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Liturgical Theology and Healing

Antiochian Archdiocese 2014 Clergy Symposium - Medicine, Theology, Healing

Held at Antiochian Village in Ligonier, PA, the 2014 Clergy Symposium took as its theme ” . . .for the sick and the suffering”: Medicine, Theology, Healing. Speakers and breakout sessions dealt with this subject from an Orthodox perspective.

July 2014

Liturgical Theology and Healing

Dr. Paul Meyendorff from St. Vladimir's Orthodox Seminary is introduced by Fr. Joseph Allen.

July 16, 2014 Length: 1:13:16


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Fr. Joseph Allen: Today we have a very special guest speaker, a name well-known to everyone in this Archdiocese. Either you had his father for your teacher, as in my age group, or you had him in your classes: he taught you. I’m talking here about Professor Dr. Paul Meyendorff. Just so you… I know he doesn’t need any impressive introduction, but I’m going to give it to you anyway, because sometimes we don’t realize this.

Paul graduated from Trinity College with honors Phi Beta Kappa, St. Vladimir’s Seminary M.Div., a magna cum laude, University of Notre Dame, Ph.D., Institut Saint-Serge, honoris causa, a doctorate, in 2013. That was just last year, then. He has eight books published. The one that caught our eye especially is The Service of the Anointing of the Sick, which certainly fits with the theme of this symposium and led us to remember that our good friend, Paul Meyendorff, was available.

As far as his present position, he is the Fr. Alexander Schmemann Professor of Liturgical Theology at St. Vladimir’s. He’s Associate Dean for Academic Affairs. At Yale Divinity School and at the University of Notre Dame, he’s a visiting professor. He’s an adjunct professor at Drew University, associate editor for the press, editor on St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly and for the Orthodox Liturgy Series.

It gives me great honor on your behalf to welcome Dr. Paul Meyendorff. [Applause] Welcome, Paul. [Inaudible]

Dr. Paul Meyendorff: Good morning, Your Eminence, but first of all congratulations on behalf of the seminary and our faculty on your recent election. We’re glad to see you in that position. We hope to work with you in the future. I believe that makes you vice… my boss [Laughter], as vice-president of St. Vladimir’s Seminary. So, very good to have you with us.

It’s an honor for me to be invited to speak to you about a theme that is very close to my heart, and what I propose to do today is to give a general introduction to the healing ministry of the Church, beginning with Scripture and then with the liturgical tradition, because obviously it is through the liturgical tradition that the message of the Gospel is in fact transmitted to our faithful, and then conclude in the final section with a brief reflection on the sacrament of anointing of the sick in particular. But you need the entire context, because the ministry of healing and especially the healing of the sick and the anointing of the sick, needs to be understood in this broader context. It does not stand apart from the entire life of the Church.

Now, healing lies at the very center of the Church’s ministry. Even a quick review of Scripture and early Christian writings makes this very clear, and there is no rite or sacrament that does not contain some reference to healing. We have but to listen to the Sunday gospel readings, or hear the words of liturgical prayers to realize just how frequently the theme recurs. Thus, the specific rite of healing, the anointing of the sick, is but one aspect, and a relatively small one, of this ministry. And so we need to look at it in this broader context.

When John the Baptist sent his disciples to the Lord to ask if he were the Messiah, Jesus answers:

The blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have the good news preached to them. (Matthew 11:5)

Jesus comes to proclaim the inauguration of the kingdom, and his miracles, especially his healing miracles, are signs that the kingdom is at hand. The miracles both portray what the kingdom is like and initiate it. Jesus’ healing ministry, therefore, is an integral part of his teaching in which his words and his actions form one consistent whole.

And Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the kingdom, and healing every disease and every infirmity.

Jesus’ purpose in healing those who flocked to him is not to instill awe and fear, or even to draw attention to himself. He instructs the leper to tell no one but the priest what has happened. When crowds come to him, expecting more miracles, he escapes across the Sea of Galilee. When he heals the paralytic at the pool of Bethesda, crowds gather, and again he departs. Rather, Jesus’ purpose is to manifest God’s presence to inaugurate his kingdom.

The healings of Jesus, then, must be seen within the context of his entire ministry. Even in the New Testament accounts, two elements are characteristically connected to the healing of sickness: faith and repentance. Faith is presented in the gospels as either preceding or following the healing.

And behold, a woman who had suffered from a hemorrhage for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his garment, for she said to herself, “If I only touch his garment, I shall be made well.” Jesus turned and, seeing her, he said, “Take heart, daughter. Your faith has made you well.

This faith is exhibited in the gospels not only by Jews but also by Gentiles, as is evident in the case, for example, of the Roman centurion who asked Jesus to heal his paralyzed servant. “Not even in Israel have I found such faith,” Jesus answers, before granting his request. The Son of God comes to save all humanity. Sometimes also faith follows healing, as in the case of the man born blind.

Closely linked to the power to heal is the power to forgive sins. Jesus begins by forgiving the sins of the paralytic and only then performs the healing. This provokes the ire of the scribes and Pharisees. Experts in Jewish law, they know that only God can forgive sins. How can the man, Jesus, be so presumptuous as to assume this divine prerogative? In this account we see clearly that remission of sins takes precedence over the healing of disease.

We see that Jesus’ healing ministry addresses the entire person. We learn that physical illness is but a symptom of the sickness that pervades the whole world, which has its source in sin, though not necessarily the individual sin of the sick person. In this case, Jesus removes the source of the illness before he cures the symptoms. This close connection between sin and sickness, we see, lies at the very heart of the Church’s healing ministry. Physical healing is not an end in itself, but must always be seen in the context of Jesus’ ministry, which is to reconcile the world to God. He came to inaugurate the kingdom, which will be consummated only when he returns in glory at the second coming.

