Health channel editor on the Christian understanding of health

Health and illness as steps in our spiritual growth

May 12, 2021

christian doctor

Before joining the Convent, Nun Maria (Litvinova) had obtained a candidate of sciences degree in medicine and won the title of master of sports in rhythmic gymnastics. As a monastics, she attends and organises exhibition events, and runs the Convent's you-tube channel on health and wellness, popular among our Russian-speaking audiences. She travels extensively and gives talks on health and wellness to various audiences. As a doctor, she advises people on how to stay healthy and how to respond to disease. The topic of our interview with her today is Christian attitude to health, and how it may be relevant in today's world.

A doctor, a nun, presenter of a popular youtube channel, a hero of a documentary, and a public speaker. Do not you find wearing all these hats a bit challenging?

I do not believe that it is anything unusual. It is normal to be versatile. God's plan for us is to give everyone a variety of talents and have everyone use them to the fullest extent. Our life is full of surprises, and we always get the chance to apply them. No ability or skill is futile or accidental. I know it very well from the experience of my life.

For example, I played the accordion at school and completed the accordion class with distinction. My music teacher said I could look forward to a brilliant music career. But my Russian teacher saw me as a would-be teacher. As for me, I wanted to become a doctor and went to medical school. I also got the title of master of sports in rhythmic gymnastics in the process.

In my life, I expected to get to use some of my talents but not others. But eventually, all of my skills and talents proved relevant. After working for six years as a doctor, I went on to specialise in sports medicine. Working as a doctor and developing an exercise programme for the national gymnastics team taxed my skills both as a doctor and as a teacher.

christian doctor

Chemistry was my favourite subject at school. Little did I know then that I would work for 30 years researching the biochemistry of sport. Finally, while at the Convent, I was invited to play in an Orchestra, and I have done quite well.

You found a great use for your talents in the world. Have you had any setbacks? And how have your successes and setbacks led you to become a monastic?

In my worldly life, some moments would appear to many as setbacks. I never married and was upset about it. I am childless, and it made me sad. Both nudged me to consider whether monasticism would be right for me, but none were the reasons that brought me here. The world has many childless and never-married women, but few of them join monasteries.

My coming here had been prepared by my whole life and all the events in it in their entirety. For example, my gymnastics coach - who later became my close friend - had joined the lay sisterhood in honour of Saint Elisabeth. She introduced me to the Convent, told me all about it and asked me to help with some obediences. I came, then joined the sisterhood and eventually took monastic tonsure.

The life journey that led me here is a history of looking for and finding meanings in my life. I have learned not to view any of my life events as successes or failures. What I initially believed to be a failure later turned out to be providential, resulting in my spiritual growth and bringing me a step closer to my salvation. I have also understood that you should be careful not to attribute anything that seems to you as an achievement entirely to yourself, for it, too is the will of God. To me, coming to the Convent became a step to my spiritual advancement. It was as necessary and it was logical. This understanding clarified my vision of my life and goals in it, and was a source of great joy.

How do these life lessons that you have just mentioned impact the understanding of health that you advance in the webcasts of your health and wellness channel?

Both apply fully to health and wellness. In anything that happens to us in our lives, we should see God's hand more than our efforts and works. And we should see our illnesses and ailments less as our failures but more as steps in a long journey. Let me explain what these lessons might mean for us by considering some common secular views on health and illness.

nun maria litvinova

It is quite common to understand health mostly as physical well-being. We would consider ourselves healthy if nothing is hurting, and all our tests are within the norm. Just as we see ourselves as masters of our own lives, we put ourselves firmly in control of our health. As long as we keep going to the gym, eat healthily, go for our health check-ups with the doctor and lead an overall healthy lifestyle, we are almost certain to remain healthy and never be hit by a disease. And why do we need health? We need it to live fun, satisfying and enjoyable lives, something that no unhealthy people could ever benefit from.

But when we become ill, we see it as a personal failure and a cause for bitterness. We cannot understand why we have the illness, although we had taken good care of ourselves and followed all the doctor's recommendations. We protest: I have been physically active, and never smoked, but look at my next-door neighbour - he had laid on the sofa all the time and smoked twenty cigarettes a day. But he is not ill, I am! Why did I deserve this injustice? Such an embittered person is often tearful and anxious.

But there is also a different way to understand health. We can see health as a gift from God which we should use less for our enjoyment but more to do His will and serve others. We must be wise guardians of this gift, and not waste it. Yet we must also understand that we are not in control of all things in our life. So when we are sent an illness, we should not see it as a failure, but rather as an opportunity for growth and ultimately, a stage in our journey to salvation. Understanding health in this way brings us closer to God and makes us more inclined to do His will, and act as the Gospel teaches us, "Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness". It is exactly this aspect of health that we never cease to emphasise in our channel. We call it the 'spiritual component' of health.

Why do we need to keep in mind the spiritual aspect of our health? And what are the benefits of doing so from a secular standpoint?

This perspective on health is a source of great inner strength and resilience to adversity. For example, the biblical Job had lost his health, and he also lost his wife, children and estate. In the eyes of most secular people, he had nothing left to live for. The devil expected Job to become embittered and rebellious. He expected him to say, "I have been righteous, I did everything right, and the Lord is punishing me all the same." Instead, he remained loyal to God to the end. And ultimately He rewarded Job with His grace.

christian doctor

Here is a more recent example from the life of Saint John of Kronshtadt. As he was serving in Kronshtadt in 1892, a cholera epidemic had spread across Russia. His town was quarantined from the rest of the world. One day, a Swedish boat approached the haven. A large part of its crew had cholera, and the ship's captain telegraphed ashore a call for medical help. The city authorities had put together a team of doctors, and John of Kronshtadt insisted on going with them. They brought him along. They came aboard and saw a gruesome scene unfolding before them. Patients were lying on the deck, convulsed and in great pain. So what did John of Kronshtadt do? He prayed for the crew while the Russian doctors were doing their work. And while he was praying, the crying stopped, and the convulsions ceased. The crew felt much better. All of them survived. John of Kronshtadt went on quarantine for two weeks. He had not contracted cholera.

If you asked me for my comment on this incident as a medic, I would have very little to say. But it teaches us that negativity, anger and wrath affect our spiritual state, and consequently our ability to resist disease. Conversely, prayer, worship and the Holy Sacraments strengthen our spirits and our bodies. The recent epidemic of the Coronavirus taught us the same. It became a poignant reminder to us of the need to strengthen our faith, persist in prayer, and always remain in conversation with Him. We cannot keep our health without taking care of its spiritual component.

In this imperfect world, dangers to human health abound. How can we learn not to be afraid? What would you advise our readers?

Moderation and keeping to the golden middle are genuine gifts of God. We must learn patience, resilience and acceptance of God's will. - This should not keep us from being proactive, but we must be careful not to become embittered when things do not go our way. We should reserve judgement and refrain from blaming others. That way, we will have the ability to weather the storms of our lives.

I wish all of you to grow and strengthen in your faith, recognise its connectedness to our health and well-being and bolster our souls and spirits. May God save and protect us all!

By Alexander Piskunov and Yan Malov

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