who actually were doctors in our modern sense, physicians in our modern sense. They are numbered among the saints. St. Luke, for example, the author of the gospel according to St. Luke and the book of Acts, we know from the Scripture that he was a physician. “Blessed physician,” he is called in Colossians 4:14: St. Luke, the beloved physician.
Then we know that there were others in the earliest Church who were physicians. The brother of St. Gregory the Theologian, for example, Cesarius, he was the physician of the court of the emperor of Constantinople. So Gregory [the] Theologian, the great bishop of the Church and theologian, his brother was a physician. There are other physicians in history. I mean, in our time we can think of St. Luke, the archbishop in Russia, under the Communists. There’s a beautiful book about him called The Blessed Surgeon: The Life of St. Luke, Archbishop of Simferopol. You can get that book and read it; it’s a very good book. We know that another man, very famous man in our time, Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh, Anthony (Bloom), who was Russian Orthodox bishop for a long time in Great Britain, he was a doctor; he was a trained physician, and then he became also a bishop.
So we have physicians among the saints, and these anargyroi, these unmercenary healers, on their icons, they are depicted holding a medical box, a box of medical herbs and medical instruments. In other words, they were actual physicians, and on the icons it shows that by the healing box that they’re holding, that holds their healing medicines and instruments that they use. Of course, I could tell you the names now of all of these, practically. I used to teach hagiology. In the prothesis of the Liturgy I always remember them. There’s Cosmas and Damian, brothers; Cyrus and John; Panteleimon; Hermolaos; Samson; Diomedes; Photios; Mocius; Anicetus; Thalalaeus; and Trypho. Early healers, many of whom were martyrs, like Panteleimon. He had the gift of healing and he was a physician, but he died himself before he was even 30 years old. He never even made it to the age of our Lord Jesus, 33. He died as a martyr earlier.
Then there was a later, in the Kievan Cave Monastery in Russia or Ukraine, you had a saint called Agapit. In Greek it would be Agapitos. Agapit, who was a physician who became a monk and was known for healing. And then in the earliest Church, the daughters of Philip by tradition are women physicians, the unmercenary women physicians. And their names are Hermione—like in Harry Potter, Hermione—and then Zenais and Philonilla. So there [is] this company of saints who are physicians; they are medical doctors, and then who unite their medical ministry and their use of herbs and medications and whatever together with their faith in God and in Christ, and are known for this until the present day.
These physicians and healings and medications, they’re within the Church tradition itself, and this is a good thing. A physician is a great ministry. It’s a wonderful ministry that certain people can be given. It’s interesting that the rhetoric of doctors is often applied to pastors when healing spiritual illnesses. John Chrysostom, for example, Gregory the Theologian, Ambrose of Milan, Pope St. Gregory the Great of Rome, in their books about pastoral care and governance in the Church, they use the images from medical life. They’ll say the pastor has to be able to diagnose the disease, that the spiritual disease that a person has, he has to know what its causes are. He has to know what kind of drugs or what kind of therapeutic care to administer. He has to know what methods go with which illnesses.
Then even the image of surgery is used, cutting. If he has to cut, he has to know where to cut; he has to cut the right thing. He can’t give too much medication or the wrong medication or too much, because it’ll harm the patient. On the other hand, he can’t give too little, because it won’t help the patient. If he’s doing a surgical operation, he has to know where to cut, how deeply to cut. If he doesn’t cut deeply enough, it’s not going to help the person, because the ill part will still be within the person. If he cuts too deeply, he can harm the patient, so he has to know exactly where to cut, how to cut, how deeply to cut, to what end to cut, what he’s dealing for, and then what medications would go with this. This is simply part of human life, and it’s something that’s blessed by God. It’s something that’s really, truly blessed by God.
St. John Chrysostom has a wonderful sentence about this ministry. This is what he says; I’m quoting this from Larchet’s second volume. John Chrysostom observes:
The goal of a physician is not to avenge himself but to draw us towards himself. A physician is neither offended nor upset by the insults of the sick who rave in delirium, and leaves no stone unturned in his efforts to prevent them from demeaning themselves, considering not his personal gain but theirs. If the sick people regain but a bit of their good sense and their calm, the physician’s heart is filled with satisfaction and joy. He increases in his care and remedies, far from taking vengeance at their insults, ...
