A few weeks ago, I was called to sing at the Anointing of the Sick Mass here at our parish in the Bay Area. It had been a couple years since I’d last been to one, and it had been a very moving experience for me – and not just because of the number of people present to humbly receive the Lord’s graces in the Sacrament.
That last time I’d been to the communal Anointing, I was also there as cantor – but the Lord calls us in mysterious ways. I’d recently been diagnosed with a rather invisible illness, and unless you really knew me and interacted with me closely, there weren’t many outward signs of what I was struggling with. My body had so little energy, but because I’m naturally bubbly and peppy, my “down” looks like most people’s “normal.” My mind was using a lot of bandwidth dealing with my internal suffering, but at the same time I strove to keep on as usual.
Thus, throughout almost the entire Anointing, I’d been in a pretty animated internal debate on whether or not I myself should go to receive the Sacrament.
Was I in danger of death? Well, not really, but then, we all sort of are just by virtue of living – and besides that, I knew that the Church teaches that there’s no need to wait until a person is at the point of death to receive this Sacrament.
Did I have a physical ailment in need of healing? Not exactly, but wasn’t this Sacrament about more than that? After all, Jesus came to heal the whole person: body, mind, and soul.
Was I suffering? Well, okay, yes. But not as badly as others, I rather poorly reasoned.
In the end, thanks be to God, the Holy Spirit’s gentle prompting overcame my overactive rationalizations for why I shouldn’t/wasn’t worthy to/didn’t need to get anointed, and so I approached at the very last minute, palms up in supplication, grateful for and stunned by the simple balm of both the holy oil and the holy words our pastor spoke over me: “Through this holy anointing, may the Lord in his love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit. May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up.”
Through those words and that holy anointing, God gave me the peace I needed, a new perspective on what I was struggling with, and the grace to move forward with the help of the Holy Spirit. The relief was wonderful.
But then I went to the reception afterward and heard someone talking to a friend about how “this Sacrament isn’t for just anyone,” and “if you don’t really need it, why would you come and get it?” and all my doubts and hesitancies flew back in my face.
Was I wrong to have asked for the Lord’s healing mercy after all? Should I have “saved” it for a time of greater need? Did my own Anointing “use up” time, oil, energy, or love better given to someone else?
I was hurt and confused, and later asked Fr. George if perhaps it wasn’t appropriate after all that I’d received the Anointing. His simple question freed me once again from the bonds of doubt: “Did you feel that it was appropriate?” Yes. Despite my doubts, I did.
At this most recent Anointing, memories from the earlier one came back to me. I was reminded how, over and over in Scripture, God calls us. We say we’re not qualified; God says You’re exactly right, you’re not. I will provide what you need. And we move forward by his grace.
Sometimes we want God to answer our needs with showy miracles – a voice from the clouds booming out directions, or a lightning bolt striking down evil. I haven’t been privy to those sorts of things, but I never fail to see the Lord present and active in my life through the small graces of kind words, medicine prescribed by a physician, or something that looks more quotidian than fantastic. At that Anointing Mass, it was the simple sacrament that was able to give me peace, relief, and strength.
So this time, after those commonplace miracles given to me through that last Anointing, I decided not to receive the sacrament. Rather, I chose to bask in gratefulness for its effectiveness those few years ago, and give thanks for the humble witness of those many in attendance who, with open hearts and by the ministry of their presence, teach us about the love and mercy of the Lord.