Indeed, those whom Jesus healed or raised from the dead all got sick again and died. The healings, therefore, only foreshadow what is to come. In their immediate context, the healings of Jesus often aim to reintegrate the sick person into the community of faith. This is evident particularly in the very first cure Jesus performs, the healing of the leper. After the man is well, the Lord instructs him, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded for proof to the people.” Thus cleansed, the man is now able to resume his place in the synagogue or the temple from which he has been excluded because of his illness. By performing this healing, therefore, the Lord restores the proper relationship between God and the creature, a relationship which sin, sickness, and death have mutilated.

It would be inaccurate, however, to see these healings merely as object lessons. While all the evangelists use the miracle stories to explain who Jesus was—Son of God, Messiah, the Promised One who has power over all creation—the healings also show him to be both loving and compassionate. He weeps at the tomb of his friend, Lazarus. He heals on the Sabbath, showing that mercy is more important than strict observance of the Law. He cares particularly for the poor and the outcast, for those who have no one to help them.

Already during his earthly ministry, our Lord appoints his disciples to carry out the very same task.

And he called to him the Twelve and began to send them out, two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. So they went out and preached that men should repent, and they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many that were sick and healed them. When the 70 returned from their mission, they report with joy to their Master, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name.”

Thus, healing is an integral part of the ministry of the apostles. Soon after Pentecost, Peter heals the man born lame, and the man immediately enters the temple with Peter and John, where they preach about Jesus Christ to the Jews. The apostles continue to perform healings as signs of the kingdom, but we find no emphasis on miraculous cures in the rest of the New Testament corpus. We find instead a focus on the life of the community, on the Church as the body of Christ, on the responsibility of each member of the body to work for the upbuilding of the Church, on unity and mutual responsibility.

In the primitive community of Jerusalem, Christians held everything in common. “And they sold their possessions and goods, and distributed them to them all, as any had need.” While this radically communal form of living does not seem to have extended beyond Jerusalem, the New Testament writings stress the unity of the Church as St. Paul summarizes in his first epistle to the Corinthians:

But God has so composed the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior part, that there may be no discord in the body but that members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together. If one member is honored, all rejoice together. Now you are the body of Christ, and individually members of it.

St. Paul urges his readers to care for one another. He preaches the Gospel of love. He takes up collections for the Church in Jerusalem. All must use their gifts and talents for the upbuilding of the Church, the body of Christ. He criticizes the Corinthians precisely for failing to be united. “When you assemble as a church,” he says, “I hear that there are divisions among you. When you meet together, it is not the Lord’s Supper that you eat, for in eating each one goes ahead with his own meal.” Actually, one of the scariest passages in the New Testament, given the state of our parish life sometimes.

Within this closely knit community, all are expected to care for one another, to love one another. This is at the very basis of the ethical teachings of Christ. We must love our neighbor as ourselves. We shall be judged on whether we feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, visit the sick and the prisoners. When a member falls into sin, the community is charged with healing the wound, because the whole community is wounded. Those in serious sin are to be cast out so that they may be healed. As Christ laid down his life for us, so all Christians are called to live for the other, even to the point of giving up their own lives.

The very purpose of the Church, therefore, is to heal us, to restore the rift between God and humanity, which is caused by our sin and which leads to death. This is achieved precisely when we’re united to one another and to God in the body of Christ which is the Church. In his high priestly prayer, the Lord prays for all his followers, “That they may be one, even as you, Father, are in me and I in you.” And you’re well familiar with the rest of this text.

Jesus Christ is here asking for nothing less than the healing of the whole world, all humanity, all creation. This is achieved when we come to know Christ, when we become one with him and with one another. Everything that the Church does, all its sacramental and liturgical life, all its teaching, is directed at restoring the proper relationship between God and creation, which has been corrupted through our sinfulness. This is the real meaning of Christian healing, and it involves the whole person, body, soul, and spirit.

The locus of this healing ministry is the Church’s sacraments, and particularly its rites of initiation: baptism, chrismation, and the Eucharist. In baptism, Christian converts abandon their old life in which they were under the sway of sin and death and enter into a new life where sin and death have been defeated. Nowhere is this more clearly expressed than in St. Paul’s letter to the Romans.

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ were baptized into his death? We were buried, therefore, with him by baptism into death so that, as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we, too, might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall surely be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed and we might no longer be enslaved to sin, for he who has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him.

And the rest of the passage I will not read.

In baptism, we enter into a new relationship with God, with Christ, in which sin, sickness, and death no longer dominate. (Could I have a glass of water, please?) We become children of God, heirs of the kingdom, members of Christ’s body, the Church. This new relationship is to endure forever, and neither sickness nor death can destroy it. It is a new form of human existence. Our head is no longer the old Adam who brought sin, sickness, and death into the world, but Christ, the new Adam, who destroys death by death and gives us eternal life.

Baptism, therefore, is the sacrament of healing par excellence, a healing aimed at the whole person: body, soul, and spirit. This is clearly expressed in the central prayer of the baptismal rite, the blessing of water at the invocation of the Holy Spirit.

Therefore, O Loving King, come now and sanctify this water by the indwelling of your Holy Spirit, and grant to it the grace of redemption, the blessing of Jordan. Make it the fountain of incorruption, the gift of sanctification, the remission of sins, the remedy of infirmities. But do you, O Master of all, show this water to be the water of redemption, the water of sanctification, the purification of flesh and spirit, the loosing of bonds, the remission of sins, the illumination of the soul, the washing of regeneration, the renewal of the spirit, the gift of adoption to sonship, the garment of incorruption, the fountain of life…

And it continues.

