Fixing Broken People
We all know them – people with sad histories, whose family life isn’t what it might be or should have been. Sorrowful people. People consumed by pride, anger, or addition. People who might have money, talent, or business acumen, but are unhappy or unpleasant. People who are, in some way, broken.
The doctrine of the fall – the belief that human beings, the world, and all creation is affected and infected by sin – is a central tenet of Christianity. The truth of the doctrine of the fall is proven when we watch the news, read the paper, or observe the unfair, immoral, disrespectful and destructive words and actions of other people and ourselves. We are surrounded by sin – personal sin, societal sin, corporate sin, ecological sin, etc. People, societies, animals, all of creation suffer because of sin.
One result of sin is the feeling of “brokenness” experienced by many people. When faced with marital breakdown, unemployment, illness, abuse, war, the death of a loved one, or any of a myriad of other examples of the imperfection of this world we all at some point feel broken, inadequate, impotent.
When these feelings overwhelm us it’s important to remember that the goal of Christianity, the reason God became man, taught, suffered, died and was raised for us, is to heal the brokenness of the world – our brokenness. It’s been suggested by eminent theologians that if Christianity had appeared in the 20th rather than the 1st century it quite likely would have been viewed not as a religion but as a therapeutic science, like medicine or psychology. Our faith exists to make us whole, to make us healthy in body, soul, and spirit.
According to Holy Scripture every single one of us is a patient who needs healing. The language of illness and healing is deeply interwoven into Holy Scripture (cf. Mt. 9:12, Lk. 4:23, Lk. 4:18, Mt. 13: 15, Ps. 40/41:4, Ps. 6:2, Ps. 147:3, I Pet. 2:24, James 5:16) and the liturgical life of the Church (eg. the admonition of the priest to the penitent before confession in the book of needs, the service of the anointing of the sick, the prayer before communion –“for the healing of soul and body”, etc.).
Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos outlines five elements in the therapeutic program of the Church: correct faith, awareness of the illness, the need for a therapist, the correct therapeutic treatment, and following the program of treatment.
Correct faith simply means accepting the world as it is and not making up our own reality. If we believe that there is nothing wrong with the world, that the actions of human beings are governed by nothing more than hormones and instincts, and that sin doesn’t exist then the Church has nothing to offer. If we do believe that the world is fallen, accept the fact that we are sinful, accept the fact that God exists and wishes to help us, then we are able to make a start.
Some people visit doctors when they feel something is wrong, while others, even though their symptoms are obvious, go into denial. The same thing happens spiritually. If we are honest with ourselves we will know that we are sinners and sinful. We will see the proof of this every day in our words, thoughts and actions. Our choice is either to deny it or deal with it.
Doctors are helpful because they are highly trained, experienced, educated, and possess an objective perspective. They can look at us dispassionately and diagnose our problem in an objective manner. The spiritual father fulfills the same role as the doctor. The teaching is that every one of us should have someone with spiritual knowledge and experience who knows everything about us and loves us anyway, someone with whom we can share our innermost thoughts, history, experiences, and inclinations. This person must be in the process of being healed themselves. It’s very important that we don’t open our soul to just anyone, any more than we would go with our medical problems to a butcher or a bank-teller.
Each of us is unique, and the role of a good spiritual father, like a good doctor, is to prescribe the medicine to cure what ails us individually. We follow general rules to maintain our physical health – eat right, exercise, get enough sleep, etc. The doctor adjusts these rules to suit our particular condition, and prescribes specific medicines, diets or exercises as well. The same applies in the spiritual life: we pray, worship, study scripture, partake in the holy mysteries, fast, tithe, help the poor, etc. The spiritual doctor helps us discern what specific treatment our own particular spiritual condition requires, and how to order our spiritual diet, exercises and abilities to most fully receive the spiritual medicine we all require – God’s grace.
Ultimately, though, it’s up to us to follow the regimen: to confess, commune, pray, fast, to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and live a life of love for God and neighbour.
Every one of us will contribute either to healing or aggravating human brokenness. If we wish to facilitate the healing of others our first, most important step is to heed Jesus’ advice: “physician, heal thyself”. If we’re not actively following the therapy that the church offers in order to deal with our own brokenness we are not just useless to others, we are dangerous and destructive – to ourselves and to our neighbours as well.
Fr. Bohdan Hladio