The Sacrament of the Sick: a Personal View

There is a moment during the Sacrament of the Sick when the priest anoints the hands of the sick person with a beautiful prayer for healing and strengthening. Theologically, it is a reminder that death is followed by Resurrection and recalls not only apostolic practice, but Jesus’ own anointing to suffering and death. This morning, however, I thought I would share with you a few distinctly untheological thoughts following my own anointing yesterday, concentrating not on words but on gestures. I hope they will be of help to others; but if not, they can be forgotten.

Our hands are such an important part of our body. They are one of the principal ways in which we know the world, through our sense of touch. We use our hands to work, make music, write, so many things. At some point during the conferral of the Sacrament, the sick person opens his or her hands to receive an anointing on them. That open-handed gesture before the altar is deeply significant. That is how we both give and receive. Everything we have comes to us as gift, and for all of us there is a time when everything we have and are must be handed back again. But our open hands are not left completely empty. They are marked with the sign of the Cross, traced upon the palms with holy oil. They are, if you like, etched with the mark of the nails that pierced the flesh of Jesus himself. Though there are many lonely moments for those who are seriously sick, they are never truly alone. They are always and everywhere accompanied by the Lord.

Yesterday, when I was anointed, the priest did not leave my hands stretched out before the altar but joined them together again, just as the bishop joins together the hands of a priest at his ordination. For me, it was a reminder that, although much of my work may now be done, and I must accept that many of the things I want to do must be laid aside unattempted, the most important work, the one for which I became a nun, is not only NOT ended, it is intensified. I am referring, of course, to the work of prayer, which is God’s work in us and never done because it continues into eternity.

Today, on the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, we are asked to pray for the sick and those who have care of them. I believe our prayer should be joyful and hopeful. That does not mean pretending to a courage and resignation we do not feel. It does not mean refusing to ask for healing. I think it means something much more difficult than that. I think it means that all of us, sick or well, need to stand before the altar, real or metaphorical, with open hands, as ready to give as to receive, to allow the Lord to do his work in us as he chooses. Today my own prayer is simply one of gratitude and praise, a heart-felt Gloria Patri.

Personal note
Some of you know that I have an aggressive form of cancer. The treatment plan may or may not succeed in keeping the illness at bay for a long while yet. I rather hope it does, but we just don’t know. I ask your prayers for the community but — an important but — please understand that we don’t want to enter into correspondence about this, etc, etc. It’s just a fact of life (and I do mean life, not death). I have no intention of giving up, nor has Quietnun; we don’t do glum, so please just go on treating us as usual, aware that we may not always be as available to people as we’d like. Thank you.

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Praying for the Sick

The feast of Our Lady of Lourdes prompts a few thoughts about praying for the sick. What do we think we are doing?

First of all, we are obviously obeying biblical injunctions to pray for the sick that they may recover; but what are we doing when recovery is unlikely: for example, when the person for whom we are praying is very old and tired and wants to go home to God? I think prayer for the sick in such situations is praying on behalf of the sick person. Even a bad cold can make it difficult for us to do the things we normally do, and prayer is no exception. It can be a thousand times worse when we have a serious illness that exhausts us or makes us so ‘down’ that our spiritual lives go blank. It is then that knowing others are praying for us, that the communion of saints is holding us up before God, may yield a grain of comfort and encouragement. Finally, when we pray for the sick, we pray for ourselves. There is none of us who is not in need of healing, but most of us don’t know our own sickness or refuse to acknowledge it.

Today, when we pray for the sick and those who care for them, let us not forget to pray for ourselves, for the forgiveness of our sins and for our salvation in Christ.

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