What I understood and knew about the sacrament of anointing of the sick was deepened dramatically by my experiences last year leading up to the death of my father. During his illness, my dad had recourse to this sacrament on many occasions and was visited by our parish priests frequently. I remember a few weeks before he died, he took my mother, my wife and I into a room and started to talk about – what I initially thought – were nonsensical things. My first inclination was a deep sadness and disorientation at the thought that my dad, who had always been sharp, lucid and clever was finally ‘losing it’ and was now talking in circles and not making sense. For a second I felt like a kid lost in a department store. My lifelong rudder was gone. The North Star had faded. My compass was off. Dad talked about things that were present as if they weren’t, and things that weren’t as if they were. He asked questions that had no relation to the topics we were discussing, he became eccentric, erratic and strange. He reminded me of moments I had experienced between sleep and wakefulness; the times I have nodded off in the middle of a conversation; sometimes waking myself up because I had tried to respond to the conversation and being embarrassed at the recognition that what I had said made no sense. Or other times when I had woken myself up because I was talking aloud (nonsensically) in a dream. But in particular I recall, in a moment of clarity during this talk, that my Dad asked us all to ensure that the “real him” as he referred to himself, would not be forgotten. He suggested that he might do strange things and not make sense, but that he wanted us to know that the “real him” was still there and never to forget it. He also asked us to help him not to give up. To pray for him. All he wanted to talk about was God. He thanked Him over and over and over again. He talked about God, or to Him, just like St. Dominic. The TV never came back on – a waste of time. Dad tied a small wood crucifix around the pull-strings of his sweatpants. He held a hand cross tightly in his fist. His eyes were heaven-ward constantly. I couldn’t help but feel like he was bracing himself. Preparing himself for a battle.
After these strange episodes I began to read more deeply about the dying process and what I found was that this “altered state” was very common. The scientific books were satisfied to explain it away as merely a chemical thing… as the body begins to shut down there is new activity in the brain that causes disorientation. That’s it. Open and shut. But I, as a Christian, had to harmonize the physical truths with the spiritual ones. We are both body and soul. And I knew that in the spiritual dimension my father was beginning to get glimpses of the other side. As the eyes of his body dimmed, he was beginning to see with the eyes of his soul. He was absolutely beginning to cross over.
It was during this time that my dad especially benefited (and sought out) the sacraments. Though he never said, I knew he was dealing with terrible pain from the cancer in his bones and lungs, discomfort from the hours upon hours of sitting and lying down, embarrassment from having his nakedness constantly wiped and cleaned. He was the most vulnerable he would ever be, the most like a child, the most weak, and it was at this moment, when he was closest to the suffering of the Cross, that the devil no doubt tried hardest to temp him; to have him lose hope, to have him get angry at his caretakers, to despise his sorry state, to hate, to demand that Jesus make things different, to go into the eternal night angry with God.
But the anointing protected him. And he knew that. The chrism oil covered him. And he was defended. He never complained. Nor did he get angry about his bed sores, or nakedness. He smiled. Sometimes coyly because he didn’t understand what we were saying. But he smiled. He thanked the priests. He kissed their hands. They kissed his. And 24 hours before he died, he received the final anointing, the last absolution… and after that he never spoke again. His battle with the enemy continued in silence but the sacrament worked in his heart. In silence. I was reading the book of Revelation to him when he died. I was sharing the passage about the white stone we will all receive in heaven, the stone that has our real names, our deepest, truest name, engraved upon it – the name that only God knows.
And moments later, seconds after I left his bedside, he was gone.
In my training, study and discernment for the diaconate I have come across many things which I now see through the eyes of service. The diaconate is above all else a vocation to serve the people of God. And the sacrament of anointing of the sick I now see too as deeply diaconal – because it is deeply about sacrificial service.
Anointing is about meeting and ministering to a brother or sister in the most difficult moments, in the most painful moments: in the final moments.
And that is the kind of thing best done… by a servant.