Yesterday's Mass was a special one for me in a number of ways and this is so each year at my parish. It being Gaudete Sunday, the focus is on joy, of course and this means calls to rejoice and reminders of a God who has come to dwell with us and will come again in ever greater fullness. But each year with the rest of the Church we also celebrate the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick in this communal setting; anyone in the parish who struggles with illness, is preparing for or recovering from surgery, and so forth, is welcome to come forward for the Sacrament. The presider lays hands on each person's head, anoints his or her forehead and hands with sacred oil and prays a prayer for healing and the forgiveness of sins. It is a powerful and immensely beautiful sacrament and I personally receive it at least once a year.
There is an irony in all of this for me. A paradox. On the Sunday we call Joyful I (and probably many others) regularly receive the Sacrament of the Sick because of chronic illness. For me, the difficult reality of illness is now something also marked by real joy. This shift, this move to paradox, began a number of years ago now --- around the time I was doing Masters work. About then I read Prophetic Anointing by Father James (Jake) Empereur on the Sacrament of anointing. At the time I had been struggling with this illness for a few years and it was proving medically intractable (it would soon prove to be surgically intractable as well). In that book Jake Empereur spoke of Anointing of the Sick as a "vocational sacrament" or "vocational anointing" similar to the anointings associated with baptism, confirmation, and ordination. It was an image that lit a fire in my imagination and took my own reflection on chronic illness in a direction I had never considered. In time, and buttressed first, by the Apostle Paul's theology of divine power perfected in weakness, and second, by Merton's Contemplation in a World of Action, it took my life in a direction I had never conceived.
Paul's theology led me to see my own weakness as potentially sacra-mental, potentially mediatory. Jake Empereur's work led me to consider it was possible to conceive of chronic illness as a specific and vivid way one might witness to the good news of God's redemption. Though I never believed and still do not believe God wills (much less sends!) suffering or chronic illness, I came to believe that one might have a "vocation to chronic illness", or rather, a vocation to be well in Christ in spite of illness and to proclaim the Gospel especially through the lens of one's illness. In this way illness becomes transparent to the reality of redemption. Especially I drew on Empereur's idea that the Sacrament of the Sick marks us as being called to be ill within the Church! It is a vastly different thing to be sick outside the Church and apart from the Gospel than it is to be sick within the Church as a witness to God's redemption!
Merton's work allowed me to take both of these related insights in the direction of the radical expression we know as eremitism, and eventually in the direction of consecrated eremitical life. The article I wrote for Review For Religious back then was about Chronic Illness and Disability as a [potential] Vocation to Eremitical Life. I add [potential] because didn't think many would be called to this (the eremitical call is rare in absolute terms) but relatively speaking, I did think that the chronically ill and disabled were one demographic group that might have a higher percentage of such vocations than average. Experience (and a number of diocesan hermits with chronic illness) have proven that to be the case.
Shifting Personal Perceptions of the Sacrament of Anointing
The Church is still appropriating the shift in the way this Sacrament is seen. It has moved from seeing it as extreme unction given only to the dying to seeing it as a Sacrament which strengthens and makes whole in illness so that one may live more fully. My own perceptions and use of this Sacrament have also shifted. Once upon a time I received the Sacrament of the Sick just to help get me through the next weeks or months of my life, or prepare for yet one more surgery, or to help me deal with injuries or depression. Today I receive it not only because I still, and apparently always will struggle with chronic illness, but because in my life this Sacrament is very much what Prof. James Empereur noted it might well be, namely, a sacrament of vocation. Certainly the Sacrament strengthens and heals, but in my own life it marks or symbolizes a call as well, the call to be sick within the Church and therefore, to come to know and rejoice in an essential and transcendent wellness that exists in spite of physical disease and (sometimes) psychological stress and dis-ease. The symbol of anointing has overtones of royalty and priesthood, and of course, the strengthening of those who will do battle or be injured. While I always pray for whatever physical healing might come through this Sacrament, I am more focused on the witness to wholeness and abundant life it calls me to as part of a royal and priestly People. Listen to the hymn (psalm) which focuses and explicates the promise we celebrate this day:
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus 2 it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the Lord,
the majesty of our God.
and make firm the feeble knees.
4 Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
“Be strong, fear not!
Behold, your God
will come with vengeance,
with the recompense of God.
He will come and save you.”
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
6 then shall the lame man leap like a hart,
and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert
For me, the Sacrament of the Sick is, in its own way, as much a part of my vocation as my profession or consecration. It marks the special character or flavor of my desert experience and call to the witness of eremitical life; had it been possible I would have wished the Sacrament could have been incorporated into some part of my consecration liturgy --- though there are many good reasons it could not have. In any case, in a special way it is the Sacrament that marks me as gift of God when discrete gifts I possess might no longer be usable or must be relinquished. It calls me to remember that illness, as real and significant as it might be in my life is never the thing I am called to witness to. Instead it commissions me to allow illness to become transparent to the grace of God that makes whole and holy while allowing weakness to be transfigured as God's power is thus more perfectly manifested in our world. The call to be sick within the Church is no small matter --- and no easy one either. Even so, despite the struggle involved it can also be a joy because what once seemed utterly meaningless has been made to be profoundly meaningful.
We often think that the Sacrament of the Sick "doesn't work unless it heals us". But consider that the call it is associated with is described precisely in the psalm: [[then shall the lame man leap like a hart,/ and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy./ For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,/ and streams in the desert.]] It is not as necessary that our illness itself is healed in this Sacrament (or that it need be healed in order to fulfill a profound vocation to proclaim the Gospel) as it is that we ourselves are healed as persons and our this- worldly illness is transfigured with eschatological life and significance. On one level we may still be lame or dumb, and our lives seem fruitless and barren, but on another level we are called to be people who, through the grace of God, leap like a deer or sing for joy as we ourselves are made to be the fruit of grace and the wellspring of love. This is the call celebrated and mediated in the Sacrament of Anointing; how appropriate we celebrate such a powerful and paradoxical summons to be "sick within the church" on Gaudete Sunday!