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.

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.

In l961, when I was 12, a newly ordained priest was assigned to our parish. That same year my grandmother developed colon cancer; she was told she had less than a year to live. She began the slow and drawn-out labor of her dying, and Father W., the newly ordained, brought her communion every week. He must have been 24.

She lay in her bed, silent and stunned. A colostomy had been performed, so like a child, she had to be changed several times a day. The smell of the shit that came out of the hole in her stomach permeated the house, and I was never free of it. She had a series of small strokes that affected her ability to swallow, so a suction machine was installed to pull the phlegm from her throat so that she wouldn't choke. I felt as if I were watching a giant tree rot steadily from the blight that spread inside, a blight whose manifestation I could see in her: the red, raw bump on her stomach that had to be kept scrupulously clean.

This was the atmosphere into which Father W. walked each Saturday, his young hair still damp from the shower, the smell of a too-close shave still on him--male and healthy: Noxema, Old Spice. He entered the atmosphere of the house like a scalpel cutting through diseased tissue.

He removed, by his presence, the tincture of death. But only temporarily. When he left, taking with him the gold pyx, now empty, that had held the host residing now in my grandmother's cancerous inside, the disease took over once again. The presence of grace was real, but short-lived; after a while it was swamped by the details of illness and her slow death. For a while, though, we felt more accompanied, and less alone. The family and the priest had a relationship because his visits were repeated. If our only connection to him had been a one-time anointing, the raggedness that comes when human life bumps up against symbolic practice would have been replaced by a singular clerical elegance.

It was in the interest of moving the sacrament of Extreme Unction out of an airless, if classier, clerical ghetto into the messiness of the life of the seriously ill that Extreme Unction, as part of the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council, was transformed from the sacrament of the dying to the sacrament of the sick. The name Extreme Unction seems to have suffered a silent execution, which I personally regret. I find the somehow Americanized "Anointing of the Sick" a distinct second best, shorn as it is of mystery. But the impulse to put the sick at the center of the ritual is exactly right. The impulse to banish the sick, to hide them from sight, to see them as objects of revulsion from which the gaze of the healthy should be averted, is a particular product of modern culture, and it adds great burdens to the experience of the sick.

Anointing is an ancient custom, and its double role of healing and investing with power is an important aspect of the sacrament. Anointing means covering with oil; and oil, of all the substances used in the sacraments --bread, water, wine--is the richest and the densest. It picks up the light; it is golden, and it shines. Jesus is referred to as the "anointed one," signifying His messianic role, and this role is transferred to the sick in the Epistle of James, where the elders of the Church pray over the people and anoint them "in the name of the Lord." The complex symbolism of this act invests them with a profound dignity: Their broken bodies are marked as sacred, and they are ennobled with the sign of kingship.

The new form of the sacrament is one of the unequivocal successes of the Second Vatican Council, an example of a good that can come about when everyone is hoping for the same thing, and no one's fears, hatreds, or phobias are creating a background noise. Perhaps this is because the sacrament of Extreme Unction never had anything to do with sex; it didn't threaten a male celibate establishment. The Church has always seemed much better at attending to broken bodies than to vigorous and desiring ones. It has been of much greater help to the faithful in guiding them toward the mystery of death than the mystery of life. The Church has a history of charity toward the sick and the dying of which it can be unabashedly proud. The sacrament of Anointing touches that part of the broken body that doctors, social workers, and loving family and friends cannot approach: the part that, in order to be healed, must acknowledge its despair and travel from it to a place of hope. And this is what a sacrament must be: a vehicle for the journey between the seen and the unseen.

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