Baptism, therefore, introduces us into a new life in communion with God and with one another. Our sins are forgiven. We are born again as members of the Church, which is Christ’s body. In this new life, sickness and death no longer have the same power over us, for they have been defeated. Sickness and death continue to exist, but they now are not the end of our existence but a transition to eternal life, a passage into the kingdom. Just as Christ himself died and rose again, so we, too, shall die and rise. In Christ, our ultimate defeat is transformed into victory.

The whole baptismal process is characterized by this healing process. It begins with the catechumenate, which was once spread out over a period of several years. The exorcisms, once recited daily or weekly over a period of several years, but now recited just before baptism, contain numerous references to healing, not only spiritual but also physical. The blessing prayer over the oil of the catechumens, used for pre-baptismal anointing, is an ancient prayer of healing and asks for the renewing of soul and body. Did you ever notice the prayer actually talks about drinking the oil, although there’s no evidence that anybody drank the oil of healing as part of the baptismal rite? It’s an oil for the sick that becomes part of the pre-baptismal rites. The prayer read just prior to chrismation contains a prayer for deliverance from the workings of the devil, which certainly include sickness and death. The epistle reading, Romans 6, stresses the victory over death effected by baptism and thus places healing into an entirely new perspective.

After baptism, we experience our personal Pentecost as hands are laid upon us and we receive anointing with chrism, the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit. The destructive spirit within us has been expelled, drowned in the waters of baptism, in the colorful image of St. Cyril of Jerusalem. Now the Holy Spirit is invited to enter in and abide in the newly baptized. We become the temple of the Holy Spirit, a new creation. We are incorporated into the Church, the body of Christ, enlivened by the Spirit. We become christs—the Greek word, christos, of course, means “the anointed.” And we, the Church, become the presence of Christ in the world, charged with bringing the same healing message of Christ to the whole world.

Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you, and, lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.

Baptism, therefore, is the paradigmatic healing sacrament. Fallen humanity is recreated, our sins are forgiven, the image of God in us is restored. Real intimate communion with God, destroyed because of sin, is again made possible. The sickness and death which once ruled our lives are defeated in the sense that they, just like the cross, become a means of victory and a passage into the kingdom. The brokenness of our human existence is abolished, and we are incorporated into the Church, the body of Christ, through which we are saved. We are no longer left to live out our lives alone, to suffer and die a meaningless death. Rather, in the Church, our suffering and death become a means to victory, following in the footsteps of Christ, his death on the cross, and his resurrection. Through baptism we are healed, and we are charged to bring this healing ministry to the world around us: to our family, to our neighbor, to all whom we encounter.

While baptism and chrismation are the means by which we become members of the Church, the body of Christ, the Eucharist is the means by which this membership is realized and lived out on an ongoing basis. In fact, all the sacraments of the Church, as well as the daily and weekly cycles of prayer, have the Eucharist as their goal. We are the Church precisely when we gather together, Sunday after Sunday, to celebrate the mystery of Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection on our behalf. In the Eucharist, we not only remember these events, but we become partakers of Christ, sharing in his divine nature. It is precisely in the Eucharist that the famous fourth-century dictum of St. Athanasius becomes actual: “God became man so that man might become god.” This is the basis for the Orthodox teaching about divinization or theosis.

Humanity is created to be in communion with God, and the Eucharist is the realization of this communion. True healing, as we have already seen, is precisely the restoration of communion with God, the restoration of the proper relationship between God and humanity. Every time that we receive communion, we receive this grace of healing. As with baptism, this healing affects the entire person; with salvation, our entrance into the kingdom as its ultimate goal.

The Eucharistic liturgy contains as well numerous references to healing of both body and soul. Several of the litanies contain a petition for the sick and the suffering and for their salvation, as do the intercessions and the anaphoras of both John Chrysostom and St. Basil. Characteristic is the following excerpt from the anaphoral intercessions in the Liturgy of St. Basil.

Remember, O Lord, the people here present and also those who are absent for honorable reasons. Have mercy on them and on us according to the multitude of your mercies. Fill their treasuries with every good thing. Preserve their marriages in peace and harmony. Raise the infants, guide the young, support the aged, encourage the faint-hearted, reunite the separated, lead back those who are in error, and join them to your holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

Free those who are held captive by unclean spirits. Sail with those who sail, travel with those who travel: by land and by air. Defend the widows, protect the orphans, free the captives, heal the sick, for you, O Lord, are the helper of the helpless, the hope of the hopeless, the savior of the bestormed, the haven of the voyager, the physician of the sick.

Just before communion, each of us prays that “the communion of your holy mysteries be neither to my judgment nor to my condemnation, O Lord, but to the healing of soul and body.” In the prayer of the litany of thanksgiving after communion, from the Liturgy of St. Basil, which was until the tenth century the regular Sunday Liturgy of the Orthodox Church, though it is now used mostly during Great Lent, we hear:

We thank you, O Lord, for the participation of your holy most-pure, immortal, and heavenly mysteries, which you have granted us for the good and sanctification and healing of our souls and bodies.

In the Eucharist, therefore, we find the continuation of Christ’s healing ministry. When every Sunday we gather together in his name, Christ is present among us. He is present in the bread and the wine, which become his body and blood. He is present in his word, which is read and proclaimed. He is present in us, because we, the Church, are the body of Christ. In this way, we are all fed, restored, and healed. We recover our true identity as bearers of the image and likeness of God, in communion with the Creator. Our citizenship in God’s kingdom is affirmed, and this, as we have seen, is the true aim of all Christian healing.

While baptism and the Eucharist certainly have a privileged role in the life of the Church, they are complemented by a rich liturgical tradition consisting of sacraments and other rites, including marriage, penance, ordination, various blessings, as well as the daily, weekly, and annual cycles of prayer. This liturgical life is further enriched by the practice of personal prayer, fasting, charitable work, and by countless examples of sanctity down to our own century, as well as by numerous miraculous occurrences of all sorts, often including healings, which modern medicine cannot explain.

