Rest assured: The Anointing of the Sick

The Sacrament of Anointing offers a powerful moment of grace in which we can experience and express our love for each other and are assured of God's love for us. Fourth in a series by John Shea on the spirituality of the sacraments.

THE RECLINER WAS IN THE FULL EXTENDED POSITION, and the old priest was stretched out on it. It was after lunch, and he had fallen asleep. His hands were folded over his stomach. His Rosary beads had slipped and slid down into the crevice of the cushion. When he would wake up, he would pat himself down looking for his beads. Then he would realize where they were, shrug, and decide to leave them there. After tomorrow's lunch he would dig them out and start again. Sleep always arrived before his prayers were over. He had not said a full Rosary in more than a year.

cov9902a At first this bothered him. Napping after lunch and falling asleep during prayer were sure signs of growing old. He had always fought distractions. Now he didn't have the stamina to stay awake, much less fend off stray thoughts.

He had discussed this with his spiritual director. She was a young nun, one of the few in the hospital, and she was excessively understanding. She told him prayer often leads to sleep. Sleep is one of God's gifts. It is a balm to body and mind. The old priest could never figure out if Sister Terry, as she insisted on being called, was lax in matters spiritual or if she knew a God infinitely more subtle than his own.

But there was a truth in what she said.

During the naps his dreams were peaceful, not like the jumbled and confusing images of his restless nights. He saw sky and ocean, endless expanses that widened as he looked on them. Then suddenly they entered into him. At first he winced, thinking himself invaded and hurt. Then he realized he was no longer separate. He was part of everything, one with the spacious sky and limitless ocean. It was an easy way to be, the right way to be.

When he woke, he was refreshed and the world was vivid. A flower in the vase on his desk took his breath away; the yellow of the pencil hurt his eyes. He was incredibly alert. He took everything in. For a while. Then the cloudy eyes and muffled ears returned. He told Sister Terry, "I seem most awake when I am dreaming and most alert when I have just come out of dreaming."

"Really," she said and smiled.

The old priest's beeper went off. He returned from the endless sky, shifted in the recliner, and turned the beeper off. He pressed the display. It was the seventh floor, the cancer ward. He brought the chair into an upright position and worked himself out of it.

"Where are my beads?" he said, feeling in his clothes as he walked across the room toward the phone.

"Oh, yeah," he said, realizing they were where they always were.

He punched in the familiar number. "Father Madden here."

"Hi, Father. It's Alice. The Williamsons are all gathered. They told me you had planned an Anointing at 1. It's about 1:15. Dr. Schwartz said he would try to make it. So far he's not in sight."

"I'll be right up, Alice."

Father Charlie Madden had pastored three different churches. In retirement he had become the Catholic sacramental machine for St. Elizabeth's Hospital. There were three lay chaplains and one nun on the staff. They saw people on a regular basis and ran the clinical pastoral education program. When a sacrament was needed, however, they called on Charlie, and he rode to the rescue. "Charlie get on your horse," Alice Collette would say, "Room 718, Confession."

Charlie liked it. It was what a priest should be doing. When people asked him what the best thing about working at St. Elizabeth's was, he did not hesitate, "No administration but sacramental administration." It was his little clerical joke. Actually, he had given up on the idea of administering sacraments a long time ago.

For Charlie, sacraments meant intimacy. They were moments of nakedness, times when people had given up trying to cover themselves. Their sicknesses and sufferings forced them to drop all pretenses.

Confessions were heartfelt, people reaching for a forgiveness beyond justice, racked by compunction for what they had done. The Anointings were wrenching moments of love and good-bye, all decorum lost. At these times Charlie felt pulled into life, down into the swift currents that he had often tried, Christ-like, to walk on top of. With every hospital room he entered, he courted drowning.

Comforting the living
Alan Williamson was in his late 50s and had been fighting cancer for more than eight years. His wife, Jean, was a quiet presence at his side. They had three daughters, Corrie, Cindy, and Matty. Corrie and Matty were married. Cindy, the middle one, was shy. She never said much.

As the elevator opened on seven, Corrie was standing there.

"Could I talk with you, Father?" Without waiting for an answer, she continued, "Dr. Schwartz tells us Daddy's pain medication is not working as well as it did. He says he can sedate him, but he will be out of it. I think that means he would die in his sleep, just slip away." Tears suddenly filled her eyes. "I don't know what we should do or how to talk to Daddy about it. I don't want him to suffer, but..." Her voice trailed off and she dabbed her eyes with a Kleenex that had been crumpled in her hand.

"Let's walk down to the room. I think it is best we all talk openly with one another," Charlie said. "You know, we are all dying, not just your father."

Corrie did not know this. She stood still and said nothing. Charlie took her hand and walked a few steps, almost pulling her behind him. She might have been a little girl being pulled along on an adult adventure.

 Then he let go of her hand and they walked side by side. cov9902b

The first bed in Room 718 was unoccupied. Alan was in the second. He was surrounded by technological medicine—oxygen in his nose, multiple drips in his arms, a catheter for urine. His eyelids were heavy, but he was talking and making sense. When he saw the old priest enter the room, he reached up his hand. Charlie took it. At the same time his wife, Jean, clasped Charlie's other hand.

