My mother received the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick last Sunday. I was away when she was anointed but her carers were there and they noticed that she tried, with a faltering hand, to make the Sign of the Cross … less successfully than Lord Marchmain in Brideshead Revisited, on his deathbed, and less symbolically, given that she’s never parted company with the Church.
The priest returned a day later to give her Communion. She couldn’t speak; indeed she couldn’t really focus her eyes properly, but at the end she raised her head a little to say goodbye to him and he gave her the thumbs up. She couldn’t take more than a fraction of the Host, suspended on thickened water, because of her difficulty swallowing. He lit a candle (“so she can focus”) and said the Lord’s Prayer and the Agnus Dei. It was all kindly and unthreatening.
It was my favourite among the priests of the parish who came, a priest who always ends Mass with a joke, even Requiem Masses (when the wife of an electrician died, he observed that she was always a bright spark). He was careful to say that these were prayers for the sick, though we knew that the Eucharist was the viaticum, or bread for the journey.
He says it’s something he does often, for parishioners who can’t get to church, but also for those who are dying. He always leaves the decisions for them about whether to say they are dying.
As for the sacrament of Confession, “I ask them,” he says, “if they want to make their peace with God, and sometimes they do.” He’ll ask how they feel, and take his cues from them. It’s a humane approach; it ranges from the offer of hope to the sick to helping the dying reach the end of their journey: “Go forth, Christian soul…”
My mother has been at death’s door before, but she has hauled herself back. This time the nurse is trying to be as tactful as possible: “The Parkinson’s … it’s not going to get any better.” But for the benefit of anyone who has the condition, I should say that my mother has had it for at least a dozen years, and it’s not of itself a death sentence.
I do myself have a burning conviction of the possibility of miracle. My own approach is to pray, inter alia, to King Henry VI, the poor king who had bouts of insanity – the reaction of a sane person to a violent age – and was almost canonised before bad king Henry VIII dropped the canonisation procedure. Henry VI has always been good to me; I have now invoked him for my mother. I also have a friend, whom I grew up with, who is the saintliest person I know; I get her to pray with the same expectation of results as people have when they phone Deliveroo.
“Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith shall save [sosei] the sick man; and the Lord shall raise him up [egerei]; and if he be in sins, they shall be forgiven him”.
That was the instruction of St James, the primary basis for seeing the practice as essentially a sacrament.
As the Catholic Encyclopedia observes: “Here we have the physical elements necessary to constitute a sacrament in the strict sense: oil as remote matter, like water in baptism; the anointing as proximate matter, like immersion or infusion in baptism; and the accompanying prayer as form.”
The question of whether this constitutes a sacrament was disputed in the Reformation: Luther and Calvin both dismissed it. And, indeed, it was the Council of Trent that first insisted that it was a sacrament instituted by Christ.
We don’t now quarrel much about the number of sacraments, not least because many Catholics are unclear about what they are. But in human terms, Extreme Unction is a profoundly benevolent practice. In talking about the forgiveness of sins as well as the potential healing of the body, we prepare the recipient of the sacrament for the final journey. And in its present form, as the sacrament of the sick, with the implicit hope of recovery, it gives heart to the recipient and the people around them.
What it also usefully does is bring us, at our own pace, to the realisation that the sick may be dying and should be preparing for the journey – though nothing would induce me to say anything of the sort to my mother.
But then, we all should be preparing. The bell is tolling for us all.
Melanie McDonagh works for the London Evening Standard
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