Healing, Holy Oil

The Catholic Church has trouble with healthy fleshly desire, but it ministers superbly to the sick and dying.

All lively religious traditions surround themselves with superstitions, and the American church in the '50s had a sort of buzzing, triumphalistic communal life that was a splendid breeding ground for lore. Many superstitions surrounded all the sacraments, and Extreme Unction, the old name for the sacrament we now call the Anointing of the Sick, was no exception. It was the only sacrament that happened at home. Or worse, in the hospital. It was therefore disappointingly domesticated. Of all the sacraments, its recipients were the least bathed in glamour.

Except, of course, the glamour of being near death. And so the lore surrounding Extreme Unction was death-tinged, and the drama that this sacrament took on was the drama of emergency: the high tonality of the approaching end. When narratives rose up around Extreme Unction, they always centered on the priest, arriving (like a Mountie on a horse) in the nick of time. The dying one was always more or less faceless and anonymous, unless he (it was, somehow, usually a he) was a great, a very great, sinner.

Our catechism told us that a sacrament was an "outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace." Outward sign of what? Because we weren't given that necessary information, we missed the great genius of the sacramental life. Which is, precisely, to come to terms with--by sacralizing it--the corporeality of our life, with its fleshiness, its thingness, its comic insistence on the creaturely.

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The special name for the communion given to the dying was

Viaticum,

meaning "provision for a journey." The host was carried in a special container, used only for this purpose, called a "pyx." The pyx, the stole, the candles, and the holy oils were carried in something called "a sick-call set."

The words

pyx

and

Viaticum,

because their use was so specialized, so radically limited, shimmered in the vault of language--preciously arcane, brought out only occasionally, and only by the very few (and we were vain about the smallness of our ranks) who might know what they meant. The messiness of long illness, the scandal of its endurance, the creativity of its destruction and decay, the sight of the prolongation of suffering--we were allowed to turn our eyes from these, rather than make them something with which the community had to reckon. There was only the priest, racing to the scene in his stole, heroic, single, unconnected to the living Church.

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