Anointing of the Sick
Some three years ago I was found to have advanced cancer. Since then I have had wonderful support from many people, organisations and agencies, none more wonderful than that of my wife and our family.
But there is another form of support I hardly knew existed and upon which I have come to depend and for which I am extremely grateful. While the doctors and nurses of the NHS and other providers of healthcare look after your body, your family needs help in finding succour for your mind and soul. The Church, in my experience, is set up to do this and by drawing on 2000 years of experience can do it very powerfully and very well.
If the medical profession has its surgery and its pills and potions to rely on in all their forms and shapes and colours, the Church has one particular Sacrament among her others that is quite extraordinarily powerful yet perhaps the least well known of all, the Anointing of the Sick. It is uniquely suited to ill people. We don't meet this Sacrament in our daily or weekly lives as we don't normally need it. But our lack of knowledge of Anointing is a loss to us as knowing it is there for us is actually astonishingly comforting and sustaining and I have found priests very understanding when I have asked if my children or grandchildren can be present when I am being anointed. I have found the very young to be fascinated by it, as they hear of God's love being called down on
someone they love too, and watching it offers them an aspect of their newly forming faith they can therefore grasp and identify with rather more easily than some of the other stuff they have to put up with when being taken to church too young!
The basis of the practice, or as one might say the instruction for its use, is to be found in James though it is mentioned elsewhere. It seems odd in a way that a Sacrament enacting such a central part of the Gospel, healing the sick, whether by restoring health or by, as one translation puts it "saving", should receive such little attention. (And as to what the correct translation might be of healing, the word "strengthening" seems to fit the bill for me, but I am no theologian).
I have been anointed by my parish priest, Fr Tom Dubois, both as part of a parish service in the church and more frequently at home; by visiting priest friends and family members and in hospital, by the chaplains and many times in particular by Fr Gabriel, the Parish Priest at the time of the building of St Francis and still a dear friend and now living in St Joseph's Home in Bristol. From there he would walk to my bedside in the BRI at least once a week, often more frequently. It was my good fortune that my time in hospital a year ago coincided with a relatively quiet time in his life and even daily visits were not unknown.
When Anointing in private, each priest brings to the occasion his own ministry and the opportunity to discuss something on one's mind can be taken before or after the Sacrament but as part of the visit. On request and when the circumstances are right it may be possible for the patient's principal carer to be anointed too and my wife and I have found that to be a lovely way to live our vows in sickness and in health, an extraordinarily enabling way for me to be part of her being affirmed and for her to be given strength which she now says she counts on.
I can only speak with any authority of what being anointed does for me and it is of course a most private moment. As the priest lays his hands on my head I am conscious of the fact that I am taking part in something that has been happening continuously since Our Lord's time on earth. Jesus is there with me, with us as he always is of course but in a way that is almost tangible. What happens next is similarly ancient: I am vividly conscious of an unbroken line to Jesus when the priest then anoints my forehead and the palms of my hands while praying over me. What sets this Sacrament apart for me is that I have to DO nothing, I merely have to BE receptive. It is DONE to me. Perhaps I am usually over sensitive to the need to get form right but to be shorn of all responsibility for a moment and simply be receiving makes it so much easier to make that receiving whole and so allows the Sacrament to be so much more what it is meant to be than if I were fussing about any of the detail. The whole thing can take only minutes and yet can be combined with receiving Holy Communion which is also a lovely way.
After I have been anointed I feel completely different and at peace. Any fears or worries that may have been getting out of proportion are tamed, my good fortune becomes dominant over any feelings of unfairness and all those things prayed for as part of the anointing seem real. Of course this state cannot endure (there would be a need for one anointing only if so) but each time I am anointed I feel a strengthening and deep sustenance that forms part of a whole, part of a general building up of strength, part of that continuous reminder and assurance that Christ is with me.