Ask some people about their attitude to God, and they will be evasive. But there is a way of knowing if someone is a believer without ever asking him directly. Observe what he will say at a party table when he proposes his next toast. You may hear from him, “Put health in the first place. Stay in good health, and all the other things will be given to you.” Anyone who says so is almost certainly an agnostic or an atheist, even if dressed as a priest.
There is no way for such a person to believe in Christ who said something very different, “If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.” (Matthew 5:29-30).
The Christian position
Now, some might say to us, with sarcasm, “Why are all your limbs and body parts still in their places? Has nothing tempted you so far?” Whether our interpretation of Christ’s words should be literal or figurative may be subject to debate, but one thing is clear. Christians do not treat health as an absolute. Of course, we should care for our health; however, there may be times when we must sacrifice it without fear or hesitation for a greater cause.
What causes may be greater than one’s health? Our faith in God, our love of our neighbour, or the purity of our souls are some examples. A Christian will endure torment for his faith in God without renouncing Him. He will rescue a woman from the grip of a rapist and disregard the risk of being hurt, humiliated, or even killed. Or when cancer strikes and doctors admit that they cannot help, a Christian will accept it as God’s will and give his thanks to Him.
Archpriest Cyprian of Carthage (ca. 200-258) wrote: “What makes us different from unbelievers is that they go on complaining about their hardships, while Christians see their trials as their source of strength, not an obstacle to the practice of the true faith. An excruciating pain devouring our whole bodies, and causing blood to rush to our eyes; gangrene eating at our limbs; or being bedridden – all of these sorrows will serve to strengthen our faith”.
Saint Cyprian of Carthage never suffered from paralysis, blindness or terminal cancer. But when the Roman officials ordered him to offer a sacrifice to the pagan idols or face execution, he preferred the latter. On hearing the sentence, Saint Cyprian exclaimed: “Glory to God!” He blessed the executioners and the weeping crowd, then bent his head calmly under the sword. The Church glorified Bishop Cyprian of Carthage as a holy martyr.
Saint Manefa of Gomel
Saint Manefa of Gomel (commemorated on 11 August) is a locally venerated saint of the Belarusian Orthodox Church. She was canonised as a holy venerable. This rank is reserved for monastics who lived lives that were pleasing to God and died a natural death. In her life, he endured much pain and anguish fully in the spirit of Saint Cyprian’s teachings.
Saint Manefa (named Maria before tonsure) was born on 1 April 1918 in the village of Sevruky near Gomel and grew up in a pious Orthodox family of peasants. By the age when most children begin to walk, her parents found that she had cerebral palsy and would not be able to walk normally for the rest of her life. She also developed a kidney infection from crawling on the ground, her only way to move around. The infection gave her a lot of trouble in adulthood. Maria did not go to school. She never married. Due to limited mobility, she became obese. At her young age, her health problems were so numerous and her sorrows were so grave that only a tenth would make most of us desperate and distraught.
But Maria grew up in a family of pious and God-fearing people who were Christians not only in name. From her childhood, she learned to see this world as a difficult but beautiful place. She knew that her life in this world had a mission and purpose. She accepted her illness as the will of God, not a curse. She was confident that there was some meaning to her illness. She may not know it, but it must be inherently good.
As an adolescent, Mary had a dream. She was standing at a crossroads, and a voice said to her: “Go right, and you will have a comfortable life. Go left, and your life will be full of sorrows. Without hesitation, she turned left.
Why do saints suffer illnesses and sorrows?
Many people pray to Christian saints to seek relief from grief and sickness, and many have their prayers answered. Yet some saints, including Saint Manefa, were ill throughout their lives. Why were they not rewarded with good health despite their prayers?
To address this seeming contradiction, Saint John Chrysostom (c. 347 – 407), named eight reasons why God allowed sorrows for His chosen people.
1. It was necessary so that the people who had discovered great talents in themselves would not puff themselves up above the others.
2. It precluded others from declaring saints to be gods, and thus protected them from the sin of idolatry.
3. God’s power becomes most visible when it manifests itself in human weakness.
4. By accepting sorrows, they were prepared to follow God unconditionally, not in the expectation of some worldly benefit or reward.
5. By enduring sorrows, the saints testify to all Christians of the forthcoming resurrection, when all those who have withstood hardships for the sake of God will be glorified and honoured.
6. The saints who remain steadfast in their sorrows give comfort and reassurance to all who are burdened.
7. The saints experience their moments of weakness, which makes their experiences more relevant and relatable to other people – they no longer see them as super-heroes whose example they could never emulate.
8. In their torments, the saints reveal to us the true meaning of happiness and unhappiness. True happiness is to achieve oneness with God by living a virtuous life, and unhappiness is to isolate ourselves from Him behind a wall of sin.
Saint John Chrysostom concludes, “Aware of this many reasons for the sorrows of the saints, let us not grumble in our trials. Let us cast aside all doubt or confusion, temper our spirits, and teach others the same.”
Saint Manefa of Gomel followed these teachings in the letter and spirit. She found in it the meaning of her life.
Ascent to sainthood
Maria accepted tonsure during World War 2 with the name Manefa. She joined the Chyonky Convent in honour of the Tikhvin Icon of the Mother of God. However, because this convent was established under German occupation, it had a very short history. When the Convent was closed, Manefa returned to her village, where she spent the rest of her life.
Eventually, people started to flock to her in growing numbers. They came to ask her for reassurance and help in their multiple sorrows. At some point, she began to receive priests who requested her advice and simple prayer. The priests came from the nearby Gomel and also from as far as Minsk and Kiev. Many who met Manifa testified to her gift of far-sightedness and her ability to read people’s hidden thoughts and motives. In many people, she managed to light the flame of faith. Just sitting at a table with her over tea, listening to her reading or watching her sewing brought many to the idea of God’s existence. They were confident that there must be a God in this world as long as there were people like Saint Manefa.
In photos, Saint Manefa looks like an ordinary woman, full-figured and with a simple peasant face. Nothing in her outward appearance revealed a saint in her. She died in 1984 and was glorified by the Belarusian Orthodox in 2007.
If there is one lesson that we can learn from her life, it could be this. Tormented by severe illnesses, she never complained or demanded anything of others, but gave them generously her love, joy, energy and optimism. She never engaged in self-pity. Anyone who can do the same will have a place in heaven next to nun Manefa.