Or returning evil when people are evil to doctors, because how much criticism do we hear about doctors even today? It’s amazing. I can say [that], actually, for myself, having had a lot of doctors to deal with in the last year or so. By the way, my primary care doctor happens to be a protodeacon at the Orthodox Church in America cathedral in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He’s my doctor; he’s my medical doctor, but he’s also the protodeacon. My experience has only been very positive with doctors. They’re all so good: friendly, kindly, concerned, talk to you. It’s just marvelous. I have no complaint against any doctors or physicians or physician’s assistants or nurses. It’s just not been my experience, but many people do, and there’s a lot of criticism about that.
So Chrysostom ends his saying that when doctors are vilified by patients, and insulted, the doctor
...adds kindness to kindness, until he succeeds in restoring them to health. So, too, when we have fallen into utter madness, God himself, without taking vengeance upon us or thinking of the past, says and does nothing that would not aim of healing us of all of our illnesses.
So therapy, healing, the therapeutic, it’s a central part of this. Metropolitan of Nafpaktos, Hierotheos Vlachos, he wrote about therapeutic action in spiritual life and so on.
I think there is a caveat, though. We cannot simply reduce Christian faith to healing, physical or mental or spiritual healing. There’s many other reasons and other purposes of the Christian faith: to know the truth, to have a vision of reality properly, to take care of the sick and the poor and the needy in society, to preach the Gospel, to comfort people in their affliction, to help them to face their sufferings and their death and all those kinds of things. There’s much more to the Church than simply that it’s a hospital. Yes, the Church can be considered a spiritual hospital, but it can also be considered a spiritual school and a spiritual community and a spiritual Christian social agency for service in the world and all those other things.
Sometimes scholars speak about the “triumph of the therapeutic,” which is not always a healthy thing. Fr. Alexander Schmemann, for example, he said it’s very dangerous to look at the Christian faith simply as therapy, because we first have to know what, according to Christianity, is a sickness—what kind of illness is there? how do we understand the illness?—because what we may think will heal us is not exactly what will. So we can’t judge the healing process, so to speak—that’s where faith comes in—but we should see that physical healing or healing of mental illness is not necessarily the total goal in itself. Some people may have to bear those crosses in this world.
However, I think what we want to say today is: We must engage in both aspects of therapeutic help. We must use medications, we must go to physicians, we must use their skill and their expertise in diagnosing diseases and in prescribing proper medicine to take and procedures to undergo. That’s all part of it, but it’s done together with faith; it’s done together with prayer to God. They’re not opposed to each other; they go together.
Here there’s a famous passage in the Hebrew Scriptures—well, this was written in Greek and translated into Hebrew—the Wisdom of Sirach, sometimes called Ecclesiasticus. For us Orthodox and for Roman Catholics also, this is part of the Bible; for Protestants it’s considered apocryphal. But in any case, there’s a very famous place there, 38th chapter, which I will read first in the Septuagint translation, and then I’ll read it in the English translation from the Hebrew. This is what it says:
Honor the physician with the honor due to him…
And we could say today “or her,” because many physicians are women, and even in the early ones there were three women among the saints who are canonized as physicians.
Honor the physician with the honor due, and also according to your need of him (or her), for the Lord created (or made) the physician. Healing comes from the Most High, and he who will receive a gift from the king, the physician’s skill will lift up his head, and he shall be admired in the presence of the great. The Lord created medicines from the earth, and a sensible man will not loathe them.
In other words, we have herbs and other things and chemicals that can [be] used to help heal the body, “and a sensible person will not loathe them,” Sirach says.
The Lord created these medicines from the earth.” Is not water made sweet by wood, that its strength might be known?
That’s a reference to Moses throwing the tree into the water of Marah.
