Saturday, June 27, 2015

Sickness and death of children

   God does sometimes call children to martyrdom or all martyric suffering in their lives. A child's illness is a trial of faith and endurance for all concerned, not least the parents. They have to bear it while at the same time strengthening their child and his brothers and sisters. God's Providence for the sanctification of His children is always a blessing, but sometimes the blessing comes heavily disguised.  
   Sick children are often imbued with faith and wisdom beyond their years - in many cases, beyond their parents’ own faith too. “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them” [Mark 10:14, Luke 18:16]. If we are able to do this, they, and we too, will grow. The ill child is often the teacher, keeping our trust in the Lord alive even while our hearts bleed.
   A girl (9) was suffering from cancer. Her mother was distressed and lacking in faith, and, in front of the child, continually lamented about God's lack of love towards them. I thought I should ensure that the girl heard a more positive viewpoint, and took her for a walk in the garden, during which the two of us looked out for birds and chatted. Part of the conversation went something like this:
   S.M.: “You know that your headaches do not mean that God doesn't love you. He knows what it's like to have pains because He suffered on His cross. You are Jesus' special friend. He loves everybody, but the brave ones, He lets them get headaches, and they share His pain on the cross.”
   The girl nodded soberly and I saw that she knew all that without any need for me to tell her. She even had the wisdom to add: “But Sister, please don't talk to Mama about that because she doesn't like it. She thinks I've got to live. May God give rest with the martyrs to this blessed child in His joy and glory, and comfort her bereaved parents.
   If a child is seriously ill, by painful force of circumstances we will turn our thoughts to ultimate realities: love. God, the meaning of life, what is worth striving for. If  money, possessions, even health itself, had ceased to be means and had become idols, they will be restored to their rightful place in our priorities. Sometimes a child's sickness is the only way for these spiritual healings to take place. Very many children save their whole family.
   The mother of a sick child: “Everyone at the monastery will pray for you, and God will make you better.”
   This is not a safe way to express our faith in prayer for healing. Perhaps she should have said: “Everyone at the monastery will pray for you to get better.” Medical science achieves much, and miracles do occur even when doctors cannot succeed. Christ restored many to health “out of compassion”, and He does so today. But if faith in God's love depends on healing, there is a risk that faith will fail if healing does not take place.
   Girl (9): “If we all pray hard, will she get better?” S.M.: “It's up to God; lots of people do get better when people pray for them.”
   In a discussion about the Unction service in Holy Week, a child (7) said: “Really, Sister, I had a bad stomach and my Mum thought we couldn't come for Easter, but after Father put me the oil, the next day it went.”
   Older child: “Sister, did you pray to get better from [your illness]?”.
   S.M.: “To tell you the truth, after the oil I felt so peaceful it didn't bother me an more. I felt more bothered to get my soul healed.”
   The children began to discuss the “special feeling” they had when anointed.
   If, despite all efforts and supplications, a child dies, the bereaved family needs the help of the Church. (The child's siblings, often neglected and bewildered, need reassurance that healthy children, and “normal” life, are worth atten­tion.) Other parents who have been through that fire become towers of strength; not because they are “toughened”, but because they share the same human pain under God. The Mother of God, who suffered inestimably at the crucifixion of her Son, will console the desolate parents. They will learn to mean it when they say, “I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.”
   A girl (11), who was suffering from cancer, was given choc­olate by a holy priest who had blessed her and prayed for her. “Mummy, Jesus Christ gave me these chocolates.” And later: “I think it's maybe better if I don't grow up. I mean if I get to be a bad lady it's better I don't grow older.”
   This brave and cheerful girl and her courageous parents inspired faith in many other parents and children. She was full of grace, and her death was truly a “Christian ending to her life”. She died at home on her nameday, having had Holy Communion and kissed her parents. She had told them Father N. would come for her nameday, and they were sur­prised. When they arranged the burial - the local custom was to bury on the day of the death - the parish priest was not available and Father N. was sent unexpectedly to con­duct the funeral service.
   From a hymn of St. Ephrem the Syrian: “There [in Para­dise] the married state finds rest after having been anguished [ ... ] by the pain of childbearing. Now it sees the children whom it had buried amid laments, pasturing like lambs in Eden; exalted in their ranks, glorious in their splendours, they are like the kindred of the spotless angels.” Parents who bury a child with faith in the reality of what St. Ephrem writes are those who have focused their attention on the ultimate goal of parenthood, i.e. preparing a new human person for Christian life. The child they have “lost” is one whom they had prepared for heaven in a shorter time than it usually takes. Our personhood includes our life on earth, but it is so much more than that. I do not say this with a disdainful attitude to “earthly” matters; quite the contrary. All of our human life is significant, precisely because God has Providence for each one of us at each moment.
   Boy (4) on his deathbed: “Mama, let's sing together.” Mother: “What shall we sing?”.
   Boy: “Meta pnevmaton dikaion ... “ [“With the spirits of the just ... “, a prayer sung for the departed]. He had often heard it chanted.
   With courage the mother managed to sing with the boy.
   These were the boy's last words. His parents had indeed taught him life's most essential lessons during his short pilgrimage on earth.
   I would recommend as a source of encouragement and consolation the Orthodox Funeral Service for Children. Also, St. John Chrysostorn and other Fathers wrote with great sympathy for grieving parents.

   Sister Magdalen (2001), Conversations with Children: Communicating our Faith, Stavropegic Monastery of St John the Baptist Essex.