Every sacramental rite contains an element of healing. In the rite of marriage, for example, the earthly union celebrated in the rite of betrothal, the first part of the service, is transformed by the crowning into a mystery of the kingdom. Thus, Christian marriage becomes eternal, and as long as both parties remain faithful and united to one another and to God, not even sickness and death can break the bond which God has forged. In the sacrament of ordination, the presiding bishop lays his hand on the candidate’s head and prays:

Your grace divine which always heals that which is infirm and completes that which is wanting elevates through the laying-on of hands the most-devout candidate to be a deacon, priest, or bishop.

The sacrament of penance has as its main goal healing from sin, reconciliation with the Church, and restoration into communion. It is the continuation of the healing power of baptism, a restoration into the life of grace from which we fall because of our sins. The following prayer, recited by the priest over the head of the penitent at the conclusion of the rite, neatly summarizes this.

O Lord God of the salvation of your servants, gracious, bountiful, and long-suffering, you repent concerning our evil deeds and desire not the death of a sinner, but that he should turn from his wickedness and live. Show your mercy now upon your servant and grant him an image of repentance, forgiveness of sins, and deliverance, pardoning all his transgressions, whether voluntary or involuntary, reconcile and unite him to your holy Church, through Jesus Christ our Lord, with whom to you are due dominion and majesty, now and ever and to ages of ages. Amen.

Of course, there are hundreds of these prayers, differing from one tradition to another, but the message is the same.

Prayers for the blessing of various objects usually contain references to healing. Typical is the ending of the prayer of blessing the artos, the Paschal bread, at the conclusion of the Paschal Liturgy.

Grant that we who offer this, and those who shall kiss it and shall taste of it, may become partakers of your heavenly blessing, and by your might cast out every sickness and infirmity among us, granting health to all, for you are the fount of blessing and the bestower of health, and to you we give the glory, to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

The daily cycle of prayer is similarly replete with references to physical and spiritual illness from which we ask to be released. The six psalms of matins, chanted by a reader in a darkened church, are a plea for God’s mercy.

O Lord, rebuke me not in your anger, nor chasten me in your wrath, for your arrows have sunk into me and your hand has come down on me. There is no soundness in my flesh because of your indignation. There is no health in my bones because of my sin, for my iniquities have gone over my head; they weigh like a burden too heavy for me. My wounds grow foul and fester because of my foolishness. I am utterly bowed down and prostrate. All the day I go about, mourning, for my loins are filled with burning and there is no soundness in my flesh.

Again, every day at matins. Overwhelmed by sin, sickness, and suffering, we can only turn to God and plead for mercy. And our entreaties are answered, for soon the church is flooded with light, and in triumph we sing, “God is the Lord and has revealed himself to us.”

At vespers, we see the same themes reiterated. “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications.” And again we receive our answer as the church is illuminated and the choir chants the ancient evening hymn, “O Gladsome Light.” For God and God alone is the true source of light, joy, salvation, and healing. In this way, each day we are given the opportunity to experience both our alienation from God, which is the result of our sin, but also salvation and healing, which come as free gifts from God.

The weekly and annual cycles of feasts and fasts similarly focus on the redemption offered us through the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ. Every Sunday, the Church gathers to remember and celebrate the Resurrection, to experience already in this world the life of the kingdom. This is why so many of the Sunday gospel readings are either parables of the kingdom or accounts of miraculous healings. These are already signs of the kingdom’s presence.

The center of the Church’s year is the triumphant celebration of Pascha, which marks the victory of Christ over death and therefore our own release from slavery to sin, sickness, and death. For 40 days we never cease to sing the Paschal troparion: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.” Pascha, the victory over death, anchors the Church’s liturgy of time. We’re always either celebrating this victory, as we do in the 50-day period from Pascha to Pentecost, as well as in feasts such as the Dormition and the memorials of the saints, or preparing to do so by commemorating all the events leading up to this, beginning with the Annunciation.

Through the liturgy of time—the daily, weekly, and annual cycles of prayer—we are incorporated into salvation history. We live out our lives not as separate individuals, but as members of the body of Christ into which we are incorporated through baptism, chrismation, and the Eucharist. In this way, we transcend the brokenness, the isolation, the sickness of the fallen world. While sickness, suffering, and death certainly remain a part of our lives, their power over us is broken because they lead not to annihilation but to eternal life in the kingdom.

In addition to having a rich tradition of common liturgical prayers, the Church has always encouraged her members to pray. Jesus prayed often, and he taught his disciples to pray. Just as Jews prayed several times a day, so the early Christians developed a tradition of praying at least three times a day. According to the Didache, the earliest extant Church order, dating to the early second century, Christians are called to recite the Lord’s Prayer three times a day. In fact, it is precisely this discipline of private prayer which subsequently develops into the daily cycle of liturgical prayer: the hours and vespers and matins.

Thus, the private prayer of every individual Christian is but an extension of the prayer of the whole Church. Just as the Church gathers to pray for itself, for her members, and for the whole world, so each Christian is called to do the same. We pray for ourselves, for our families, for our neighbors, for the world around us. We pray for their individual and collective healing and salvation. Constant, persistent prayer has always been the hallmark of Christianity. “Pray without ceasing,” St. Paul tells the Thessalonians. “The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects,” St. James tells the Church. We are taught to be persistent, never to stop praying and interceding for one another. Like the Canaanite woman, we learn to keep asking, not out of pride, but in humility.

