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An Excerpt from Wounded By Love: The Life and Wisdom of Elder Porphyrios

On Illness

I feel illness as the love of Christ
‘My Christ, Your love knows no limits!’

I thank God for granting me many illnesses. [1] I often say to Him: ‘My Christ, Your love knows no limits!’ How I am alive is a miracle. Among all my other illnesses I also have cancer of the pituitary gland. A tumour appeared there which has grown and presses against the optic nerve. That’s why I don’t see any more. I am in dreadful pain. But I pray, taking up the Cross of Christ with patience. Have you seen what my tongue is like? It has grown; it’s not as it used to be. That’s also a result of the cancer I’ve got in my head. And as time goes on, things will get worse. It will grow even more and I’ll have difficulty in speaking. I’m in great pain, but my illness is something very beautiful. I feel it as the love of Christ. I am given compunction and I give thanks to God. It is on account of my sins. I am sinful and God is trying to purify me.

When I was sixteen years old I asked God to give me a serious illness, a cancer, so that I would suffer for His love and glorify Him through my pain. I made this prayer for a long time. But my elder told me that this was egotism and that I was coercing God. God knows what He is doing. So I didn’t continue with this prayer. But, you see, God did not forget my request and He gave me this benefaction after so many years!

Now I do not pray for God to take away from me the thing I asked Him for. I am glad that I have it so that I can participate in His sufferings through my great love. I have the chastisement of God: For the Lord chastises the one he loves. [2] My illness is a special favour from God, who is inviting me to enter into the mystery of His love and to try to respond with His own grace. But I am not worthy. You’ll say to me, ‘Don’t all these things that God reveals to you make you worthy?’ These rather condemn me. Because these are things that belong to the grace of God. There is nothing of my own. God gave me many gifts, but I did not respond; I proved myself unworthy. But I have not abandoned my efforts, not even for a moment. Perhaps God will give me His help so that I can give myself to His love.

That’s why I do not pray for God to make me well. I pray for Him to make me good. I’m certain that God knows that I am in pain. But I pray for my soul, for God to forgive my transgressions. I am not taking medicines, nor did I go for surgery, not even for tests, and nor will I accept surgery. I will leave God to sort things out. The only thing I do is to try to become good. This is what I ask you to pray for me. The grace of God sustains me. I try to give myself to Christ, to approach Christ and to be one with Christ. This is what I desire, but I haven’t succeeded ? and I don’t say this out of humility. But I don’t lose my courage. I persevere. I pray for God to forgive my sins. I’ve heard many people saying, ‘I’m unable to pray.’ I haven’t suffered this. Only on the day that I was disobedient on the Holy Mountain did I suffer that.

It doesn’t concern me how long I will live or whether I will live. That is something I have left to God’s love. It often happens that you don’t want to remember death. It’s because you desire life. That, from one point of view, is a proof of the immortality of the soul. But whether we live, or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. [3] Death is a bridge which will lead us to Christ. As soon as we close our eyes, we will open them on eternity. We will appear before Christ. In the next life we will experience the grace of God more intensely.

I felt great joy at the thought that I would meet the Lord

Once I came to the point of death. I had suffered severe perforation of the stomach as a result of the steroids I was given in hospital when I went for an operation on my eye ? which I lost in the end. At that time I was living in a little hut; the monastery had not yet been built. I was so exhausted that I didn’t know whether it was day or night. I came to the point of death and yet I survived. I lost a lot of weight and had no appetite. For three months I survived with three spoons of milk a day. I was saved by a goat!

