Saint Syncletice also said: if you are troubled by illness, do not be melancholy, even if you are so ill that you cannot stand to pray or use your voice to say psalms. We need these tribulations to destroy the desires of our body—in this they serve the same purpose as fasting and austerity. If your senses are dulled by illness, you do not need to fast. In the same way that a powerful medicine cures an illness, so illness itself is a medicine to cure passion.
Perhaps one of the most wonderful things about the desert fathers (or mothers, as the case may be) is their seemingly counterintuitive wisdom. Does your life lack meaning? Maybe you should think about death more often. Need to learn patience? Maybe you need more annoying people in your life. Feeling sick? That’s good medicine. Indeed, St. Syncletice goes on to say that “there is much profit in bearing illness quietly and giving thanks to God.” Headache? Thanks God. Fever? Thanks God. Queasy stomach? Thanks God.
Currently, our whole family is sick. I’m sick; Brendan’s sick; Kelly is getting sick. It’s nothing too severe, just an annoying cold. (Not too much to be thankful about, I suppose.) But it is bothersome. We are all drained. Brendan is crabby. I’m sore.
But I would be mistaken if I did not give thanks. Being sick helps me to accept simple, easy-to-digest food and be thankful just to have something warm to eat. Being sick makes everything require extra effort, extra intention. It is much more difficult to coast through everyday activities, failing to appreciate them for what they are.
In addition, I am blessed to have a job where I can work at home when I am sick. So being sick means more time with Kelly and Brendan, which in itself is medicine to my soul.
It seems that every year I catch something during the Advent fast. I actually really love fasting, so sayings like this are actually very comforting: “If your senses are dulled by illness, you do not need to fast.” When you are sick, your sickness is your fast. Don’t worry if that soup has beef in it; you need it to get better, and your body is tired enough.
Indeed, there is something spiritually medicinal about illness. When our bodily senses are dulled, we are more attune to our spiritual life. When I am more severely ill—in bed all day with a fever, for example—I can do little else than pray when I’m awake. The suffering of the body heightens our focus on the life of the soul. Certainly, we ought also to give thanks when we get well; health is a wonderful blessing too. But it is important to remember the words of the Apostle Paul: “in everything give thanks, for this is the will of God for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). Every life circumstance, no matter how hard or tragic, can be used for our good. This does not make them any less hard or tragic, but it does give us reason to give thanks.
As the Akathist of Thanksgiving by Protopresbyter Gregory Petrov (written shortly before his death in a Siberian prison camp) puts it:
Glory to Thee for calling me into being
Glory to Thee, showing me the beauty of the universe
Glory to Thee, spreading out before me heaven and earth
Like the pages in a book of eternal wisdom
Glory to Thee for Thine eternity in this fleeting world
Glory to Thee for Thy mercies, seen and unseen
Glory to Thee through every sigh of my sorrow
Glory to Thee for every step of my life’s journey
For every moment of glory
Glory to Thee, O God, from age to age
Glory to God for all things!