In the Orthodox Christian understanding of a healthy life, both spiritual and physical healing have long been considered complimentary. This begs the question: can we truly be healthy if we focus primarily – or even exclusively – on the physical aspect of health? This is not to say that physical wellbeing is not important. There is a long tradition of the Orthodox Church promoting physical health, from St. Luke the Evangelist serving as a physician to St. Basil establishing an infirmary. This year, on the Feast of the Holy Unmercenaries Sts. Cosmas and Damian, we are reminded that the Orthodox Church has played a central role in health and medicine throughout history. We learn, however, that the health of the soul has often been viewed as superior to the health of the body. The only way we are fully healed is through prayer as well as application of medical science, as shown through the example of Sts. Cosmas and Damian.
Brothers Sts. Cosmas and Damian were given the gift of healing by God, inspiring them to travel around and treat individuals suffering from various ailments. Called unmercenaries because they refused to accept payment for their services, the brothers told the infirm, “it is not by our own power that we treat you, but by the power of Christ, the true God. Believe in Him and be healed.” This generosity and compassion for their fellow man set the standard for how we as Christians are to aid the suffering and demonstrate the approach to becoming a healthy person. As unmercenaries, Sts. Cosmas and Damian sought a joint effort to unselfishly assist others in need and love those around them. While they were given the physical tools to heal, they reminded the faithful that only through faith in God could a person be truly and fully healed.
St. Basil articulates the Orthodox standard for medicine and health: “The medical art has been vouchsafed (granted to) us by God, who directs our whole life, as a model for the cure of the soul.” As Orthodox Christians, we believe that life is a gift from God, and it is our duty to both protect and enhance it. This must be done through spirituality and medicine, with both positively impacting the physical health of all. Sickness is associated with original sin, thus demonstrating man’s disharmonious relationship with God and reflecting the need to address both spiritual and physical ailments. How do we know that spiritual healing encompasses yet surpasses physical? In the Epistle of St. James, St. James articulates: “Is there any one among you suffering? Let him pray ... Is any among you sick? Let him call for the presbyters of the Church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven” (James 4:13-15).
Struggling with our physical illnesses, while maintaining faith, is essential to our development as persons. During this process, we strive for the courage to acknowledge our mortality and also recognize that suffering (spiritual, mental, and physical) is part of our salvific journey in Christ. Only through Christ can we achieve the fullness of health, both in body and soul.
Anthony Balouris is a Fellow at the UN for the Department of Inter-Orthodox, Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (un.goarch.org)
The Archdiocese is an accredited Non-Governmental Organization at the United Nations through the Department of Public Information (UN DPI) and has General Consultative Status under the Economic and Social Council of the UN (ESOSCO). It has been actively working at the UN for 30 years.