Last fall, I offered a reflection on anointing of the sick. Here, I follow up with some additional reflection on anointing in a secularized society characterized by consumerism.
Consumerism is associated with a fragmented self. Lacking a permanent and abiding sense of identity, individuals in a consumer culture are left to negotiate and establish their identities again and again. Bruce Rittenhouse contends that “the individual who lives a consumeristic form of life must continually consume new good-signs in order to update his or her deployment of signs to present the most advantageous system of signs possible” and that “it is not simply taste, character, or categorical identity that must be asserted through a consumeristic form of life, but selfhood itself.” [Bruce Rittenhouse, Shopping for Meaningful Lives: The Religious Motive of Consumerism (Eugene, Ore.: Cascade, 2013), 147. Emphasis added.] Illness can compound this problem, as persons experience alienation from friends and family, church communities, co-workers, God, and even their own bodies. The self of the sick person, already diminished by the very nature of consumer culture and now depleted by illness, is in a state of what one might call “spiritual powerlessness.” Indeed, for Charles Gusmer who uses this very phrase, it is the degree of this powerlessness that is decisive when considering whether to anoint. [Charles W. Gusmer, And You Visited Me: Sacramental Ministry to the Sick and Dying (Collegeville, MN: Pueblo, 1984, 1989, 1990), 87] Anointing of the sick, then, is addressed to this state of powerlessness.
Anointing addresses this crisis situation by reinserting the sick person into the overarching Christian narrative of God’s love. In direct opposition to consumerist modes of abstraction, the rite does not envision administration of the sacrament as an isolated instance of pastoral care. Ministry to the sick includes companionable visits, covering household chores, providing meals, bringing Communion to the homebound, etc., and it is a responsibility that devolves upon the local Christian community as such—a point made by the rite in nos. 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, and 43. Numerous commentators have drawn attention to the idea that the sacrament of anointing is emptied of meaning if it is not part of wider context of pastoral care; here I draw on James Empereur as a representative example: “Anointing cannot be seen as an isolated ritual action but must mirror the acts of concern which precede and follow the anointing. As in the case of the other sacraments, the authenticity of anointing depends on the quality of religious experience being articulated.” [James Empereur, Prophetic Anointing: God’s Call to the Sick, the Elderly, and the Dying (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, 1982), 205]
To put it another way, anointing of the sick is a profound statement of the Church’s belief that in illness “we should never have to stand alone.” [United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, (Washington, D.C.: United States Catholic Conference, 2006), 256] Consumerism is twinned with the notion that one’s worth and indeed one’s self-worth is determined by the degree to which one is productive, remunerated, and able to engage in purchase after consumer purchase. Consequently, sicknesses that impinge upon one’s productivity are viewed in American culture as private or even shameful. In the pastoral care it extends to the sick, the Christian community instead endorses the view of St. Paul, namely, that when one member of the body suffers, all suffer (1 Cor. 12:26).
Those who are sick are not merely told “you do not stand alone.” They are told “you stand forth.” In Baptism, one is plunged into the Paschal Mystery of Christ and summoned to live a life of discipleship, following the Master who freely embraced the Cross and emptied himself for the sake of humanity. The fourth-century John Chrysostom had urged the newly baptized in his community to regard the robes in which they had been clad: “Now the robe you wear and the gleaming garments attract the eyes of all; if you should will to do so, by keeping your royal robes shining even more brightly than it now does, you will always be able to draw all who behold you to show the same zeal and praise for the Master.” [John Chrysostom, Fourth Instruction on Baptism, 18] Writing in our own day, Paul Meyendorff applies this baptismal theme to the sacrament of anointing:
Anointing of the sick, just like baptism, is not only for the forgiveness of sins, but for new birth, for enlightenment, for liberation from slavery, for adoption into sonship. The oil we are now using reminds us of the oil of gladness with which we were anointed prior to baptism, as well as the anointing with chrism we received immediately after we emerged from the font. We are thus reminded of the task that was set before us at our baptism: to “shine with the radiance of the saints.” [Paul Meyendorff, The Anointing of the Sick (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary, 2009), 83.]
Do our Christian communities live up to this vision of anointing?