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When Sickness Heals Sickness: The Podvig of Illness Healing the Illness of Egocentricity

February 10, 2013

Christ the HealerPodvig is a Russian term that is used to describe struggle, ascesis, and quite literally, hard work that become spiritual offerings by virtue of the orientation of the soul from self to God.  In the previous posts concerning egocentricity, Elder Sophrony noted that harmful self-love can be overcome only through much struggle and effort.  According to Saint Theophan the Recluse, “all the saints accept the only true path to virtue to be pain and hard work… lightness and ease are a sign of a false path. Anyone who is not struggling, not in podvig, is in prelest” [spiritual delusion] (The Path to Salvation, p. 209). One can add that anyone not struggling for virtue is under the deluding influence of egocentricity that prevents the sufferer from seeing God and neighbor and philautia that prevents the wretched soul from genuinely loving them as well.

The terrible struggles involved in physical illnesses and ailments can also be understood in terms of podvigs as long as those experiencing such illnesses and ailments perceive them as being allowed by God’s loving providence for their own purification and illumination. And this perception can only come through a conscious and heroic act of will to move beyond the orbit of self. Fr. John Krestiankin, in his letters to laypeople, writes, “While our illnesses, yours and mine, should not upset us, for we have already gone out into the final frontier; our podvig of labors is already over; it is left for us only to bear the podvig of illness. I think that this is the most valuable and promising spiritual labor, for nothing humbles a person like sickness.  Now we truly stand before the Lord like babes, with the awareness that we and all of ours are in God’s hands. We stretch out our hands to Him, our hearts cry out only to Him, and no ambition or pridefulness about this podvig can stick to us. How good and saving this is!”  When we are physically ill or incapacitated, we are forced to confront our own weakness and helplessness. In such instances, we are no longer capable of doing ordinary things for ourselves. We are dependent on others who have their own lives to lead and we feel as though we are on the periphery, not in the center. This is painfully crushing for the ego, which finds itself at a crossroads: should it rebel with even more vehement egocentric demands or humbly accept life on its own difficult terms. Often, people try both approaches. Blessed are those who willingly allow their ego to be humbled, for then the nous awakens and turns to the only One it can: it turns to God in prayer, in hope, and in love.

The notion of illness as podvig could be most beneficial for us if we look at our spiritual state in this way, for indeed, we are spiritually ill and without care from those physicians and nurses in the Hospital of the Church we would be lost, exposed, and in danger of spiritual death. If we were able to keep this notion of our illness and our dependency in the recesses of our heart, we would be more inclined to call upon the most Holy Name of Christ in humility and repentance.  The recollection of our own spiritual illness would assist us in the continual remembrance of God throughout the day.  This notion is found in the teachings of Elder Sophrony and explained by Archimandrite Zacharias, “Two abysses lie before us:  the depth of the mercy and love of God shown by His Cross to which we join ourselves by voluntarily mourning  over our transgressions, and the depth of the fallen state in which we find ourselves.  Both lead us to intensify our cry to God, in the way of all righteous souls, and grace comes to our help and strengthens us, for it bears within itself the seed of eternal life.  This seed and the consolation that accompanies it inspire us to undertake an awesome struggle with the darkness that we have discovered within ourselves, until it is all ‘swallowed up by life’ (2 Cor. 5:4). We stand constrained by the abyss of the love of Christ, the Cross and the grace of His Resurrection on the one hand, and the abyss of our fall on the other hand.  The abyss of our fall cries to the abyss of the mercy of the love of Christ (cf. Ps. 42:7) and if we acquire this two-fold vision in our life, we will never cease to be inspired day and night.”

Illness, physical and spiritual, can be therapeutic instruments for healing us of the ills of our egocentricity if we choose to embrace them as a podvig. But this is only be possible if we are prepared to glorify God for all things, the joys and the sorrows. When we treat illness as a podvig we are echoing the words of Saint Paul to the Romans, “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” And such podvigs give life a deep sense of purpose that frivolous egocentricity never can and never will.

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