At 92, old Jack had a lot to be thankful for as he lay in his hospital bed. He'd come to Canada as a youth, worked hard all his life and amassed a not-insignificant amount of money. He and his wife had raised two boys, the eldest of whom had been successful in the arts and community endeavors, the second successful in business. Both sons had married well and each had raised three accomplished children of their own.
But on this day, old Jack wasn't counting his blessings. Despite those blessings, he had lived much of his life full of anger. A good part of that anger had been directed towards his eldest son, anger which old Jack had tried to rationalize or excuse, but had never been able to explain.
And on this day, despite his weak condition and his approaching death, old Jack was spewing out anger and hatred with great ferocity. Now was perhaps a time for repentance, or at least an effort at reconciliation. But old Jack would have none of that. His ferocious anger that afternoon was a sad display.
Old Jack died a month later. In his will, he left all his resources, save for a pittance, to his second son. It was a sad, but fitting, testament to the way he had lived his life, forever pitting one son against the other.
Fred was another man who had lived his life in a narrow, selfish way. He seemed impervious to the feelings of others and marched to the beat of his own drum.
But something happened to Fred. In the last 10 or 15 years of his life, he suffered greatly. He had numerous physical ailments, some of which required surgery, but none of which were totally debilitating. Which was a good thing since Fred had to devote much of his last years to caring for his wife as her mental faculties ebbed away from Alzheimer's.
A lesser man might have complained about the cruel blows life was dealing him. But not Fred. All this suffering did a lot to soften him. He became easy to be around. It was a remarkable transformation. He died a happier man than he had appeared to be most of his life.
How we approach death says so much about who we are. Most of the time, we can cover up the core of our being with a big show and polite niceties. But when we face suffering and death, the real person will be on display. Sometimes that person is a surprise.
As the Book of Sirach says, "Call no one happy before his death, for by how he ends (his life), a person is known" (11:28).
Neither old Jack nor Fred were Catholic so I doubt if they received the Anointing of the Sick. But that sacrament is given to us to be a help as we approach life's final hour. It can heal the inner core of our soul.
We go through life wounded by sin -- both original sin and our own actual sins. Even if one's sins have been forgiven, the tendency to self-indulgence, which has been fostered and strengthened by sin, remains. Even if one has travelled a long way down the road to conversion, the tendency to self-centredness remains -- an effect of sin even among the saintly.
This tendency grows all that much stronger when one's life is afflicted by suffering. The suffering of sickness and the approach of death can lower one's normal defences against sin significantly. Moreover, one's normal life of prayer, good works and the sacraments may be put on hold by a lack of energy and the rigors of medical treatment.
As Christians, we are taught to unite our sufferings with those of Christ. We are taught that suffering is redemptive when we deliberately unite it with Christ's passion and death. But it is one thing to say this and quite another to do it, especially when one's defences are weak.
The Sacrament of Anointing provides "strengthening, peace and courage to overcome the difficulties that go with the condition of serious illness or the frailty of old age." It helps one overcome "the temptation to discouragement and anguish in the face of death" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1520).
The Sacrament of Penance brings forgiveness of sin; Anointing of the Sick melts away the effects of sin. It gives one fortitude where previously there had been weakness. Indeed, this sacrament makes its recipient better prepared to enter the kingdom Christ has prepared for us. The effects of sin must be purged from our souls before we can enter eternal life with Christ. The Holy Anointing received with faith, performs that purgation in this world instead of the next.
The approach of death is a harsh reality, one which challenges each of us to the core. If we are honest, we do not know how we will rise to meet that challenge. The gentle sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, however, will give us the Holy Spirit at the moment we need him the most.
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