And, as with this Canaanite woman, our prayers for healing are often answered, though not always at a time or in a way that we expect. In short, every aspect of the ongoing life of the Church and her members involves an element of healing. The liturgical life expressed in the sacraments, in the daily, weekly, and annual cycles of prayer, as well as in the individual prayers of each Christian—all these are integral parts of the Church’s healing ministry in all its aspects. This is because healing is at the very center of the Church’s mission of preaching the Gospel. The paradigmatic healing sacrament is baptism, where humanity’s wounds are healed. And we Christians are called to carry out this ministry by baptizing all nations, thus making this healing ministry available to all.

Now I’d like to just say a few words if I have time about the actual sacrament of healing specifically. I will not focus on its connection with repentance, which I describe at length in my book, but rather the more human element. I mean, what happens to you and me when we get sick—I mean, seriously ill—and how does the Church deal with this?

The experience of illness and severe illness is one of alienation. I’ve already talked about alienation as the very condition of fallen human existence, but certainly when one falls into serious disease, there is this alienation that stems from the disruption of the both physical and emotional integrity of the body. The body now comes to the forefront of our consciousness. It is no longer subject to the self, but rather to an alien pathological force.

The body becomes therefore the controlling factor in life, which leads to a disruption of emotional harmony: leads to anxiety about the future, anxiety for others to whom we are responsible, and to alienation from others: physical segregation that often results from human society when a sick person is confined to bed or in a hospital or an institution, and even when a sick person who is with other persons, he or she feels lonely, because, obviously, they cannot share the same experience. The sheer physical and emotional energy which are needed for survival leaves few resources for relating to others. The sick person no longer feels anything in common with healthy people: no common sphere of existence.

And the sickness brings a shift in roles. Whatever one’s social status and function before one’s illness, now the sick person becomes totally dependent, and that’s a big deal in our society where we measure our worth by how much money we make or what position of authority or power we have in our everyday life. Of course, this radical change can lead to emotional regression, especially in cases of long-term illness: refusing to make decisions, demanding care, seeking security and maternalistic attention from healthcare providers. Again, this is going to happen to every one of us, whether we get really sick or whether we get really old. This is what’s going to happen.

So we are reduced to the status of a dependent child. The sick person can begin to doubt his or her own contribution to the lives of others, especially to those with whom they were close before. Again, in our society, it is productivity which is the measure of worth, so it can lead also to guilt. There is guilt because of guilt. There may be guilt because one may feel responsible for causing my own illness—I smoke two packs of cigarettes a day, I get lung cancer, I am somehow responsible. Ultimately, a person becomes an object rather than a subject: the object rather than the subject of their own body; the object of care and concern; the object of diagnosis and treatment, especially with our modern, very mechanical healthcare profession. In short, the sick person is depersonalized. He or she is perceived and treated as a mechanism which has broken down and needs repair, or maybe is beyond repair. In modern medicine, obviously, the quality of life is often no longer an issue, and machines can keep the heart ticking for ever, or almost forever.

One possible result is also alienation from God. A person can no longer go to church, if they went to church before. A person might blame God for his illness: “Why did you let this happen to me, or why did you cause this?” The very meaning of life can be lost, leading to total spiritual collapse. And it is precisely at this point that in our death-denying culture that the person, maybe for the first time, deals with his or her own mortality. For the first time perhaps, death becomes possible, and even imminent.

Then what does the rite of anointing of the sick do? Here again you can read my book. I’ll just summarize. It reintegrates the person into the community of the Church, with the people and with Christ. At this moment of crisis, the Church comes to the person who is undergoing this traumatic experience and stands with them. It breaks the isolation, precisely because the Church now stands with them at this moment. It reestablishes a future, because in Christ there is no death, and our physical death is not the end of our existence. It leads us to the next stage, in fact, of our life.

Indeed, the healing that is asked for in the rite may even be for the speeding of death. In the case of terminal cancer, which is where there is great pain, death is a release. Even St. Paul can talk about death as gain. In other words, death now is no longer a prison, but rather the threshold to new life.

And the rite reconciles the person and removes the guilt. That’s why the rite and the prayers read almost like confession prayers, more than they do… they pray more for healing of soul and spirit than they do for physical healing, because that’s the healing that’s really important.

And it restores a purpose to life, because that suffering is now joined to the Cross. That suffering can become a martyria, a real witness, which is a contribution to the life of the community. You’re all priests in this room. You’ve all seen the death of a good Christian. It, in fact, is a joyous event, and not tragic at all. But in any case, the suffering, which we all have to experience, is now joined to the Cross, and therefore this defeat is transformed into victory. In fact, the way in which I deal with my suffering and the way that I die is the most powerful testimony to the Christian faith. It’s no accident that in the age of martyrdom it was precisely the willing experience of martyrs in the arena that was the most powerful testimony to the truth of the Gospel and therefore led to so many conversions.

Therefore, ultimately, what the anointing of the sick does is to once more identify the person with Christ, as king, as priest, and as prophet. I will stop here and hopefully we have some time for questions. [Applause]

Fr. Joseph: We do have time for questions, but if you’re going to ask them, please come up to the microphone in the center aisle if you have any questions or comments. Yes, Fr. John?

Fr. John: Thank you. Dr. Meyendorff, as you know, from the Donatist controversy of the fourth century, the efficacy of a sacrament was distinguished from the piety of the priest. And in Acts 3, the apostles Peter and John are entering the temple at the ninth hour, they see the lame man at the beautiful gate. He is healed. Peter responds to the stunned men of Israel by saying, “Neither our power nor our piety healed this man, but the name of the Lord Jesus.” Yet, anecdotally, there seem to be so relatively few actual healings when persons draw near to be anointed in the Church, whether it be holy unction on Great and Holy Wednesday or at any other time. We can speak of healing in the spiritual sense. Why does it appear, in your reflection, that the one healing for which parishioners so desire, which is immediate physical relief, is the one healing that appears so elusive? If you could reflect on that, please.

