Recently, I attended the annual Mass of the Anointing of the Sick
at St. Ambrose Church in Annandale. While I was photographing participants, I
became fixated on the hands of those receiving the sacrament. Most were
wrinkled and shined with holy oil, but what held my attention was their grip.
They clung to the priests and bishops anointing them, lingering as if this
touch would remedy their illnesses.
I couldn’t stop from thinking of the first time I witnessed the
sacrament of the anointing of the sick when a Franciscan friar visited my
brother, Tyler, in the hospital.
Tyler was 20 when he experienced a mental breakdown at school. Not
familiar with mental illness, my parents sought help from local hospitals. It
was a challenge not understanding what my brother closest to me was experiencing
and painful to watch my family try to comprehend the situation. My parents and
my seven siblings suggested causes of his mental collapse and how to resolve
it. We would soon learn that there was no “quick fix” solution, but one that would
require healing and time.
Visiting hours were restricted to two hours. It became a lottery
to see Tyler, and the responsibility of relaying his condition. The first time
I went, Tyler hugged me so hard that my glasses broke in my coat pocket. I knew
he was scared, lonely and wanted to be released. We prayed that he’d be out
One thing that we all seemed to agree on (my brother included)
was the importance of spiritual needs, aka — the sacraments. One night I was
chosen visit my brother the night that one of our parish priests, Father Tim
Harris, was invited to see Tyler. When he arrived he was wearing his black
robes and sandals with a wide brim hat. I led him to my brother’s room, where he
heard Tyler’s confession and anointed him.
From outside the room by the check-in desk I caught glimpses of
my brother’s hands being blessed through the crack in the doorway. I didn’t
know how long it had been since my brother’s last confession, nor did I ask,
but I hoped it’d get him out faster. By the time they finished, visiting hours
were over and Father Tim and I left. I felt cheated that I didn’t see more of
my brother and sulky to leave him behind. I also felt anxious and lost I felt.
Why would God let this happen? Would prayer really help?
Before Father Tim and I parted, I shared my difficulties with him.
He sighed and told me, “We have to tell God everything. We can be angry at
God.” It was the first time I had heard this. It made me feel a little better,
because I was angry. So that night I tried to pray to God in a way that escaped
the normal ritual prayers and litanies that we learned as children. It was
awkward and directionless.
My thoughts returned to St. Ambrose. Once the recipient was separated
from the priest or bishop there were no shouts of exultations that they were
cured. I wondered what Tyler felt after the sacrament. Did he feel disappointed
Arlington Bishop Michael F. Burbidge said that we ought to pray,
“Lord, increase our faith,” in order to receive God’s healing. If faith was all
that it took, you’d imagine that more people would be subscribing. Maybe
there’s still space where we fill with doubt — a resistance to say we weren’t
fooled by false-hope. While the anointing of the sick is one of the church’s
seven sacraments, I think it’s misunderstood or perhaps I don’t quite
understand it yet.
Over the years, Tyler and I have created an unspoken game of
finding forgotten, but amazing songs. As an accomplished musician with broader
tastes, Tyler shines. The song, “Touch the Hem of His Garment,” by Sam Cooke,
comes to mind. I first heard it on an album of gospel songs that Tyler gave me
The song narrates the story of the woman from the Gospel who
tries to touch the clothes of Jesus in order to be healed. Once she does, she is healed, and Jesus says
to her, “Courage daughter, your faith has saved you.” The choir is phenomenal
and the simple rhythm of bass and drum accompany the uplifting lyrics. It makes
you believe that anyone can be “made whole” by God’s touch.
Patrons of mental illness inlcude St. Benedict Joseph Labre, St.
Christina the Astonishing, Blessed Clara Isabella Fornari and most notably is
St. Dymphna. Here is her prayer:
Hear us, O God, Our Savior, as we honor St. Dymphna, patron
of those afflicted with mental and emotional illness. Help us to be inspired by
her example and comforted by her merciful help. Amen.
The month of May is National Mental Health Month. The National
Catholic Partnership on Disability (NCPD) offers resources for those whose love
one is suffering.
© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017