BODILY SICKNESS, THE RESULT of sinfulness, is inextricably intertwined in human life. Part of the mission of the Apostles and of the Church is the liberation of the children of the Kingdom from the bondage to sickness, sin, and death which is a consequence of the Fall. So it was that the Apostles “went out, and preached that men should repent. And they cast out manydevils, and anointed with oil many that were sick, and healed them”(Mark 6:12-13). This mission of healing was clearly, understood by the Apostles, as the Epistle of James witnesses: “Is any sickamong you? Let him call for the elders of the Church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord: and the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shallraise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him”(Jas. 5:14-15).
The Church continues this mission of healing in the Mystery of Holy Unction — so called from the anointing with blessed oil. In it, our Lord, our Physician and Healer, ministers to thewholeperson healing, forgiving, and purifying. While the effects of topical medicine, the technological treatment of some acute manifestation of human disease, may in some cases be impressive, such treatmentneverministers to the real problem — to the total sickness of the patient, which arises from his state of fallenness and separation from his Creator. Let this not be misunderstood: Holy Scripture teaches quite clearly that there is no necessary connection between a specific sin and a specific illness; but with equal clarity it teaches that our subjection to sickness arises from our fallen state and our sinfulnessas a race. For true healing to occur, it is necessary that the “treatment”respond to the total condition of the sick man, a condition which originates and is centered in his spiritual disease. If we rely on human wisdom for our well-being, we can reasonably expect simply to go from one sickness to the next — for what human wisdom perceives as sickness is merely the symptomatic manifestation of the real problem. But if we turn to our Lord for healing, throwing ourselves upon His mercy and submitting ourselves in faith to His Body, we can be quite confident that, even if the superficial manifestations of our disease continue, the real problem is being treated and that its outcome in our lives will be in accordance with His will and purpose.
This should not be construed as a rejection of medical intervention and treatment. But such treatment is not complete unless it is sought in the context of prayerful submission of ourselves to the ministrations of the Holy Spirit. In His love for His people, our Lord has provided in the Church the means for true, total healing. This healing begins at the heart of the problem, in the core of our being; habitual, chronic symptoms may linger on even after healing has begun, annoying and disheartening us in the weakness of our faith.
In obedience to the example and direction of the Apostles, the Church continues to respond to illness with the Mystery of Holy Unction. While Holy Unction may be administered for any serious illness, and as many times as needed for an individual, usually it is given only once for any one illness. Our first response to awareness of our sickness should be to turn to the Body of Christ for healing, seeking the “prayer of faith” which will “save the sickman.” For Orthodox Christians, the Mystery of Unction is the obvious response. We must be wary of a counterfeit form of ‘spiritual healing’ which arises from an immature (or even demonic) spirituality separated from the one Body of Christ. Spectacular healings of superficial symptoms of the inner sickness of man may arise in this context, with the result that those so “healed,” like so many of the patients of human medicine, search no further and remain victims of their true inner sickness.
The Church does not take this Mystery lightly. In its full form it should be performed by seven priests, but it may be performed by only several or by just one priest. Seven selections from the Epistles and seven from the Gospels are read, accompanied by seven lengthy prayers for healing, forgiveness and restoration of the sick person. Seven times he is anointed with blessed oil mixed with wine. At the conclusion of the anointings, a prayer for the healing and forgiveness of the supplicant is said while the Gospel-book is laid upon his head in blessing. Throughout the rite, there are sung Psalms and hymns which speak of our own fallen state, our weakness and need for the Lord’s mercy — and of our assurance that Grace is poured out upon us by our loving God.
This ministration of the Church is a source not of mere bodily healing. To wish and seek mere physical well-being is to declare ourselves children of this world. It is a corruption of our Christian understanding to see in our sickness divine punishment for our sinfulness — but its presence in our lives is allowed that we may become more deeply aware of our true inner sickness/sinfulness and more readily seek genuine restoration to oneness with our Lord and Creator.