Dr. Meyendorff: The question essentially is what people want is physical healing, and in fact they rarely get it. We have the annual rite of anointing of the sick, we have the particular rite when it is done for a particular individual or a family… First of all, miraculous healings do occur. There’s no doubt about that, and even doctors will tell you that there are healings all the time that they cannot understand. But obviously it’s clear, and I think even the text of the rite makes it clear, that, yes, it does seek for the physical healing, but that is really not the primary aim of this rite.

It’s just a reality that even if we get healed, we’re still going to get sick and die. All the people that Jesus healed, they all got sick and died again, which means that we have to understand that healing in a different way, and the way that it’s presented in the Gospel, as I tried to point out, is that it is so that they may be restored into the life of the community, so that the power of God may be made manifest in them so that the presence of the kingdom may be realized and revealed, but it does not eliminate the fact that the way into the kingdom and the way to salvation is through the Cross.

That’s one of the things that is very hard in our society, which tends to deny death and attempts to deal with suffering by giving you ever more medication, that somehow you’re going to escape that reality… The reality is that we do live in a fallen world, but it is a world that needs redemption and needs healing, but the ultimate healing and redemption is not at the level of our human understanding. I guess perhaps that’s the best way to put it.

Certainly, one of the important aspects of the healing which I think that we’ll hear more about tomorrow from John Mefrige is also healing of relationships. He will be talking tomorrow about healing between individuals, about the role of the kiss of peace, for example, or the rite of forgiveness that takes place in monasteries every day at compline. So healing here is presented, is understood, I think has to be understood precisely as reconciliation with God first of all, and reconciliation with the neighbor secondarily, and there is no way to avoid, in fact, the physical death and suffering which each one of us will have to face. The difference is: will we face it with faith and hope, meaning that that’s not the end, or will we fall into spiritual collapse and give up and therefore…?

And even when the New Testament, for example, talks about death, it’s really not talking about physical death as much as it as death as spiritual death, as total separation from God. Of course, what Christ brings to the scene is the absolute certainty that this physical death has been destroyed, it is not the enemy, and that therefore our life will continue in the kingdom even though we have to go through the Cross as he went through the Cross. We all have to face the Cross.

Q1: Doctor, nice to see you again. Thank you for your presentation.

Dr. Meyendorff: Thank you.

Q1: What is our best way to understand the use of the word “chastening, chastisement of the Lord” in the prayers of the context of the sacrament of healing? Is this is a devotional thing, or is this something that in fact God brings upon us?

Dr. Meyendorff: I think that… I mean, just judging from what I’ve seen and have experienced, it’s often precisely when something bad happens to us, when we have an accident or when we fall into sickness, that we begin to take life seriously, that we realize that maybe everything that we have been living for is in vain, perhaps, or misses the mark. So in the spiritual tradition in the life of the Fathers, they will often interpret sickness or bad things happening to people as a wake-up call, as therefore transforming something which was inherently bad—I mean, suffering, pain, is always bad—but transforming that precisely into a way by which we get woken up and begin to deal with the reality of this fallen world and realize, maybe for the first time, the need for salvation and the need to set things right.

I recommend that you all read, for example, the short novel by Tolstoy called The Death of Ivan Ilyich. It’s a great story about a provincial judge who kind of gets sick and tries to deal with… tried to understand why this is happening to him, and he goes through all the stages of denial and anger, and he just can’t understand. He’s always lived a good life; why is he now being punished for this? And then he suffers more and more. He tries all the cures; none of them work. Even the priest comes to give him communion, although he really doesn’t believe. But the pain just keeps getting worse, and he comes to the realization that the problem is not the pain in his gut, the cancer that is afflicting him, but the spiritual suffering that comes from, ultimately, the realization that everything he’s lived for is not the right thing. And it’s only when he comes to that realization that ultimately, at the end of the story, when he dies, that he finally accepts this and is reconciled to his family and ultimately also to God, and then he dies.

While it’s not correct to say that suffering is directly caused by God, nevertheless, what our spiritual tradition has done is to interpret this suffering, which comes as a result of sin and the fallenness of this world, as an opportunity, as a wake-up call, to kind of deal with issues of life and death, which we in our death-denying culture tend to sweep under the rug. In other words, it becomes something positive.

Again, in a parish, you see this all the time. You see people really undergoing deep conversion experiences on their deathbeds, sometimes at the very moment of death, something that really transforms their life and really does transform their suffering into victory.

Fr. Joseph: Fr. Elias Bitar.

Fr. Elias Bitar: When we ask for healing, always healing of body and soul, and never one apart from the other—how do we reconcile that with someone [who] is never really healed physically? Hopefully, the person is healed spiritually. And the point to the question is, when the Lord told his disciples that healing of both body and soul, receiving the Holy Spirit, whosoever sins you remit, they are remitted, whosoever sins you retain are retained—how do we interpret that? How do we make that real in the life of the faithful when they know it, they learned it, they expect it, and they live it, and the person never gets better?

Dr. Meyendorff: Well, we’ve got 200 priests in this room who can probably answer this question better than I can, but you’re absolutely correct. The Church sees healing as both bodily and spiritual. However, when we ask for something, we don’t always get what we want. It’s always on God’s terms; it’s not on our terms. We really don’t know. What we do know is that ultimately, in the Resurrection, we will all be raised and fully healed, body and soul. That is the certainty that we as Christians have. What happens in the meantime is… Even Jesus prayed that this cup be taken from him, and yet he willingly goes and suffers and dies. If Jesus, who is our model and through whom we are incorporated, accepts this, then that means that we are called to accept this as well.