"Thanks for coming, Father. This means a lot to us," Jean said.

Alan nodded. "We did it before in church. Guess it didn't take," Alan wheezed. His voice was labored and painfully slow. All he could manage was a smile at his little joke. Everyone else was grateful to be able to laugh.

The old priest had seen it many times: the dying comforting the living by joking and talking about "business as usual." Especially parents. They instinctively protected their children. This became one last way they tried to shield them.

"Well, we'll have to do it till we get it right," Charlie went along with the game. "We've got all the right people. We're all here." He looked around at Jean and the daughters and two of their husbands. Then he turned to the bed. "All the people who love you, Alan. We are here with you and we are not leaving."

"Good," said Alan.

"Let's begin," said Charlie. "Let's gather. I'll guide us as we go along."

The priest greeted everybody with peace and prayed that God would be present to Alan and everyone Alan loves in this difficult time of dying. Whatever frivolity was in the room left. Everyone was silent.

Dr. Schwartz and Alice entered the room.

"Just in time" Charlie said, "We're just beginning. Enter the circle."

"This woman is a saint," Alan said softly. He meant Alice. She had cared for him in his two previous hospital stays, and they had become friends.

"You're not too bad either, Dr. Schwartz," Matty said.

Everyone laughed.

"I'm used to second fiddle," shrugged Jacob Schwartz.

More laughter.

"Hardly," said Alice and rolled her eyes in such a way that everyone knew the doctor is always in charge.

More laughter.

"There's a penance rite here begging to be said," interrupted Charlie. "Whenever I say, 'Lord, have mercy,' say it back to me." There was silence once again.

"Lord, you are present to us in times of affliction. Lord, have mercy."

A weak "Lord, have mercy" came back at Charlie.

"Lord, you forgive us our sins. Christ, have mercy."

Everyone responded "Christ, have mercy," even Dr. Schwartz, who was Jewish.

"Lord Jesus, your death brings us to life. Lord, have mercy."

The "Lord, have mercy" came back a little stronger.

Now there was real silence, a silence pregnant with a word. The people were gathered.

Letting go
"I've asked Matty to read the gospel for us. Feel free to sit down." Charlie waved at the few chairs in the room and pulled back the curtain to make the other bed available. No one moved.

"On one occasion Jesus spoke thus: 'Father, Lord of heaven and earth, to you I offer praise. What you have hidden from the learned and the clever you have revealed to the merest children. ...Come to me, all you who are weary and find life burdensome, and I will refresh you. Take my yoke upon your shoulders and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart. Your souls will find rest, for my yoke is easy and my burden light.'"

Matty's voice was quavering as she finished.

Alan spoke immediately. Each word seemed painful but determined. "I don't want to rest. I want to fight. I don't want to leave you." Tears choked off his voice.

"I don't want you to die, Daddy," sobbed Corrie. cov9902c

"I'll always love you, babe," said Jean in a matter-of-fact voice. It was a voice meant to calm and channel everyone's emotions. She kissed Alan on the forehead. Then, turning to the girls, she became Jean the mother. "Your father and I have talked about this. We want you to know how much we love you, how much we love each other, and how good our life has been. We want to be grateful, not only sad and afraid."

"Your mother's right," Alan said. He squeezed Jean's hands. "She always keeps me on the straight and narrow."

"You taught us so much, Daddy. Now you are teaching us how to die," said Matty.

"I'd just as soon not," said her father.

Then after a long pause he said, "Wait a minute." Alan closed his eyes. He seemed to be gathering strength from somewhere inside. Obediently, everyone waited.

"I want to make sure everyone is OK. I worry for you," the dying father finally said.

"We're OK, Daddy." Corrie looked around to get everyone's support.

Alan held up his index and middle finger and crossed them. He was getting too weak for speech but not for hope.

The old priest turned to Corrie. "Corrie, tell your dad about what you asked me."

Corrie told her father what Dr. Schwartz said. Dr. Schwartz nodded behind her. Charlie was surprised he did not interrupt.

"Whenever," Alan said. "I just want you with me... whenever."

The old priest looked at Corrie. He hoped she saw her father's real concern was not "when."

"We're right here, babe," Jean held his hand.

"Trust it, Daddy," Cindy blurted out.

Everyone turned toward her.

"I'm sorry," she said.

Alan's eyes were closed. "Cindy's right," he said.

"We have no choice," Charlie quickly connected to Cindy's words. "We have to trust. Even in our grief. And we have to stay together. Let us hold hands. Jean, take Alan's hand. Corrie, move around and take your father's other hand."

Everyone positioned themselves around the bed. Dr. Schwartz and Alice were holding hands near the foot.

The old priest continued. "I believe your love will always hold you together. It will not be in the same way. It will not be as physical as it once was, but it will be there. This is the love of Christ, his humble and gentle heart. Don't think about it with your minds. Feel it in your heart. Your heart knows this truth, but our minds often doubt it. Our sadness is real but so is this love."