I lived with the thought of leaving this world. I felt great joy at the thought that I would meet the Lord. I had a very deep sense of the presence of God. And God desired at that time to strengthen and comfort me with something very blessed. Every so often I would feel that my soul was about to depart. I saw in the sky a star which twinkled and emitted sweet rays of light. It was bright and very sweet. It was so beautiful! Its light possessed a great sweetness. Its colour was a light sky blue, like a diamond, like a precious stone. Whenever I saw it I was filled with comfort and joy because I felt that the whole Church ? the Triune Godhead, our Lady, the angels and the saints ? was contained in that star. I had the sense that in it were contained all the souls of all my loved ones, of my elders. I believed that when I would leave this life I, too, would go to that star through the love of God, not through my virtues. I wanted to believe that God, who loves me, revealed it to me in order to tell me, ‘I’m waiting for you!’

I didn’t want to think about hell and about tollgates. [4] I didn’t remember my sins, although I had many. I set them aside. I remembered only the love of God and was glad. And I made entreaty, ‘O my God, for the sake of your love, may I also be there. But if on account of my sins I must go to hell, may your love place me wherever it wishes. It is sufficient for me to be with You.’ For so many years I lived in the desert with love for Christ. I said to myself: ‘If you go to heaven and God says to you, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe? [5] What do you want here?” I’ll reply, “Whatever You want, my Lord, whatever Your love desires; place me wherever Your love wishes. I abandon myself to Your love. If You want to place me in hell, then do so, only don’t let me lose Your love.”’

I had an acute sense of my sinfulness, and that’s why I constantly repeated to myself the prayer of Saint Symeon the New Theologian:

I know, Saviour, that none other
has, as I have, sinned against You,
nor done the deeds that I have done.
But this again I surely know:
neither magnitude of errors,
nor multitude of transgressions,
can surpass my God’s great patience
and His love for man unbounded.
[6]

What the prayer says are not our own words. We are unable to conceive and express such words. They were written by saints. But our soul needs to embrace these words written by the saints and to sense and experience them. I also like the other words of the prayer:

Neither tears shed in my weeping
nor the slightest falling tearlet,
O my God, escapes Your notice,
O my Maker, my Redeemer.

And my work yet unaccomplished
is to Your eyes already known
and all the things I’ve not yet done
are for You already written,
in Your book already entered.

Look down on my humbled being
look on my so great contrition
and forgive me my transgressions,
all my sins, O God of all things...

I repeated this prayer continually and intensely to escape from these thoughts. The more I repeated it, the more, up in the infinity of space, appeared the star, my comfort. It came all these days that I was suffering. And when it appeared, my soul took wings and I said to myself: ‘My star has come!’ It felt as if it were drawing me up from the earth towards it. I felt great joy when I saw it. I didn’t want to think of my sins, as I’ve said, because these would exclude me from this mystery. Only once, once only, did I sense that the star was empty, it wasn’t twinkling, it wasn’t full. I realized what it was. It was from the ‘contrary one’. I ignored him, and turned my mind elsewhere. I spoke to my sister about some jobs that were to be done. After a while I saw it shining brightly again. Joy came again even more intensely within me.

All that time I had fearful pains throughout my body. Other people saw that I was dying. I had given myself over to the love of God. I did not pray to be released from the pains. My desire was for God to have mercy on me. I had leant on Him, and I waited for His grace to work. I was not afraid of death. For I would go to Christ. As I’ve told you, I repeated constantly the prayer of Saint Symeon the New Theologian, but not in a selfish spirit, and not for my health to be restored. I sensed every single word of the prayer.

The secret in illness is to struggle to acquire the grace of God

We benefit greatly from our illnesses, as long as we endure them without complaint and glorify God, asking for His mercy. When we become ill, the important thing is not that we don’t take medicines or that we go and pray to Saint Nektarios. We need also to know the other secret, namely, to struggle to acquire the grace of God. This is the secret. Grace will teach us all the other things, namely, how to abandon ourselves to Christ. That is, we ignore the illness, we do not think about it, we think about Christ, simply, imperceptibly and selflessly and God works His miracle for the good of our soul. Just as we say in the Divine Liturgy, ‘we commend all our life to Christ our God.’

