I got sick and understood something important
– Fr. Andrew, often you see how people, who have faced a disease, begin to pray as hard as they can. Skeptics keep saying “there is nothing special in your prayers, this is pure psychology”. Do you know any examples when the work of prayer goes beyond the borders of simple psychology?
– When I was young, I was working at a hospice. I have met a woman there, who I believe was a saint. She came to the hospital when she was already in the last stages of cancer. During our conversation it came out that she had had more than ten abortions. What is more, most of them she did by herself. When she got sick the first thing she asked was not “why I deserve this?”, but “what should I do now?” She got the answer: “Pray. Here are the morning and evening prayers. Here is the akathist for women who murdered a child in the womb”. Every time I came to her, I saw her sitting on the bed with her glasses on and praying. Later that person began to beam with light, the atmosphere in the hospital room changed. People did not want to change the room, although it was the most crowded room in the hospital. Peace emanated from her.
That person died in peace. So, this is the experience and the result of prayer that I have faced personally.
– The theme of physical sufferings is rather clear to me. St. John the Chrysostom said that a person who learned to withstand all his diseases with patience, is close to holiness. When you see for many years, how these people carry their paint, you understand already what this all is about. It is much more difficult to understand sufferings that are caused in this world by healthy people.– You have worked in an ambulance team, and you serve for many years in the place, where people with serious and even incurable diseases are. Can you say that you have not solved the question of the origins and reasons of people’s sufferings yet and that nothing here causes an inner rebel in you?
What concerns the sick, many of them finally understand the sense, one way or another.
Even some unfaithful people say, “How good it is that I have got sick – it helped me to understand something important”. We can compare a person who is sick to the one who keeps the fast. They are restricted in what they can do, they are isolated from the outer world. The ideas about how one can change his life, what mistakes he has made, what is valuable in our life and what is not, come to their mind.
– But sometimes people get bitter because of their sickness.
– Yes, for many people their sickness is a wrong turn in their life. They begin to blame themselves, other people and God. We have to talk to such people and offer them to look at the situation from a different viewpoint. I do not expect that a person will change after our conversation. Some people did not change even after the conversation with God Himself. This is why I say: “You can disagree with me. Now I leave, and you will stay here. You will have questions and counter-arguments, and this is good. We will meet once again, I will listen to you and we will continue discussing this issue”.
Listening to people
– Do people in severe condition have a negative reaction on you and your words about God?
– In the departments that I visit, I do not meet with people who do not want to see me. Not because I just do not want to, but because they do not address me. Once a patient threw the blanket away to show me that both his legs were amputated. The he said, “So, where is your God if I have lost my legs?” I asked him, “Could you tell me for how long do you smoke?” He said that it was 50 years. His disease was caused by smoking. “So, what does this have to do with God? Didn’t you know smoking is dangerous?” Of course, that was not the end of our conversation. I did not leave him like that. I tried to comfort him and said that life was going on, that one could solve the problem of rehabilitation or use the prostheses…
– What episode from your service at the children’s hospital impressed you most of all and why?
– I served a funeral service for the youngest patient of our clinic. Before that, when the child was still sick, I had a very long talk with his mother. The boy’s parents were close relatives to each other. They both understood that their marriage was wrong, but their love was stronger than that. In that marriage, they had three children, and the youngest of them was born with congenital leukemia. When I was performing the funeral service, his mother was quite calm, she behaved somehow wisely… Then she told me: “Father, I take this not as a punishment. I know what we should do now. We will not split up, but we will not have children any more. We will bring up the ones we already have”. She said that not with despair, but with the desire to live on.
With children and their parents, I have the whole stories. Usually children spend much time in the hospital, so quite a trustful communication emerge between us. And I see when the Lord prepares the parents to their child’s death. This is not a sudden tragedy for them. Especially if parents go to church, partake of Holy Communion, they are more prepared spiritually and ready for such a result of the disease – they are ready to accept it. Children, if they are not in pain, suffer from all this less than their parents.
– If parents and their child do not go to church, then what do you think your aim is: just to comfort them or help them in their churching?
– Perhaps, just to be near. To be with them in this difficult situation and share their sorrows if it is possible, to listen to them. If we speak about the relations with patients and their parents, then for me the main teacher in this is Anthony of Sourozh, who is teaching us to be silent. Do not come to the bed of a sick person with certain phrases you have prepared in advance. Listen to what people say, be quiet, feel the atmosphere of their sufferings – let them all speak.
It is well-known that if someone learned about the death of a close person and is crying now, we must not hasten to comfort this person. We need to let this destructive power go out. When the person is calm, we can put a hand on his shoulder and talk.
Many people rethink their whole life exactly during their sickness, they begin to establish priorities in the right way. And if they want to speak to a priest at this time, then here I am. Right here.
– Can you state several main rules for a person who has found out he is sick and that probably there will be no cure for it?
– You should value your time and people, you should learn to contemplate. If it is a faithful person, then in this experience of sickness he can get close to the experience of saints. Many of them were physically ill. Remember Seraphim of Sarov, Ambrose of Optina. People came to them, disabled and weak saints, with their pain. But these saints had their own pain, too, and not only physical: often they faced suspicion, slander and snitching from brethren. Ascetics lived in that situation and managed to bear the burden of other people’s pain, which became only heavier.
A sick person can experience this if he stops asking “Why it was me to get sick?” and say to God: “Let it be by Your Will! I want to see what You are going to show me”. At the same time, the relatives get a great opportunity to demonstrate their love in reality. This is not easy, but this is for real.
It is important not to get used to
– Do usual feelings and emotional reactions help you as a priest or disturb you in your interaction with patients and their relatives?
– In the interaction with patients, emotions must be in the background. The same I say to the parishioners who feel really bad about their relative’s sickness. Especially it concerns various senile diseases. Often sick people behave bad with their close ones, they find really silly words. But if you communicate with a sick person on an emotional level, you spend too much of your spiritual and psychological forces. And with these emotions you are binding yourself. When I worked in the ambulance, we could not lament each dreadful tragedy – we had to get ourselves together and do our work. No one needs your emotions in such a situation. They called you so that you can help. When you have helped already and left, you can relax and cry, but not in the place where people need your help. A bot is just 7 years old, but his consciousness is adult already, he brought up that maturity in himself through sufferings. And now he is gone – but during all that time he became a friend for you because you spoke with him on serious issues. Of course, such loses are more difficult to withstand.
– Fr. Andrew, you refer to the theme of irrational things this way or another. In the beginning of our conversation, you called the woman a saint. Are you not afraid of speaking so explicitly: “saint”, “miracle”?
– In fact, the perception of a miracle is rather subjective. Many people remain skeptical about the miracles described in the Holy Gospel. Some people doubt in the holiness of generally accepted saints, others proclaim the holiness of the people, who are dubious from both the church and moral point of view. I talk about my personal experience – when there is no mistaking this holiness, when you are ready to kiss the hands of this elderly woman, because she just emits wise peace.
This is what true humility is – she is going to die in several days, but she is calm and joyful.
How can we call such a person? She has no spite in her heart. She is doing great.
This concerns not only elderly people. I remember one woman who was not especially old. When I came to her so that she can partake of Holy Communion, she was smiling all the time. I asked her, “Why are you smiling?” She replied: “Because the Lord showed me so much in my sickness! I must have died 10 years ago. Instead, I have managed to raise my daughter. I got sick when she was 8, her father left us alone. Since I was a doctor, I understood how long I could live. I prayed that the Lord gave an opportunity to raise my child”. Such episodes persuade me that the Lord is especially close to all these people.
Translated by The Catalog of Good Deeds