The Lord gave skill to men (to human beings) that the Lord himself might be glorified in his wonders. By them he heals and takes away pain. A druggist (or a pharmacist), making a compound of them. God’s works are never finished, and from him health is upon the face of the earth. My son, do not be negligent when you are sick, but pray to the Lord and he will heal you.
Depart from transgressions and direct your hands aright and cleanse your heart from every sin. Offer sweet-smelling sacrifice to the Lord, and keep in touch with your physician (it says), for the Lord created him. And do not let him (or her) leave you, for you need him (or her).
There is a time when success is also in the hands of the physicians, and they themselves will pray to the Lord to give them success in bringing relief and healing, for the sake of preserving their life. He who sins before the One who made him, may he fall into the hands of a physician.
So that blessing of the physician is found in the Wisdom of Sirach in the holy Scripture. I think that I would like to read to you the translation of that same text from the Hebrew. It’s not very much different; just a little bit different. This is what it says in the Revised Standard Version:
Honor the physician with the honor due him, according to your need of him, for the Lord created him. For healing comes from the Most High, and he will receive a gift from the king. The skill of the physician lifts up his head, and in the presence of great men he is admired. The Lord created the medicines from the earth, and a sensible man will not despise them. Was not water made sweet with a tree, in order that God’s power might be known?
That’s Moses throwing the tree into Marah.
And the Lord God gave this skill to human beings, to men (men and women we say nowadays), that God might be glorified in his marvelous works through them. By them he heals and takes away pain. The pharmacist makes of them a compound (or drug). His works will never be finished, for from him health is upon the face of the earth.
(Then it says:) My son (or My child), when you are sick, do not be negligent, but pray to the Lord and he will heal you. Give up your faults and direct your hands aright. Cleanse your heart from all sin. Offer sweet-smelling sacrifice, and give the physician his place, for the Lord created him (or her). Let the physician not leave you, for there is need of the physician. There is a time when success lies in the hands of physicians, for they, too, will pray to the Lord, that he should grant them success in diagnosis and in healing for the sake of preserving life.
What we want to say today, very clearly, is: Doctors and medicine are part of our human life that come from God. There isn’t an opposition between praying and healing by faith and trust in God. There certainly are miracles on this level. But those miracles come when God himself has some purpose for them to come. But death will also come when God has some purpose for that to come. But God wants us, we believe, according to the Scriptures and our Lord Jesus Christ in the Gospel, to fight against all illnesses and to do so with the skills of medicines and with the physicians that God himself has raised up, because some have this gift of healing, of knowing how to use the herbs and the medication and so on.
Now, with medication, we should definitely take the medication that the doctors prescribe for us. It’s in our own power to say yes or no if we want that medication, but it seems to me that a Christian will accept the medicines and the medication from qualified physicians and doctors and nurses and physician’s assistants, because they know the kind of thing that can help us to handle and perhaps even to cure the diseases with which we are afflicted.
I myself take heart medicine, and feel the heck of a lot better than I did last year when I had congestive heart failure and didn’t even know it until, you know, I went to the doctor. They looked at the X-ray, they saw my enlarged heart, and they took a biopsy and discovered it was not genetically [sourced]; I have an amyloid in my heart. But going to the doctors while praying to the Lord and receiving that help is wisdom itself, and it’s blessed by God. God does not say, “Never go to a physician! Don’t take medication! Just whatever.” But many times God himself is providing the physician and the medication. He’s working through those doctors. That’s why some of them are canonized saints.
Here, of course, there’s this kind of story, like a joke also, that makes this point, I think, very nicely. The story is that there was a huge flood, and the people were in the flood, and the floodwaters were rising and rising, and then there was a man who was standing on the roof of his house so that he wouldn’t drown in the flood. He’s standing on the roof of the house, and he’s praying, “O God, save me! I know you will save me. I know that you will deliver me.” And deliverance and saving and healing, they’re all the same word in Hebrew.