But we need to wish to ignore the illness. If we don’t wish to, it’s difficult. We can’t simply say, ‘I ignore it’. And so although we think that we are ignoring it and giving no thought to it, in point of fact we have it in our mind continually and we cannot find peace within ourselves. Let me prove this to you. We say: ‘I believe that God will cure me. I won’t take any medicine. I’ll stay awake all night and I’ll pray to God about it and He will hear me.’ We pray all night long, we make entreaty, we call on and coerce God and all the saints to make us well. We go to one place and another. With all these things don’t we show that we are far from ignoring the illness? The more we insist and blackmail the saints and God to make us well, the more acutely we feel our illness. The more we strive to get rid of it, the more we feel it. And so we achieve nothing. And we have the impression that a miracle will happen, and yet, in reality, we don’t believe it, and so we do not become better.

We pray and we don’t take medicine, but we don’t find any peace and no miracle happens. But you will say: ‘What do you mean that I don’t believe? Don’t you see I haven’t taken any medicine?’ And yet, at bottom, we have doubt and fear within us and we think to ourselves, ‘Will it really happen?’ Here the words of Scripture hold good: If you have faith and do not doubt, not only will you do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘be lifted up and thrown into the sea’, it will be done. [7] When faith is real, whether you take medicine or not, the grace of God will act. And God acts through doctors and medicines. The Wisdom of Sirach says: Honour the physician with the honours due to him, according to your need of him, for the Lord created him. The Lord created medicines from the earth, and a man of sense will not despise them. And give the physician his place, for the Lord created him; let him not leave you, for there is need of him. [8]

The whole secret is faith ? without doubts, gentle, simple and artless: in simplicity and artlessness of heart. [9] It is not a question of ‘will power’ or ‘mind over matter’. A fakir can display this kind of ‘will power’. It is a question of having faith that God loves us with infinite love and wants us to become His own. That is why He allows illnesses, until we surrender ourselves in trust to Him.

If we love Christ, all things will change in our lives. We do not love Him in order to receive some reward such as health. Rather we love Him out of gratitude, without thinking of anything, only of the love of God. Nor should we pray with any ulterior motive and say to God: ‘Make such-and-such a person well, so that he may come close to You.’ It is not right to point out ways and means to God. How can we presume to say to God, ‘make me well’? What can we tell to Him who knows everything? We will pray, but God may not wish to listen to us.

A person asked me a little while ago, ‘When will I get well?’

‘Ah,’ I told him, ‘if you say, “When will I get well?” then you never will get well. It’s not right to entreat God about such things. You entreat anxiously for God to take the illness from you, but then the illness lays even tighter hold on you. We mustn’t ask for this. Nor should you pray about this.’

He was taken aback and said, ‘Do you mean I shouldn’t pray?’

‘Not at all,’ I answered. ‘On the contrary, pray a great deal, but for God to forgive your sins and to give you strength to love Him and to give yourself to Him. Because the more you pray for the illness to leave you, the more it adheres to you, winds its tentacles around you and squeezes you, and becomes inseparable from you. If, of course, you feel an inner human weakness, then you may humbly entreat the Lord to take the illness from you.’

Let us abandon ourselves in trust to the love of God

When we surrender ourselves to Christ, our spiritual organism finds peace, with the result that all our bodily organs and glands function normally. All these are affected. We become well and cease to suffer. Even if we have cancer, if we leave everything to God and our soul finds serenity, then divine grace may work through this serenity and cause the cancer and everything else to leave.

Stomach ulcers, you know, are caused by stress. The sympathetic system, when it is subjected to pressure, is constricted and suffers harm and so the ulcer is created. With stress, pressure, distress, anxiety, an ulcer or cancer comes about. When there are confusions in our soul, these have influence on our body and our health suffers.

The most perfect way is not to pray for our health ? not to pray to become well, but to become good. That is what I pray for myself. Do you hear? I don’t mean to be good in the sense of virtuous, but in the sense of acquiring divine zeal, of abandoning ourselves in trust to God’s love, and of praying rather for our soul. And we mean our soul as it is incorporated in the Church, whose head is Christ, along with all our fellow men and our brothers and sisters in Christ.

