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The anointing of the sick: God's sacramental medicine at work
The conversation usually begins something like this: “Father Dwight, would you pray for me this week? I’m having surgery.” I usually respond, “Certainly, I will remember you in prayer. Since you’re preparing for surgery, would you like to receive the anointing of the sick?” “Oh no, Father Dwight – I don’t think I’m that sick.” It’s a very common response to my suggestion about the anointing of the sick. Unfortunately, many folks still equate the anointing of the sick with the celebration of the Last Rites, and even if they are clear about the sacrament’s significance, there seems to be a sense of somehow not being worthy to receive it.
When illness – either chronic or acute – becomes a part of our lives, it can create a number of varied feelings in us. When we get sick, sometimes we just don’t feel or act like our best selves. There can be a sense of despair, wondering if we will ever feel well again. There can be a short temper, since pain or discomfort can cause us to lash out at those who are closest to us as they seek to ease our suffering. When we become ill, we often feel as though we become disconnected from those around us. We see family or friends less frequently, we may have to be absent from work for some period of time, and we usually are forced to give up activities that we normally enjoy while we convalesce from our illness. If the nature of the illness is serious, we may often wonder where God is in the midst of our pain, and we can begin to think about our own mortality.
Whether one’s illness is acute or chronic, the sacrament of the anointing of the sick is an avenue that brings God’s healing and strengthening grace into a situation where it is desperately needed. My love for the sacrament of the anointing of the sick has grown and deepened through the course of my priestly ministry. It is a moving and emotional experience to bring God’s own sacramental medicine to a sister or brother in faith who is ill, anticipating surgery, or who feels the burden of advancing years weighing them down. The anointing of the sick offers the opportunity for family or friends to gather around a loved one who is sick and surround that person with prayer and the assurance that they are not alone. Because the anointing of the sick involves the laying on of hands by the priest and the physical touch of anointing the sick person’s forehead and hands with the Oil of the Sick, these simple actions often help one who is sick to let go of their stress and tension and help them to feel connected to the much larger realities of God and the Church.
If you or one you love are sick or anticipating surgery, or if you feel the burden of advancing age, do not be afraid to request the anointing of the sick. If possible, make sure that family and friends can be present with you for the celebration of the sacrament. Most importantly, allow the grace of the sacrament to work in and through you, to bring a sense of healing and deeper connection to God and those around you. Times of illness can shake our faith. The anointing of the sick is a beautiful sacramental means by which our faith can be strengthened, our burdens can be shared, our hope can be renewed, and our trust in God can be deepened. And so, our journey in FAITH continues.