In any case, in this particular modern story, the saying goes that when he was on that roof, a boat came up to the roof and invited the man to jump onto the boat and to be saved and get to safe ground. The man said, “No, no, no, it’s okay. I don’t need the boat. I’m praying to my God. My God is going to save me.” Then the story goes that a helicopter came over, and they dropped down a ladder, and they said, “Climb up here. We’ll pull you up inside of the helicopter so that you don’t have to stand on the roof of your house for this flood. It may be still flooding. You may die,” and so on. The man said, “No, no, God is going to save me. I’m praying to God. I’m a believer.” And he wouldn’t climb up into the helicopter.
Then the story goes that the guy died, and it may even be that he drowned. Then he comes into the presence of the Lord. He says to the Lord, “Why did you let me drown? I guess it was your holy will, but I was praying to you to save me, and you decided you did not save me. You did not want me to live any longer on the earth.” And according to this kind of joke, anecdote, the Lord says to the man, “My child, who do you think sent the boat to you? Who do you think sent the helicopter with the ladder to you? I sent that boat to save you from the flood. I sent the helicopter, hoping that you would take use of it and be saved. But you decided no, and therefore, instead of choosing life, you chose death.”
The Scripture itself says we should never put God to the test. We should not drink poison and think God will save us, or play with snakes and reptiles or jump off the roof and say, “God will save me.” The devil tempted Jesus this way, and Jesus said, “You shall not tempt the Lord your God.” If God provides a help through medications and physicians and doctors and skills and machines, we should thank God for all that and take advantage of it. We should not say, “No, we don’t need it.” But all the time, nevertheless, we believe that our life is in the hands of God. It can be in the hands of physicians that God had created, God had formed, and God has sent to us for the sake of our healing.
It’s very, very important to take the medications that are prescribed for us, and these medications can not only be for physical ailments but for mental ailments. Our brain is an organ in our body, too, and it doesn’t always work right. Sometimes our brains get all mixed up, and sometimes even what our DNA is and our brain chemistry and all that, it comes actually through spiritual activities of our forebears. As fallen human beings, we can inherit certain diseases and predispositions to sin and to mental disorder from our parents.
I mean, I had a biopsy done on my heart so that it could go to a genetic lab and they can find out: Did I inherit this condition or did it just begin with me? Fortunately, they said it just began with me, according to their testing, and that was a great relief to our children and to our grandchildren and even our one great-granddaughter, that, hopefully, they don’t have to deal with inheriting the disease of amyloidosis that Grandpa Tom has, or Dad has. They’re free from that.
However, our daughter Alexandra does have an inherited disease called neurofibromatosis, which are tumors on her nerves. Well, that was inherited, and she’s got to deal with it, and she’s got to do certain things in discipline and see certain doctors and even take certain medications and eat certain foods so that she would help herself to be as well as she can possibly be, and believing that God himself has ordered these things. He has shown us what to do and shown us which doctors to go to and what medicines to take.
But this is part of our spiritual life. That’s very important. That’s the point I want to make today. There is not opposition between medical science and doctors. Sometimes there’s a difference in the Septuagint and the Revised Standard, or the Hebrew Bible, on one of the lines in Psalm 88, where in the Hebrew Bible, the person is saying to God:
I am shut in so that I cannot escape. My eye grows dim through sorrow. Every day I call upon thee, O Lord. I spread out my hands to thee. (And then it says:) Dost thou work wonders for the dead? Do the shades (that’s like the spirits of the dead people) rise up to praise thee? Is thy steadfast love declared in the grave or thy faithfulness in Abaddon? Are thy wonders known in the darkness or thy saving help in the land of forgetfulness? But I, O Lord, cry to thee, and in the morning I pray to thee.
So it’s speaking about people who have died, and are those shades going to come up? Interestingly enough, in the Septuagint it’s translated differently, because the word for “shade” and the word for “physician” is written the same way in Hebrew, but you’ve got to know how to provide the vowels and how to point the word to know what is meant. For some reason, when the Jewish scholars were translating the psalms into Greek and then they came into English, that same text say:
I spread out my hands to thee. Will you work wonders for the dead? (and then it says) or will physicians raise them up and acknowledge you? Shall anyone in the grave describe your mercy and your truth in destruction? Shall your wonders be known in darkness and righteousness in forgotten land? But I cry to you, Lord. In the morning my prayer comes to you.
