Illness and Prayer

Our Saviour has taught us: Ask and it shall be given you; seek and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. For everyone that asketh, receiveth (Matt. 7:7-8).
Therefore, when we are in pain we must pray for understanding of our malady, patience to bear it, and deliverance from it, if such be God's holy will. We are also expected to ask for the prayers of others and especially of the Church, for the effective fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much (James 5:16).
"Anyone who is sick should seek the prayer of others, that they may be restored to health; that through the intercession of others the enfeebled form of the body and the wavering footsteps of our deeds may be restored to health....Learn, you who are sick, to gain health through prayer. Seek the prayer of others, call upon the Church to pray for you, and God, in His regard for the Church, will give what He might refuse to you" (St. Ambrose, On the Healing of the Paralytic).
The great public prayer of the Church for those who are ill is the Service of Holy Unction. This Service, which is long and exceedingly rich in readings from Scripture, and contains numerous allusions to biblical figures who were healed by the power of God, gives, in concentrated form, the Church's teaching about healing.
This Service identifies Christ as the "Physician and Helper of the suffering," and invokes upon the sick person, through anointing, the grace of the Holy Spirit, Who heals both souls and bodies. Since God "mercifully gave us command to perform Holy Unction upon Thy sick servants," Christ Himself is spoken of as the "incorruptible chrism" Who in old times had chosen the olive-branch to show Noah that the Flood had abated. (From ancient times olive oil was used in the making of Holy Oil.) At the time of the Flood, the olive-branch symbolized tranquility and safety; so now the priest prays that the Saviour will, through the "tranquility of Thy mercy's seal [the anointing with oil]," heal the sufferer.
Acknowledging that illness sometimes comes through the activity of demonic powers, the priest asks: "Let no interposition of malignant demons touch the senses of him who is marked with Thy divine anointing." Showing that the Church also understands the connection between sin and suffering, the priest prays that through this anointing the "suffering of him who is tormented by the violence of passions" may be washed away.
This healing service explores many aspects of sin, suffering and healing; it is a profound and very exalted service of prayer and intercession. One very important point should be made here: during Holy Unction we beg God to remove the sickness — but, in place of illness, we ask Him to give "the joy of gladness" (anointing itself is spoken of as the oil of gladness in the Psalms), so that the formerly sick person might now "glorify Thy divine might." Therefore, one of the purposes of healing is to enable the sufferer to resume his healthy and active service to God. In token of this, the Saviour's healing of Peter's mother-in-law is spoken of: whereupon the fever left her, and she arose and ministered unto them. This is very important for us to remember: when we are set free from the torment of bodily sickness, we are expected to fill our mouths with praise of God and serve Him by amending our sinful ways and living from henceforth only for God and the world to come, counting this world as nothing.
Many do not discover prayer until they are on a sickbed. And those who have all of their lives piously participated in the public prayer of the Church, discover during illness that they have sadly neglected the treasures of private or interior prayer. St. Gregory Nazianzen, a great man of prayer even when his health was good, exclaimed during his last illness: "The time is swift, the struggle is great, and my sickness severe, reducing me nearly to immovability. What then is left but to pray to God?" (Letters).
During illness, prayer is capable of revealing true and lasting treasures, "for if you have bodily strength, the inroads of disease stop any joy you may have had from that source...because anything that belongs to this world is liable to damage and is unable to give us a lasting pleasure. But piety and the virtues of the soul are just the opposite because their joy abides forever....If you pour out continued and fervent prayers, no man can spoil you of their fruit, for this fruit is rooted in the heavens and protected from all destruction because it is beyond mortal reach" (St. John Chrysostom, On the Statues).
Two incidents from the lives of the saints show how simple yet incorruptible this prayer can be. In the life of Elder Hieroschemamonk Parthenius of the Kiev Caves Lavra we learn that in his final illness, even after he had been given Holy Unction, he continued to perform his daily prayer rule of reading the entire Psalter. The day before his repose he said to his spiritual children:
"Soon, soon I shall leave. Yesterday I already could not complete my Psalter — only half of it."
"Is it possible, Father, that until yesterday you said all of your customary rule?"
"Yes, the Lord helped me; after all, I now do it by memory; I cannot do it with my lips; there is nothing to breathe with; but yesterday I could not complete it even by memory, for my memory is leaving me. Only to the Jesus Prayer and to the praises of the Mother of God do I cling unceasingly" (Orthodox Life, no. 3, 1969).
And in the life of St. Abba Dorotheus we read about the touching death of his disciple, St. Dosithe-us, who had been in the monastery only five years, but "died in obedience, at no time and in nothing having done his own will and having done nothing out of attachment." He had always practiced the Jesus Prayer, and when his illness became severe, St. Abba Dorotheus said to him:
"Dositheus, take care over the Prayer; see that you be not deprived of it."
"Very well, Father," replied the monk, "only pray for me."
When he had become still worse, St. Abba Dorotheus said to him:
"Well, Dositheus, how is the Prayer? Does it continue as before?"
He answered him: "Yes, Father, by your prayers."
When, however, it became extremely difficult for him and the illness became so severe that he had to be carried on a stretcher, Abba Dorodieus asked him:
"How is the Prayer, Dositheus?"
He answered: "Forgive me, Father, I cannot keep it up any longer." Then Abba Dorotheus said to him:
"And so leave the Prayer, only keep God in mind and represent Him to yourself as if He were before you" (The Orthodox Word, vol. 5, no. 3).
Finally, we see a glorious and inspiring example of the place of prayer in times of illness in St. Gregory Nazianzen's account of his own father's illness:
"He suffered from sickness and bodily pain. The time of my father's sufferings was the season of the holy and illustrious Pascha, the Queen of Days, the brilliant night which dissipates the darkness of sin. Of what kind his sufferings were, I will briefly explain: his whole body was on fire with a great and burning fever; his strength failed him, he could take no food, his sleep had departed from him, and he was in the greatest distress. His whole mouth was so ulcerated that it was difficult and even dangerous to swallow even water. The skill of physicians, the prayers of his friends, earnest though they were, and every possible attention, were alike of no avail. In this desperate state his breathing was short and fast and he had no perception of present things.
"The time of Divine Liturgy was come, when all due order and silence is kept for the solemn rites. At this moment my father was raised up by Him Who quickens the dead. At first he moved slightly, and then more decidedly. Then, in a feeble and indistinct voice, he called a servant by name to bring his clothes and support him with his hand. The servant came in alarm and gladly waited upon him while he, leaning upon the servant as upon a staff, imitated Moses on the mountain and arranged his feeble hands in prayer...
"He retired again to his bed and, after taking a little food and sleep, his health slowly recovered so that on the first Sunday after the Fest of Pascha he was able to enter the church and offer thanksgiving...
"During this sickness he wan at no time free of pain. His only relief was Divine Liturgy, to which his pain yielded, as if to an edict of anishment" (On the Death of His Father).
The acknowledgment of oneself as deserving temporal and eternal punishment precedes the knowledge of the Saviour and leads to knowledge of the Saviour.

By Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov