Re-post from 2013
“The person who truly wishes to be healed is he who does not refuse treatment. This treatment consists of the pain and distress brought on by various misfortunes. He who refuses them does not realize what they accomplish in this world or what he will gain from them when he departs this life.”
~ St. Maximus the Confessor
When I first read this quote many years ago in the Philokalia, I was just plain puzzled. My immediate thought was, “Isn’t healing meant to take away pain? How are pain and distress a remedy?”
Then as I read and re-read Maximus’ treasure-laden Centuries on Charity — which is largely about how to engage in the “unseen combat” of cultivating virtue and starving out vice — it dawned on me that the “goal” of inner healing in Christian thinking is not some vague and painless pacific oasis, but rather the restoration of our original capacity to love without measure in the midst of an unloving world. It reminded me of something my “soteriology” (the study of salvation) class Instructor had said while I was in grad school (I am so happy I saved my chicken-scratch notes!):
The Council of Trent, in defining the effects of Baptism in the soul, said that, although sacramental grace removes most of the destructive effects of Original Sin, it leaves behind one great spiritual wound: concupiscence, which is aptly called the fomes peccati or “the tinder for sin.” Concupiscence is that tendency toward evil and self-destruction, and all of us — this side of Paradise — will retain its effects more or less. Why did God leave it? Why not just take it away? Trent gives a fascinating answer: God leaves concupiscence in the soul “for the sake of the battle,” that we might participate freely, and so through great struggle and effort, in our own redemption. As St. Augustine had said, Deus, qui te fecit sine te, non te iustificat sine te, “God, who created you without you will not justify you without you” — so the Council affirmed that God’s gift of freedom to His creature requires that His creature exercise that freedom … and in a fallen world freedom means struggle, hardship, endurance, agony…
My personal experience accords with this. Any psychological or spiritual healing that has happened in my life, that has had and lasting effect (and was not just a temporary release of pressure), has only caught traction in the form of rugged virtues, e.g. patience, mercy, chastity, trust, courage, charity. And traction is only gained by me, or confirmed in me, through the mediation of “pain and distress.” Not that I like this! But…only struggling makes me able to freely own the “call to wholeness” offered to me by Jesus. Making it my own, for me, has meant having “forged under fire” the free and repeated choices that alone can make my new virtuous dispositions firm, fierce and rooted in me as character. The Spirit “driving me into the desert” (cf. Mark 1:12) to struggle with my struggles has shown itself again and again to be the divine Physician’s finest salve and most effective treatment.
Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer helpfully argues that, though grace may be offered to us by God without cost (what he calls “cheap grace”), grace is only received into us unto salvation at great cost (what he calls “costly grace”). Receiving the life of God ultimately means death to self, as those who receive must then give away all they receive. As Fr. Tom Hoko says it, “It’s better in Christianity to not talk of salvation as healing — though that’s there — but instead to talk of salvation as death and resurrection. We are healed through death into resurrection. To live, you have to die to all your selfishness; let go of all you cling to, and give it all away to God before you can receive any of it back. Because for us healing doesn’t just flow out of the open side of the dead Christ hanging on the Cross — it invites to join Him on that Cross and with Him to die and be buried before we rise again…”
This is what the early desert monks called áskēsis, from which we get the word asceticism. It means training through struggle or combat, and for the monks mostly meant working the theological and cardinal virtues and countering the eight deadly passions. And ascetic struggle was always understood to be the indispensable flip side of any pursuit of mysticism. For orthodox Christians there can be no cool-breeze mysticism apart from hot-sweaty asceticism. Mystics apart from ascetics produce, as Fr. Hopko also said, “Mist, I and schism.”
After thinking long on Maximus’ quote, I went to Mass one day and later wrote:
Even the Blessed Sacrament — the “Medicine of Immortality” — that we eat and drink comes from the life-giving “pain and distress” of Christ on the Cross — the Wounded Healer — who only made this Bread from Heaven perfect through suffering. Perfect, meaning capable of empowering me to love.
Each day is a new step toward this healing. And every morning I make St. Francis’ deathbed words mine,
Let us begin again now, for up until now we have done nothing.