Charlie looked at Alan. His eyes were closed. He was not sure he heard any of it. Then his eyes opened.

"Alan, how you doing?" Charlie asked.

"I'm here," he said.

Everyone smiled. Through her tears Jean laughed.

In good hands
"I am going to lay my hands on you, Alan, and I want you to touch me back," Charlie said. "Then I am going to ask everyone else to do the same. It is an ancient ritual."

The old priest laid his hands on Alan's head. Then he picked up Alan's hand and put it on his head. Alan pushed down a bit. It was more than a touch, almost a squeeze. Charlie smiled.

The old priest moved away from Alan. He went over to Bed 1, sat down, and watched. Everyone else moved in on Alan. The laying on of hands became touching and hugging and crying and saying, "I love you." The sons-in-law were awkward. They touched Alan and then put their arms around their wives. Alice and Dr. Schwartz laid their hands on Alan without a medical reason, without probing for a problem or trying to soothe a pain. Jean laid her head on his chest. Alan ran his hands over them all, touched their faces, rubbed their arms, clasped their hands. To the eyes of the old priest there was no greediness in Alan's hands. He said a prayer to God for the knowing ways of touch.

cov9902d Then suddenly Charlie thought about his own death and who would be touching him. He had outlived many of his friends, and the ones who were still alive might not be able to come. Unless his nephews flew in, it would probably be Sister Terry, the interpreter of sleep, and the other chaplains. Then again, he thought, I may konk out quickly. Who knows? Death plays no favorites.

Everyone was quieting down. Charlie pushed himself off the bed and joined the circle. "Alan, we would like to anoint you and assure you of God's love."

Charlie opened the book, anointed Alan's forehead, and read the words slowly.

"Through this holy anointing may the Lord in his love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit. ...Amen."

Then he anointed his hands and said, "May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up....Amen."

Then the old priest continued: "Lord Jesus Christ, you chose to share our human nature, to redeem all people, and to heal the sick. Look with compassion upon your servant, Alan, whom we have anointed in your name with this holy oil for the healing of his body and spirit. Support him with your power, comfort him with your protection, and give him the strength to fight against evil. Since you have given him a share in your own Passion, help him to find hope in suffering, for you are Lord forever and ever."

Cindy said, "Amen."

Fields of dreams
Charlie took out the pix. He had forgotten to take it out earlier. It contained 10 consecrated hosts. He raised one up and said in utter amazement, "This is the bread of life. Taste and see that the Lord is good."

He put the host in front of Alan's eyes and said, "Body of Christ."

A hoarse "Amen" came from Alan.

Alan received the Body of Christ. Charlie asked Jean to give him some water. Then he distributed Holy Communion to all who were willing to receive it. Dr. Schwartz shook his head no.

Then Charlie asked everyone to sit or lean against the wallto get comfortableand spend some time in silent communion with God and with each other.

He returned to Bed 1. Cindy sat next to him. Jean sat on the edge of Alan's bed and held his hand. The others found chairs. Corrie and her husband leaned against the window sill.

cov9902e The old priest had come to believe strange things about Communion. He felt people were together in deep spiritual ways, ways deeper than physical touch and ways that surpassed physical passing. He did not believe the next world was separate from this world but a different dimension of it. And this strange certainty came about because he finally acknowledged his agnosticism. When he stopped thinking he knew all about the world to come, he found it was quite natural to believe in it. Not because scripture said it or the church held it, but because it was so consistent with love that he could not imagine it otherwise. "Nothing can separate us from the love of God made visible in Christ Jesus our Lord." His favorite quote. So simple, yet it takes a lifetime to realize. He gave thanks he had lived long enough to feel this truth in his aging bones.

Charlie looked around and focused for a second on each person in the room. He knew they had gone into their griefs and fears and had emerged. He also knew they would have to do it again. But there was a morning freshness in the room, a daybreak quality, the clarity that comes after an afternoon nap.

The old priest spoke into the silence.

"Do you dream, Alan?"

Alan's eyes were open. He nodded.

"Fields," the dying man said, "open fields."

Charlie heard the spaciousness in Alan's voice. He stood, walked over to the dying man and took his hand. "Christ plays in those fields," he said.

No one said anything.

Charlie repeated what he said, as much for himself as for everyone else. "Christ plays in those fields."

The old priest knew there was one more prayer to say and the ritual would be over. But he was in no hurry to say it. He was in no hurry to rush from these open fields. So he stayed there—with Alan in the center and Jean next to him, with Corrie, Cindy, and Matty, with Dr. Schwartz and Alice, and with the two sons-in-law, whose names he had forgotten. They all stayed there together—seemingly in a place just right—honoring love by being vigilant as life passes.

By John Shea, author of numerous books, including Gospel Light (Crossroad, 1998), The Legend of the Bells and Other Stories (ACTA, 1996), and Stories of God (Thomas More Press, 1978). This article originally appeared in the February 1999 issue of U.S. Catholic.

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