From “Death and Illness, Our Saving Road”

From “Death and Illness, Our Saving Road”

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The expression that a Christian is a vessel of the Holy Spirit makes it seem as though the body is passive, but the body might rather be seen as an activation of the spirit within. In doing things that foster wellness, one is more useful for God’s purposes, which follow from loving others in countless creative ways. Illness and death cannot be escaped, no matter how many organic apples one eats, or how many afternoon jumping jacks one performs. We do not have control over mortality, but we do have some influence on how well we live. Importantly, despite the body’s endless ailments and, ultimately, death, it is important to appreciate that the body and soul interact. When one appreciates this symbiotic relationship between the body and spirit, one may responsibly use the body to edify the soul, to the degree that one is able.

Suffering in this world is promised, and our mortality is assured, but quiet walks, prayerful drives to work, patient prayers in the night, these and other acts build our relationship with God. One’s personal relationship with the Lord is eternal. Though it begins on earth, for all of eternity, worship somehow grows, increases in one’s heart, draws us ever-closer to God. While we cannot comprehend this now, and it may even seem ages to ages could be a bit boring, faith is the choice to believe. With this choice, we pray, go to church, repent from sin, and as one continues trying to live for God, there are moments when one “tastes and sees that the Lord is good.” In these personal experiences, one is convicted that God is the giver of life and the source of all good. With this experience of Truth, that may linger as a memory during a time when little of God is felt, one has enough reason and desire to eternally abide in Him.

In the ancient Christian Tradition, to live each day as the last is to remember death and be conscious of living one’s life in a manner in which it is becoming prayer. Ultimately, one’s attitudes about life and death merge. When a person prays throughout life and seeks meaning and purpose in God’s plan for her days, death becomes a fierce prayer of sorts, asking God for mercy and forgiveness and loving Him and all others with each breath. Even physical pain and misery cannot alter the goodness of a soul filled with faith. In the end, food and entertainment, wealth and credentials beside one’s name mean so little. What matters is truly the one thing needful: faith in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In the world, to live each day as the last may mean to do what makes one happy and to cherish fun and happiness. One is deeply joyful in Christ. One savors fun and happiness, but one is not broken down when things, and people, in this world fail them. Balance develops by faith because even though things here cannot be perfect, and may even be really bad, there is an eternal kingdom of God.

The kingdom of heaven is within you. When Christ returns to earth, there will be no place in time that contains Him. The eternal dimension of reality will be revealed as the union between the hearts of men and God. My parish priest told a story of an elderly priest who was widowed and lived in a small apartment. They met and shared coffee and cake after Liturgy, and when the elderly man was asked if he was lonely living alone, he simply said that he was not living alone at all. With him always was the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The attitude of this wise priest reminds me that each one, no matter what is taken in this lifetime, has an opportunity to realize God. The process of seeking Him with our lives is a prayer, and by this prayer one is able to perceive the Body of Christ. With such perception, so many earthly cares lose their importance, and all the many judgments we are apt to make melt away in the abiding and all-consuming Love we experience in Christ.

At many times, however, the body is weighted with earthly cares throughout life. So preoccupied by life, death seems almost unbelievable, especially for the young. As one grows older, the reality of death dawns. A friend was diagnosed with stomach cancer a handful of years earlier, and her tiny body withered to less than seventy pounds. She couldn’t ingest more than a small pea at a time. Once, I brought her some blessed bread and sat at the edge of her bed. The whites of her eyes were yellow and her teeth appeared so vibrant and white. She sipped water and spoke softly. In her feeble beauty, she recounted that she didn’t need to eat, she only wanted to live. She had dreamed that if she continued collecting coins, she could remain alive. She stared into my eyes without flinching, and I couldn’t look away. She said that she wanted to plant flowers in the spring. With waning energy, she gathered some clothes for me to take, both of us knowing that there wouldn’t be another spring for my friend. I held her hands, and we wept to the Mother of God. Please help my friend let go, I prayed. “Look with loving-kindness, O all hymned Theotokos, upon my cruel bodily suffering, and heal the sickness of my soul.”

The body may or may not be healed, but the end will come for each in time. We pray each Liturgy for a peaceful death and a good defense before the dread judgement seat of Christ. This prayer reminds us that death is a concrete reality, and that our lives should be spent loving God and others. Love in our lives is our defense against many sins committed in “knowledge or in ignorance.” Stanley Harakas says “eu-thanasia” in Greek means a good death. In America, the term means physician-assisted suicide. Harakas explains euthanasia as death where one’s moral and spiritual purity provides a sense of hope and trust in God. In this way, “True humanity may be achieved even on a deathbed.”

In Pascha, we hymn, “Your resurrection, O Christ our God, the angels in heaven sing, enable us on earth, to worship you in purity of heart.” The Church, created from the beginning of time and established with Christ, continues as a gift of grace that the Holy Spirit reveals to us in our very lives—if we will to know Him as He really is. Presvytera Vassi Haros states, “The Church, under the protection and guidance of Orthodoxy, is tangible and spiritual. The body and soul realize each other in the sacraments, prayer, charity, etc. and this should be happening all the time.” The Church is a gift that calls us to give. The Church is from God, and it is the Body of Christ. “When You, O Lord, were baptized in the Jordan, the Trinity was made manifest. And the Spirit, in the form of a Dove, confirmed the truthfulness of Your Word.” Each one baptized into Christ is called to live out faith. This lived faith is prayer.

When a person chooses to become a living prayer, she enacts her body and spirit in routines that inspire faith and love. This life then grows the Body of Christ. If we bow the head, quiet the mind, try to forget about the belly, and all for the sake of God, then we pray. One’s words may be many, few, or none at all. The essence of prayer is the heart’s intent. A heart that wills for God silences earthly cares and in faith and love draws near. The Holy Spirit discerns Truth in us, and He comes and abides in us, cleansing us from every impurity and saving our souls.


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Lea Povozhaev

Lea Povozhaev earned a PhD in Rhetoric and Composition from Kent State University in 2014 and an MFA in Creative Writing from The University of Akron in 2007. She spent a semester abroad in Russia studying at Nizhni Novgorod State University in 1999, where she was first introduced to Orthodox Christianity. Lea teaches writing part-time as she focuses on writing and presenting her current research on wholeness of body and soul. Two of her recent works reflect the culmination of her writing pursuits as a creative non-fiction writer who believes in merging reflection on one's personal life with current social events. She recently (June 3, 2016) had an interview with Ancient Faith Radio on her memoir: check it out! Lea aims to continue writing, researching, and presenting and invites inquiries from the audience to share her work ranging from academic (Medical Rhetoric—arguments in current health care and their implications for those who value the sanctity of life), creative and personal (focusing on family life and Orthodoxy). She lives in Ohio with her husband and their five children. Read more about Lea and her work here.