It may seem pointless to read a reflection on the Anointing of the Sick by a person who has never received this sacrament. But it also makes sense. Just as the suffering, death, and Resurrection of Christ bought each of us undeserving sinners salvation and eternal life, it is through the graces of this sacrament and the suffering of our brothers and sisters that draws us close to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. There, we are washed in His love, grace, and mercy, even, and especially, in the dark valley and at the hour of death.
Every moment of life is preparation for eternal life, and every encounter with suffering is an opportunity to choose more intimacy with our Savior. As St. Ignatius of Loyola said, “If God gives you an abundant harvest of trials, it is a sign of great holiness which He desires you to attain.”
The fuller purpose of the Anointing of the Sick is for God to bestow on His faithful grace and strength for their journeys through the sufferings of this life into the eternity of the next. I have observed this lesson intimately in distinct experiences of suffering among my loved ones, from newborn to nearly a hundred.
New Life, New Suffering
When I was ten, I witnessed the grace, beauty, and power of the Anointing of the Sick without even being present for it. After at least five years of praying every night for God to give our family another baby, my brother was born. Weeks later, I was confused, terrified, and angry when a family trip was cut short by a frantic drive halfway across the country in a terrifying whirl of medical uncertainty.
As my sister and I returned home with our grandmother, my parents took our baby brother to the hospital to wait for answers. The ultimate diagnosis was a serious stomach condition that required emergency surgery.
In God’s divine providence, the priest at the hospital that day later become our pastor. But now, he was the vessel of grace for my parents and brother as he administered the Anointing of the Sick. The grace of the sacrament in that moment was very much oriented toward giving my brother strength for treatment, surgery, and ultimately, healing.
Afterward, my parents relayed how the priest anointed so gently the tiny body of my baby brother and offered fervent, loving prayer to God the Father on behalf of this little child. I saw then the peace that the sacrament offered my worried, grieving parents: peace to listen to wise counsel; courage to entrust their baby to a surgeon; confidence that God loves their son more than they do; peace and courage to face his divine will, knowing they had done all they could, not just as medical advocates, but also as spiritual trustees of this uniquely special life.
My parents’ absolute insistence that my brother be anointed before surgery laid the foundation in my life to see suffering as spiritual. It impressed upon me that we should not attempt to suffer alone. It taught me in a real, tangible way that we truly are body and soul, perfectly united, and therefore, one cannot suffer or heal in the body without involving the soul, and vice versa.
Our Earthly Journey
For many of us, the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick will be the final sacrament we receive in our earthly life, where the supernatural is made present in the natural world. It is the bridge between our exit from this world and our entrance into the next. As such, this powerful sacrament brings beauty, joy, sustenance, and grace to souls preparing for their final journey.
Every moment of our earthly lives is a step on our journey toward our eternal resting place, particularly when we suffer and as we near the end of our earthly lives. In those times, we are often tempted to be overwhelmed with fear and confusion. It is a battle to hang with Christ on the Cross. It is a battle to offer up our suffering for the redemption of others. It is a battle to face our mortality and the reality of eternity.
We gain our strength for those battles through the powerful sanctifying grace of the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick.
St. Gemma Galgani wrote, “If you really want to love Jesus, first learn to suffer, because suffering teaches you to love.” Suffering is the great furnace of holiness, for it empties us of our strength and purges us of our pride, offering us the opportunity to focus completely on what is most important—the eternal.
Such dying to self requires abundant grace, and that is where the Anointing of the Sick enters. To think that we can endure alone the suffering of sickness and pain defeats its redemptive purpose. No, we must turn to God, relying on His mercy and strength.
We must make a choice to unite our sufferings, but also our wills, to Christ’s. These are supernatural feats that require supernatural grace, grace that is available in abundance through the sacraments of the Church.
A Summer of Suffering
The summer of 2018 plunged me deep into suffering in a way that made me completely dependent for strength upon the sacraments. Within a matter of weeks, three family members received overwhelming medical diagnoses without warning. Each of them, despite different outlooks, was fortified by the powerful sacramental graces poured out to souls in the Anointing of the Sick.
My young, newlywed, newly pregnant sister was diagnosed with melanoma.
My dear aunt languished inexplicably in a hospital for weeks before receiving the rare fatal diagnosis of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.
My beloved, healthy, active father was crippled by multiple myeloma.
The darkness of that intense season of sorrow was lit only by the candle of our Faith—made real and present in our strong family bonds, supportive parish community, and life-giving sacraments administered by good, holy priests.
My sister received both a blessing for her unborn child, as well as Anointing of the Sick before her successful surgery to remove the melanoma. Through the confusion of my aunt’s surprising diagnosis, she was anointed by our priest, who ultimately gave her and her family the beautiful gift of a Mass for the dying around her bed only days before she died.
Through months of chemo and an intense bone marrow transplant, my dad was fortified by monthly reception of the Anointing of the Sick; his treatment and recovery were without complication as he explicitly offered his suffering for a specific intention.
I have learned in tangible and profound ways that grace abounds at the bedside of the sick and the dying. It is grace that heals wounds, restores brokenness, bridges divides, softens hearts, opens ears, refreshes weary souls, encourages sinners, strengthens faith, kindles love, and allows miracles. Sometimes, the miracles are physical, but more often, they are spiritual, emotional, or psychological. And much more often than we pray for or expect, the miracles are granted not to the suffering or the dying but to the ones nearby most in need of a miracle.
All of us who are blessed to walk with someone through the valley of the shadow of death are fortified by the abundant and miraculous graces that Jesus’ Sacred Heart pours out on those who suffer with Him. And those graces ripple through each of our lives in a thousand ways, large and small, to the greater glory of God and His kingdom. How very blessed we are!
The beauty of the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick has nothing to do with the outcomes that my dear ones have faced. The beauty is in the strength, grace, and fortitude they received to take up their crosses and carry them, following Christ to Calvary. Only when we walk by choice, in faith, with the Savior can suffering be a source of great joy.
This article is adapted from a reflection in Spirit and Life: The Holy Sacraments of the Catholic Church, edited by Rose Rea.
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