The Church as a Hospital
THE CHURCH AS A HOSPITAL
Taken from “Gifts of the Desert”
If we don’t have a clear understanding of what the Church really stands for, the consequences could be catastrophic. We could get scandalized very easily by the actions of individuals and become distracted or get to the point whereby we would be ready to reject the Church altogether. A misguided approach to the Church could lead us to a counterfeit relationship with God. And by extension it could also lead us to a false relationship with ourselves and with our environment.
There are two dominant perspectives on how to view the Church and its teachings. The first considers the Christian Church simply as a religion aiming at making people pious and well-behaved. The second perspective considers the teachings of the Church as some sort of a religious philosophy with the founders of the Church as religious philosophers and contemplatives. As such they are supposed to deal with philosophical systems, with ideas and values, very noble and worthwhile values. Fair enough. One can say that this is good.
But if we wish to seriously examine how the holy elders viewed the Church and continue to view it, we will recognize a different reality. We will see a surprising picture. We will notice that the Church has little to do with religion as commonly understood. Many holy elders understood religion to mean the way people try through various ceremonies and rituals to appease an all-powerful and fearsome God who created the universe and themselves. This attitude has been the trademark of the average person's understanding of what it means to be religious. The holy elders rejected this understanding and approach to God, as well as rejected rational philosophy as the key tool of the Church. That is, they rejected philosophy as the way to search for and get to know God.
Philosophy is based on intellectual contemplation, on hypothesizing, on building theorems. As far as philosophy goes, that is ok. But it does not cease to be a human creation, a product of the human mind and imagination. The Church must be properly seen as being part of medicine. In reality it is a spiritual hospital. Do you understand what I am saying? A hundred and fifty years ago, when the University of Athens was created, those in charge, following Western European models, placed theology under the school of philosophy and law. That was a terrible mistake. The holy elders would have placed subjects like theology, and the subject matter of the Church within the medical school, not philosophy or law. Do you understand?
I will explain. The Church is preoccupied essentially with the ultimate fate of human beings. It teaches that human beings are God's creation and came out of their Creator's hands absolutely healthy. All their powers functioned perfectly. This state was characterized by the total love of human beings toward God, toward one another, and toward Creation. The holy elders teach that human beings in that state were in constant contemplation and memory of God. According to the Holy Scriptures humanity fell from that state of grace through Adam and Eve. From that point on, human beings have been characterized by confusion, destructive passions, and sinfulness. This is an abnormal state of existence.
Humanity has been marching on this road of passions, confusion, and sin since the Fall. God has been sending his emissaries and prophets, however, to help humanity and prepare the way for the appearance of Christ himself. We Christians believe that with Christ's Incarnation we are offered the opportunity to see a different human being, a God-man. So, according to the teachings of the Church there are three categories of human beings. First, there is the original Adam, which means human beings as they came out of their Creator's hands. Then there is the fallen Adam, meaning human beings after the Fall, as they live in this world. And third there is the birth of the New Adam, meaning Christ as the ultimate archetype of what we may become.
It would have been a tragic error to assume that Christ came into the world in order to give us a set of good teachings or a book called the New Testament. Had it been so he could have given it to us in many other ways. But he did come into the world himself so that we may be able to participate in his own perfect presence and see in the flesh, in a concrete way, our own archetype. As Saint Athanasios said, 'God became man so that man may become God.
The Church was created for purely therapeutic purposes, for healing the split between us and God. The Church takes fallen, sick, and confused human beings, who suffer from all sorts of destructive passions and sins, and with its very tangible therapeutic methods helps them attain real health – spiritual health. That's the ultimate form of healing. The body sooner or later will die, decompose. Spiritual health is eternal and, therefore, more real.
The therapy that the Church offers to human beings is not metaphysical. As with good medicine, therapy for the Church must take place now, in this present physical life, not after death. We must not forget that this healing has distinct and identifiable attributes in the same way that a therapy for bodily illness has distinct and identifiable characteristics. Do you remember Paul's epistle to the Galatians? Like the good doctor of the soul that he was, he identifies what the symptoms of sin and spiritual illness are: hostility, jealousy, anger, idolatry, murder, drunkenness, debauchery, adultery, and so on.
He then points out that the therapy from such illnesses is not something abstract and vague but something concrete and clearly recognizable. He goes on to enumerate the tangible fruits of spiritual healing: love, joy, peace, forbearance, goodness, gentleness, faith, and the like [Gal 5:22]. In other words, the Apostle Paul shows us that the Church’s therapeutic interventions have real and tangible results. That means we can identify and test for ourselves whether we have been spiritually healed from the illnesses that haunted us. Such therapy has practical consequences in our lives.
When we raise the question 'What is a human being?' we must also ask 'What is God?' Since God is our archetype and we are created in his image, understanding ourselves presupposes understanding our archetype. It's like trying to determine how authentic the portrait of a person is on canvas. We must see the person in real life and then compare the two. We need to contrast the painting with the person in the flesh. If we have never seen the person then we cannot judge one way or another.
So the archetype is real and concrete and human beings are images of the archetype. The Gospels tell us clearly what God is. John the Apostle says, 'God is love.' Since God is love then we as human beings, created in his image, are also love. And God gave us the medical prescriptions for how to heal our split from him, how to repair the damage that made us unrecognizable in terms of our divine archetype.
The Church indeed is a hospital. As in the case of an ordinary hospital, in the Church we can meet doctors, nurses, recovering patients, sick people, and very sick people. Sometimes we can even find corpses. In whatever category we may belong within this spiritual hospital, we always have the hope and the possibility to achieve our own resurrection and the restoration of our spiritual health.
It is extremely important that we never abandon this role and outlook on the Church as a spiritual hospital. If we give up on it then the Church becomes nothing other than a worldly institution.
Facing Our Uncertain Future
Welcoming Sinners to Come Home
Our Orthodox Faith