The Anointing of the Sick
We Sheas tend toward the hefty end of the spectrum. Some of that is genetics. Some of it is how the family tends to relate to food and (fails) to govern its appetites. Sin has a generational aspect to it. And sin is, among other things, enslaving (as anybody struggling with addiction will tell you). That’s why, after nearly fifty years of grappling with my renegade appetites and watching my weight balloon into dangerous obesity, I finally (after my priest suggested it), asked for the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick a few years ago.
The result was uncanny. Quite simply, my appetite for sweets simply died and my appetite for other foods became, for the first time in my life, manageable. It doesn’t mean I didn’t still have a long struggle ahead of me. But suddenly the struggle became possible rather than a certainty of defeat. Because the main thing that needed healing—my soul—received the grace needed so that the bondage I was in would be broken and liberty would be expressed in my ability to govern my appetites. Quite simply, I was not bound anymore. Now, a couple of years down the line from that amazing encounter with grace, I have dropped 80 pounds and been much more able to govern and control my appetites.
We in America like to believe that if you want to change or break some long habit of sin why then you should just knock it off and change. It’s a beloved myth here in the land of the rugged individual. But it has been bunk ever since Paul wrote: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15). In fact, we cannot break the shackles of sin by ourselves. We require the help of grace. And since we are bodily creatures, the effects of sin and mortality are experienced by us bodily as well as spiritually.
That is why Jesus’ principal works of miraculous power as he moved among the people were works of healing and forgiveness. Both actions communicate the redemptive power of God which is directed to healing both the soul and the body. In some cases (such as the healing of the paralytic), the connection between the two was made obvious and explicit:
“’But that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins’--he then said to the paralytic—‘Rise, take up your bed and go home.’" (Matthew 9:6)
Likewise, when the apostles were sent on their missionary journey while Jesus was still on earth, “they went out and preached that men should repent. And they cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many that were sick and healed them" (Mark 6:12-13). The Church got the message. That is why, from the apostolic period forward, the Church likewise linked the grace of healing of the body with the grace of healing of the soul in the sacrament of Anointing.
“Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.” (James 5:14-15)
Indeed, the sacrament of Anointing and the sacrament of Reconciliation are known in the Tradition as the “sacraments of healing”. Reconciliation we generally understand because we frequent it more often. But what about the sacrament of Anointing? What is going on there?
There are various reasons we are less familiar with the sacrament of Anointing. One has to do with the fact that both Reconciliation and Anointing forgive sin. Because of this, it has sometimes appeared to be a tempting option to seek Anointing and so dodge the whole “confession” thing. The Church has discouraged this and, since people sin more often than they are gravely ill, there have been many more confessions than anointings.
Beyond this, however, is the fact that Anointing has historically been sought when things were getting pretty desperate for the sick person (there’s a reason it used to be called “Extreme Unction”). Indeed, lots of Catholics still fear the sacrament of Anointing as they might fear the mortician coming into their room and taking their measurements for the casket. The assumption that you have to be at death’s door to receive the sacrament of Anointing still lingers around Catholic culture and hinders the access of many people to the sacrament.
In fact, however, the Catechism teaches this:
“CCC 1514 The Anointing of the Sick "is not a sacrament for those only who are at the point of death. Hence, as soon as anyone of the faithful begins to be in danger of death from sickness or old age, the fitting time for him to receive this sacrament has certainly already arrived."
CCC 1515 If a sick person who received this anointing recovers his health, he can in the case of another grave illness receive this sacrament again. If during the same illness the person's condition becomes more serious, the sacrament may be repeated. It is fitting to receive the Anointing of the Sick just prior to a serious operation. The same holds for the elderly whose frailty becomes more pronounced.”
This can actually cover quite a number of people beyond bed-ridden folks who are moments away from breathing their last. In my own case, for instance, both obesity and diabetes are grave illnesses responsible for killing thousands of people each year. Or, to take another example, I know of numerous women who have received the sacrament of Anointing because of chronic infertility and miscarriage problems. I also know of a number of babies who are named after the priests who administered the sacrament to these women. Obviously, the Church does not have in mind stubbed toes and tummy aches, but it does mean to open the grace of the sacrament to all serious illness and not mere to those on the brink of death. This includes anybody who is going in for surgery, for instance. She is not stingy about grace.
Speaking of which, what is the grace of the sacrament? The Catechism (cf. paragraphs 1520-23) says the effects are these:
1. A particular gift of the Holy Spirit. That is, “strengthening, peace and courage to overcome the difficulties that go with the condition of serious illness or the frailty of old age.” The Holy Spirit strengthens us “against the temptations of the evil one, the temptation to discouragement and anguish in the face of death.” In short, the primary effect of Anointing is to “lead the sick person to healing of the soul, but also of the body if such is God's will. And of course, "if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven."
2. Union with the passion of Christ. In other words, we are enabled to join our sufferings to Christ’s for the sake of our salvation. This means, by the way, that though God may see fit to heal you physically (if that is best), he may also know that our best good is that we not be healed physically, for the sake of our souls and that of other members of the Body of Christ. Which bring us to the fact that Anointing confers…
3. An ecclesial grace. Anointing helps us offer our suffering for the healing, not just of our bodies, but the Body of Christ. As Paul said, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Colossians 1:24).
4. A preparation for the final journey. Although Anointing is not only for those at death’s door, it certain is a preparation for death too. In the words of the Catechism, it “completes our conformity to the death and Resurrection of Christ, just as Baptism began it.” Having been anointed in Baptism and Confirmation, we receive this last sealing with the Spirit to ready us for our final struggle and bring us safely to Heaven.
The Anointing of the Sick is a great grace which heals not just our souls and bodies, but the Body of Christ as well. If you are struggling with serious illness or age, avail yourself of it the next time you are at Church.