So instead of saying, “Will the shades rise up to praise thee?” they translate it, “Or will physicians raise them up and acknowledge you?” In other words, you’re going to put your hope in the physician or in God. Well, I think the Christian teaching would be: You do both, not one or the other. But if you think that only the physician alone and the doctor and the medication is going to save you entirely, that’s total nonsense. Sooner or later, we’re all going to die, but we have to prevent every type of illness, here, not only physical but mental. We can take medication for mental illness, yes. It helps our brain chemistry not to go wacky, and it allows us to be able to carry on our life.
Sometimes when people take medication for mental illness and then they get space to work on their issues and their problems and their wounds, they can get to the point where they may not need medication at all any more, or they may need less medication or different medication to handle their life in this world. But we should know that there are medications for mental illness as well, and I believe that Orthodox Christians are obliged to take them when they are available. I do think also that it could be helpful to people—I know several mentally ill people—who have other people monitor their medication, so that they would be sure to take it, because sometimes when people are struggling with mental problems and illness, they don’t want to take any medication. They refuse to take it. Or on the other hand, they will take too much, because they think it’s going to help them get better. But, no, medication has to be monitored. It’s a skilled activity.
It’s very important, I think, that medications generally be monitored, whether they’re medications for physical illness or mental illness. They should be monitored, but they should be used and never spurned. Of course, sometimes when a person who has some trouble with their psychological life, their mental life, they could say, “Oh, I don’t need medication!” and then they start acting badly and they cause everybody a lot of grief. I myself have a good, good friend that I once took in when she escaped from a mental hospital in New York City. Actually we were on a TV program in New York about how mentally ill people also have souls and how they need help and love, and they featured me and this woman on this NBC television special when I was younger.
What’s interesting about this woman is: I myself put her back into a mental hospital three times after I arranged for her to have a place to stay when she escaped from the hospital, and they told me from the hospital I didn’t have to bring her back as long as I’d take care of her. Well, she’s one of my closest friends to this very day, and she’s doing really well. She drives a car, she goes to church, and everything. I’ve known her for almost 30 years. But she has to take medication, and if she doesn’t, she can’t function. So the way she takes her medication is: she’s in a program for a person to come and give her the medication, watch her take it, and sign that it was done, because if left to herself she might forget or she might say she doesn’t need it or whatever, and then things don’t work out too well.
But the point for today is this: According to the Scripture and the tradition of the Orthodox Church, there are physicians, and that is a noble profession. There are medications, and producing those medications is a noble work. Of course, you can’t kill people to get their stem cells or something. We’re totally against that. Or kill somebody to get their heart for a transplant or something. But we favor medicine and doctors and physicians and skilled healers as we also pray to the Lord God Almighty to do the right thing in regard for our health.
The word for today is: Let us be respectful of the medical community, the healing community. Let us work with doctors and physician’s assistants and technicians and nurses. Let us use medication when it can help us to carry on our life properly and, if not to be totally healed, at least to be given the possibility to carry on our life in a way that is not sick, in a way that we can be like a healthy person, to carry on.
So thank God for physicians, for doctors, for medication. They’re all from the Lord. Thank God for the Lord himself and how he operates for us in this world, and thank God for all of these things. We Orthodox Christians, we take advantage of them all, using our discernment. Of course, there is the gift of discernment that we have to have, relative to choosing physicians, relative to accepting medications, using it, and so on. We beg God for discernment, and we thank God for all these people who do these things and for our family members, we thank God that they are able to be helped by these things, and also to help others, their old parents like me or their young children like our grandchildren, to help others to live as healthy and wholesome and well a life as possible.
So may the Lord guide our way, and may we make proper use of physicians and medications and doctors and all that that exists in this world, while praying to God that in all things his will would be done. Perhaps we will be healed for more time on earth and more mentally sane time, and perhaps we’ll die this very day. Who knows? That’s in the hands of God, but we do everything we can to live a wholesome, healthy, saved, sane life in this world to the measure that we can, in order to glorify God and to love one another and to complete our own ministries in this world that God wants us to do before our earthly life, by his will, will finally be over.