We always pray for healing, both bodily and spiritual, and that healing is not always granted, as we all know, especially in the case of spiritual healing. Even the prayer of absolution that is recited at the conclusion is a petition that God forgive the person insofar as they are repentant, but that’s a two-way thing. God grants the forgiveness, but we have to seek it and want it, and there are times when we are perfectly happy to wallow in our sins. We are addicted to certain sinful behavior patterns, and so we keep trying, we keep praying. Of course, this ministry of healing is one that is given through the Church, whether in the case of confession or in the case of anointing of the sick and so on; it’s a ministry of the Church which is therefore a ministry of Christ to the world, but we are free human beings, which means that we are free to reject that as well, and that is the reality of this world.

Q2: Isn’t it also true, Paul and brothers, that we have to really, when this kind of discussion comes, we really have to discern the difference between a cure and healing. A person may not be cured, but he can certainly be healed by God in his relationship to God. I mean, we do pray for soul and body in a particular malady, a particular sickness, and so on, but is there anybody here who doesn’t know that we’re going to die? Yes, we all know that. That doesn’t mean that God will not forgive us. It doesn’t mean that we’re not reconciled to God. We talked about that the first night that we were here. Cure and healing are two different things. As Paul’s presenting it in liturgical theology and as Ι did, pastoral, and even from our surgeon speaker, from Dn. Luke—we have to be mature enough to see that these are the differences that we have to teach, in fact, to people.

When you come to anoint, of course everybody wants to be healed. Paul, thank you for a great and profound talk. But I think the most important thing in all of that is the recognition that God will heal us through the Cross and the Resurrection. In the end, that’s what we have. David, please come up to the microphone.

David: Teach about God’s providence. He knows the number of hairs that we have. For me it’s become a bit easier. So we begin to deal with the statement that says, “It was God’s appointed time,” or “It wasn’t God’s appointed time.” Can you help us deal with that question or that statement? A 21-year-old daughter dies of cancer, an 80-year-old person says, “I’ve been healed.”

Dr. Meyendorff: I’m afraid I don’t have the answer to that question. I had my son, when he was a month old, had a neuroblastoma. He had cancer, he had surgery, radiation, and now, thanks be to God, he is fine. And, like you say, there are old people that get healed and young people that don’t. Fr. Schmemann actually, in his memoirs, if you’ve had a chance to read them, refers to what happened to my son when that happened, and his answer was: I don’t know. I really cannot understand how an innocent one-month-old child can undergo the suffering that he had to undergo. There is no answer, but that’s precisely why we need the Church, why we need the community of the Church in which we can live in this fallen world with the hope of salvation. And we do it as a Church.

It’s interesting, by the way, that the sacrament of the anointing of the sick calls for seven presbyters. I didn’t talk about that. Obviously, that points to the passage from James about calling together the presbyters of the Church. He doesn’t say seven; seven is kind of a symbolic number, representing fullness. The meaning behind this, though, is that precisely when an individual becomes ill, the entire Church comes to them, surrounds them. So in my book, what I propose, by the way, is that this ministry to the sick be an integral part of parish life, and that there should be parish organizations whose particular ministry is to visit the sick, to organize these services, to bring the shut-ins to the church on Sundays, to visit nursing homes and hospitals, and to organize anointing services where appropriate, and that this ministry belongs precisely to the Church and not just to the priest.

You as the priests have as your ministry to enable all the faithful to exercise their priestly ministry, which is to bring that love and that healing that Christ offers into their world in which they live: their families, their workplaces, and to society as a whole. So if it’s just you as a priest, the only one visiting the sick, then you’re not doing your job. It really is ecclesial, and it’s very important.

Q3: A practical question. I don’t know if there’s any specific answer to give; maybe just your thoughts. If we have folks that have long-term, serious illnesses, maybe in the hospital, although it’s not common to be in the hospital for months, but that happens, or nursing homes or whatever, and we go see them pretty often, bringing them the Eucharist, and we’re generally going to have a bottle of holy oil in our bag—is there any kind of recommendation from others, how often should we be anointing people? Obviously, when the situation starts, but then do we just wait a long time? Just curious, just wondering.

Dr. Meyendorff: I know that there are some parishes and deaneries, even, that will have… I’m sorry. The question is: how often should the anointing service be performed in the case of people who are long-term ill, ill in the long-term, who are in a nursing home or convalescent home or so on? There is no rule for it. I know that in the very scholastic period, Peter Mogila in Russia, it was one anointing for one disease; if you get better, then you could get anointed. [Laughter] Or, actually, what happened in Russian practice, unfortunately, anointing, as a result of Western influence, became extreme unction. It became something that you do at the moment of death, which basically made the priest the Grim Reaper; he shows up with a bottle of oil, dressed in black, and you can see the message… [Laughter] But obviously, we’ve gone beyond that.

There is no kind of rule for the frequency. I know that in some deaneries or parishes they will have a monthly anointing service, where several parishes will get together, either in a nursing home or, if they can bring people into the church, do it in the church, and then bring as many parishioners as possible there to participate in that. By the way, the tradition is that everyone who’s there can be anointed at the service. In my book I describe the practice in eleventh-century Byzantium, and the rite… not only everybody present was anointed, but the house in which the rite was performed: the doors, the windows, and the whole family of the sick person as well as anyone who was there, which again shows to the fact, points to the fact that sickness and healing doesn’t just affect the individual; it affects everybody. It affects the family; it affects the whole Church. So when one member is ill, the whole body suffers, in the language of St. Paul. And this applies as much to sin as it does to illness.

There’s no rule, but often is good. There is no reason why you can’t do it on a regular basis. Monthly is kind of commonly done. You could do it quarterly. It really depends on local circumstances.

Q4: In your talk, you mentioned one of the main aspects of the sacrament is to make the Church present to the person, to stand with this person. Now I know the grace of God is not limited to a person’s understanding, but how is this aspect of the sacrament manifested, say, if the person is unconscious, unresponsive, or if it’s a very young child? They don’t understand the whole process of the Church standing with them. How do we manifest that? How is that revealed to them?

