Study Notes on Pastoral Counseling: Mechanics of Salvation
The idea that the parish is a hospital is very common; so common, in fact, that the very question of this assignment is quite rhetorical. Rather than asking whether I agree that the parish is a hospital, it seems to me that the assignment is assuming that I agree and asks me to explain why.
It should be said that the assertion that the parish is a hospital stems from the larger idea that the Church is a hospital, and any parish is the visible representation of the Church as a whole. There are many well-known scriptural passages and statements found in the writings of the saints that assert just that–so many, in fact, that it hardly seems necessary to recount them here. But the basic assumption, as I see it, comes from the Christian understanding of sin and its consequence. There are some views that sin is a transgression against God or His law, and that the wages of sin is death in the sense that every crime needs a punishment, and the crime of sin carries the penalty of capital punishment. Note, that death comes not as a result of sin, but as a result of punishment. In other words, unless someone decides to punish the criminal and carry out an execution, his crime in and of itself does not directly cause him to die. If this is not quite clear, I will explain the Orthodox position as a way to contrast.
In the Orthodox position, death comes not from any punishment, but from the very effect of sin upon human nature. I like pictures, so here is one to help me understand it. Imagine someone jumping off a cliff onto rocks below and getting bruised and broken, developing internal bleeding and then being on the brink of death from his injuries. Now imagine that you are a rescuer trying to save the person. To be sure, you may think that it was a really bad idea to jump off the cliff. It you are a park ranger and the event happened at your park, you may even be justified to view the dying person as a criminal–let’s say there was a law prohibiting jumping off cliffs. And now let’s say that as a ranger you have the right to charge that person with a crime or to issue him a warning, essentially forgiving his trespass. By now, most people would want to stop me and exclaim: “What are we even talking about? This is not important! Let’s save thing person–he is dying!”
The final imaginative exercise is to imagine that your are the father of the man who jumped off the cliff. Do you care whether your son committed the crime of jumping off the cliff? Will you beg the ranger to pardon your son and not to charge him with a crime? Or will you do whatever it takes to save his life? Christ revealed to us that God is our Father. It is only natural to assume that what is important to Him is to save our lives from the injuries that we caused to ourselves and that are killing us.
Thus, while we could talk about the Church’s role in addressing the crime and punishment side of sin, her primary, most important and immediate concern is to treat the injuries caused by sin. Those injuries can be grievous and plentiful. Just as a bad fall can cause cranial bleeding, punctured lungs, ruptured spleen, massive internal and external bleeding–and all of that needs to be treated at the same time in order to save a person’s life–in the same way, the injuries of sin are spiritual, emotional, physical–affecting the entirety of our nature. It is expected, then, that people feel that they can seek the Church’s help when they have spiritual struggles, or marital problems, or even a common cold.
However, this is where we need to draw some lines. It is not wise to seek cures from a common cold in the Church. The person who is sick would be absolutely correct to seek prayer, anointing with holy oil, counsel from a priest on the spiritually-beneficial understanding of the place of a common cold in our human experience, but the Holy Spirit has many talents for many different people, and one priest cannot possess them all. “Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess the gifts of healing?” (1 Cor. 12:29-30) If you have a broken leg, do you go to your priest? A broken leg is most certainly a symptom of the broken and sinful condition of our nature and all of creation (I do not think that there are broken legs in paradise), but no, you go to a doctor. Why would you not go to a professional for advice on a broken marriage?
To summarize, I think that there could be a paradigm of not seeing the Church and then more narrowly, the parish as the hospital, but of seeing the parish, and then more largely, the Church as the place of healing. When I say ‘the Church’ in this context, I do not mean the ecclesiastical structure, but rather, all of the manifestations of Christ’s healing and saving power poured upon this ailing world. A doctor, or a therapist, or a park ranger, or a good friend may not even be Christian, but insofar as they participate in Christ’s work of healing the wounds of their fellow humans being, they share in the healing grace of Christ. Think about it, if a parishioner comes to us and asks to pray for a successful surgery, what are the words of the prayer? “O Lord… guide the hands of the physician…” We do not mean “against the physician’s will” or “like a puppet,” but with and through his will and actions. We ask for Christ’s divine blessing on the will and actions of this doctor, whom we do not know, and who may or may not be a Christian–but we ask and believe that God will bless the work of his hands nonetheless.