By This Holy Anointing
This letter builds on last week’s discussion of patient and caregiver. Writing that letter suggested our members need to know the kinds of caregiving the Church has to offer.
The week ahead abounds in beginnings. Religious Education, RCIA, and Parish Study each take off for another year’s run. Easter and the other rites of Spring lie way ahead, out of view. Between us and those moments of completion lie many hours of class and preparation for class. More hours yet will go to meetings, preparation for meetings, and following through upon meetings. Then there are the questions: will the group gel? How many will come? How much will weather mess us up? Who will get mad at me? Will I be on top of my game? Before it starts, when I look at it from the outside, the experience looks mountainous. If I stay with that perception, I will shrink from the whole task. Perhaps I will recycle last year’s notes, insights, and strategies, all the while counting the weeks until Memorial Day. Or I might board the self-pity express and let complaint fuel my passage through this parish year.
This changes if I bring God into my present, realizing He has allowed me to be in this moment, and He will make it work for me. By this I am “present to the present” and not living for vacations, or last year, or next year. When I assume this stance the year will be fruitful for me whether it is rough or calm. Here is how real life becomes contemplative life. Grace here works concretely to make the familiar surprising, the routine refreshing, and work a gift of fulfillment. I turn the key to its working if I accept my circumstances and affirm God’s constant presence to me.
If even predictable beginnings give rise to a whole range of emotions, think of those that come upon us unannounced and unwelcome. How does it feel to be diagnosed with a major illness which will suddenly divert one’s life down an uncharted path? While we recognize that aging happens to all of us, we are nevertheless surprised and shocked when it overtakes us personally. Such crises in the body understandably generate fear, anger, resignation, or a combination thereof. Getting sick and growing old cause trauma because they upset the physical and emotional integrity we have come to take for granted. One faces not only symptoms but also questions: what will happen to me and when? Who will care for me? And of course will I recover? People also wonder why God has allowed this, and where is He when He is needed?
Sickness and aging bring pain, inconvenience, and confusion. Rightly, we combat the former and stave off the latter. Nevertheless, the Ghost of Christmas Future intimates that they will come for each of us. For us who believe being sick and getting old do not threaten the human experience from outside, but take their proper place in its composition. God Himself allows our difficulty and our decline. Perhaps in His goodness He allows these fundamental experiences of incompleteness so that we may recognize He is complete in Himself, and intends to complete us with Himself.
But when circumstance has disrupted my life, left me in pain, deprived me of dignity, stolen my independence, and handed me over to fear, I find it difficult to contemplate the deeper significance of my distress.
To the Christian caught in this maelstrom the Church offers the Sacrament of the Sick. Once confined to the moment of death as “Extreme Unction,” this sacrament has returned to its earlier place at the trauma of the beginning. To a person who has just entered into illness, who faces surgery, or who has reached a new plateau in aging we offer this beautiful prayer of laying on of hands and anointing with the Oil of the Sick.
We can celebrate this rite with the simplicity or fullness that the occasion demands, and we can celebrate it anywhere.
The sacrament takes aim at the heart as a prayer offering the healing it takes for a person to realize that with God even the most terrible of circumstances may become occasions for growth. All of us who have walked with the sick can testify to the transformative nature of situations no sane person would choose. In the moment of the sacrament, a soul confronting its finitude places a firm foothold in the eternity of God. At this crucial time the Lord shows Himself to be the sustainer of life and the illuminator of its joys and sorrows. He heals it and completes it in accord with His own amazing design.
So if you have received a diagnosis, face a surgery, or perceive that aging has advanced, please ask any of the priests for the sacrament. We have tried to keep the Oil of the Sick within reach at the doors of our churches, so that you can bring the God of strength into the heart of human weakness. After he lays hands on you the priest will say.
(Anointing the forehead) Through this holy anointing, may the Lord in His love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit. (Anointing the hands) May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up.