Dr. Meyendorff: I think a person being unconscious should be no obstacle whatsoever to performing the rite. I know plenty of adults who are in perfectly good health who are unconscious. [Laughter] If we use that as a criterion for celebrating the sacraments, we’d be in pretty bad shape.

Q5: Just a comment, Fr. Michael Nasser and I were looking up the word for “cure” in Greek, and there’s many definitions. Origen, On Principles, he wrote that curing and healing, the definition is by accepting suffering you are healed or cured. So just food for thought.

Q1: Add that to your analogy of Ivan Ilyich. When he died, Tolstoy said he fell into the light.

Dr. Meyendorff: Yep.

Q1: If you read the text, it’s like… You never thought it would get to that point, but he dies. He suffers, he dies, and he falls into the light. It’s beautifully said. Go ahead, Father; I’m sorry.

Q6: Yes, thank you. Dr. Meyendorff, thank you. You mentioned about the frequency of celebrating this mystery. A couple of facts I think might be helpful. Perhaps you can comment further. The facts I have on hand are that the service, as given in the book, tends to be a little bit intimidating because it’s made up of a matins and the mystery, if you will. The prayers themselves have grown, and many people feel that the parentheses part must be said. As I’ve discussed with several priests, it really, under certain circumstances, with pastoral discretion, that mystery is rather portable is my point. Perhaps you’d like to comment on that, to follow up on the frequency issue, because I think it would help.

Dr. Meyendorff: Okay, the question is… I’ll repeat the question. The question is: the service is rather long, with the seven epistles, seven gospels, seven priests. I mean, if you do it in its entirety, it is somewhat intimidating. Yes, the full rite, which calls for seven priests, and at one time it called not only for seven priests, but it was supposed to be done seven days in a row with the Eucharistic Liturgy at each one. The epistles and the gospels in the reading are remnants of when it was part of the Eucharistic Liturgy, done seven consecutive days. Talk about intimidating. [Laughter]

Obviously, you’ve got, just like in the case of the Typikon, you’ve got the rule and then you’ve got what you actually do. In fact, there’s plenty of evidence of abbreviated forms of the rite, and if you look at the book that I wrote, I give not only the full text but also one example of an abbreviated rite, where you have only one epistle and one gospel and only some of the prayers. In other words, a rite that can be done in a hospital setting, in a half-hour or less. Then the full rite, which presumes… which is normally done in a church with seven presbyters and so on, that’s when you would precisely get a deanery together, a group of parishes and periodically have the full rite.

But there [are] plenty of examples, even in the manuscript tradition and in the service books, of abbreviated forms of that rite, just as we do an abbreviated form of vespers and matins. That orthros you did this morning, if you did it according to the Typikon, would have lasted three hours. So the Church has always adopted to the… keeping the essential, obviously. The purpose of the rite is not to get seven priests together and to stay there for three hours, although there is some importance to that. It’s not just “a little dab’ll do you.” [Laughter]

You actually go, and you go and you spend time with them. That’s why our Eucharistic Liturgy is not just 15 minutes or 20 minutes like you can have in the Latin rite with the Low Mass; it’s an hour, hour-and-a-half, two hours. If you go to Russia, it’s three hours. Time spent together in a liturgical way is certainly important, but obviously the guiding principle has to be what is appropriate for the time and the place.

Fr. Joseph: Dn. Luke?

Dn. Luke Stauffer: In your book you talk about the blessed oil in ancient practices being distributed to the people of the Church to be used in their homes, sometimes even in cooking. Can you comment on that and what the current practice would be on that?

Dr. Meyendorff: Well, oil was the aspirant of the ancient world, and even today many medicines are called “ointments” because they are a form, in fact, of anointing. The practice of anointing the sick is something that pre-dates Christianity. The difference for Christians is the prayer and connecting that with Christ and what Christ does by becoming incarnate, dying, and rising, and bringing healing to the world. Even anointing of the sick originates as a private, domestic ritual which in a Christian home would be given a Christian understanding and a Christian context.

This develops historically first of all into a liturgical, properly liturgical, rite of anointing of the sick. In the West, for example, only a bishop could bless the oil for the sick, just as is the case with us for chrism. Well, in the West it was also the oil of the sick. In the East it was blessed at the occasion and therefore by the presbyter who would be performing the rite. But alongside this, continued and continues today, the tradition of people anointing themselves with oil. It’s still very common for oil that comes, streams, from myrrh-gushing icons or relics or oil that has burned before a lamp, for example, of St. Panteleimon, who is the great saint of healing, that pious people would keep in their homes and would use to anoint themselves.

I remember when I had a 104 fever one time. My grandmother anointed me with oil from an icon, a vigil light burning in front of an icon of St. Panteleimon, and in half an hour my fever was broken. Is this a miraculous healing or is this going to happen anyway? I leave [that] up to you. Nevertheless, in popular piety, there is and continues in traditionally Orthodox countries, the use of anointing together with prayer. It’s never just oil. Oil is not some kind of magical substance. It’s always connected with prayer, with intercessory prayer, prayers of forgiveness, and prayers seeking healing of body and soul. Both strands continue.

My book focuses primarily on the liturgical and therefore ecclesial rite of anointing of the sick, but it has always existed alongside this actually more primitive tradition. That’s what all the sacraments do, don’t they? They take something that is basically human—meals, washing, and so on—and turn them into liturgical acts of the Church, which give them greater meaning precisely in the context of the Church.

Fr. Joseph: Any other questions? Paul, thank you very much for that. [Applause]

Dr. Meyendorff: Thank you very much. Thank you.


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