And I open my arms and pray for all people. When I am about to receive Holy Communion, as I am standing before the Holy Chalice, I open my soul to receive the Lord, and I bow my head and I pray for you, for this person and that, and for the whole Church. You should do the same. Do you understand? Don’t pray for your health. Don’t say, ‘O Lord, make me well.’ No! Rather say, ‘Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me’, with selflessness, with love and without expecting anything. ‘Lord, whatever Your love desires...’ Only in this way will you act from now on, loving Christ and our brothers and sisters. Love Christ. Become saints. Throw yourselves into becoming friends with Christ, into His love alone, into divine eros.

Isn’t perhaps this what is happening to me, since I feel this zeal and adoration? Even though I feel that my body has rotted away, I don’t succumb to my illness, not even to my cancer, I shouldn’t speak, but my love for you and for the whole world doesn’t allow me to remain silent. When I speak, my lungs remain without oxygen and that’s very bad because the heart is harmed. I have suffered something much worse than a heart attack. And yet I live. Isn’t that an intervention of God? Yes, and I am obedient to God’s will, to my illness. I suffer without complaint and... with annoyance at myself because no one is devoid of uncleanness. [10] I’m in a bad state. My spirit is also sick.

I say to a hermit with whom I am in contact, ‘Pray for me. I love you. Love me too and pity me and pray for me and God will have mercy on me.’

‘You’re the one who should pray,’ he says to me.

‘I’m beginning now to be unable to do all that I did for so many years,’ I tell him. What does the hymn say?

My mind is sorely wounded, my body has grown enfeebled,
my spirit is sick, my speech has lost its power,
my life is brought to death; the end is at the door.
And so, O wretched soul of mine, what will you do
when the Judge appears before you to investigate your deeds?
[20]

This hymn reflects my present state. I think that if I hadn’t done this or that I wouldn’t be in pain now, I would be close to Christ. I say this about myself because I’m thoughtless...

If you want to enjoy good health and live for many years, then listen to what Solomon the Wise has to say: Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and the counsel of saints is understanding; for to know the law is the mark of a sound mind, for in this way you will live long and years of your life will be added to you.’ [21] This is the secret: for us to acquire this wisdom, this knowledge, and then everything functions smoothly, all things are put in order and we will live with joy and health.

Endnotes

[1] The holy Elder suffered from the following illnesses: myocardial infarction (anterior diaphragm with lateral ischaemia), chronic kidney disease, duodenal ulcer (with repeated perforations), operated cataract (loss of lens and blindness), herpes zoster (shingles) on the face, staphylococcus dermatitis on the hand, inguinal hernia (frequently strangulated), chronic bronchitis and cancer of the pituitary gland. Cf. Dr. Georgios Papazachou in an article in the periodical Synaxis, 41 (Jan–Mar) 1992, 93.

[2] Heb. 12:6.

[3] Rom. 14:8.

[4] A theory that a soul after death has to pass through a series of ‘tollgates’ where it is interrogated about a variety of sins.

[5] Matt. 22:12.

[6] Prayers of Preparation for Holy Communion, Prayer 7.

[7] Matt. 21:21.

[8] Sir. 38:1, 4, 12.

[9] Wisd. 1:1.

[10] Cf. Job 14:4.

[11] Great Canon by Saint Andrew of Crete (1st troparion of the 9th Ode).

[12] Prov. 9:10–11.

From Wounded By Love: The Life and Wisdom of Elder Porphyrios, pp. 224-231, as edited from an archive of notes and recordings by the Sisters of the Holy Convent of Chrysopigi (Life-Giving Spring). Posted with the permission of the publisher and the blessing of Mother Theoxeni, Abbess of the Monastery of Chrysopigi. This remarkable book is available directly from the publisher in Greece or from Uncut Mountain Supply. Posted on 7 Dec, 2005.