But Does It Work? – Anointing the Sick as a Model Response to Suffering

Disclaimer: At the outset of this post, I feel I need to say at least one thing I’m not talking about here.  I’m not talking about suffering inflicted by sinful systems and actions, that we as humans should fight like hell to resist and prevent.  In the wake of yet another horrific school shooting, as debates rage again about whether (!?!) and how to keep instruments of death from catalyzing such carnage, a moment is warranted to give that suffering primacy of place.  That said, if, like me, you need a moment to think on things other than the maddeningly repetitious bloody mess of gun violence in the United States, please think with me here about suffering not inflicted by evil, but suffering which calls for accompaniment in the course of human life, sickness, and death.


“[A] pastoral process for anointing might best be done through the Easter cycle, beginning with Ash Wednesday or early in Lent … The communal celebration of anointing could then be celebrated during a major parish Mass on one of the Sundays in the Easter season, thereby proclaiming the vocation of the sick and elderly as a special share in the paschal mystery.”

-Bruce Morrill, Divine Worship and Human Healing (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2009), 180.

Lent and Sinless Suffering

As I read these words from Bruce Morrill, I found myself moved to a recognition of what pastoral care for the sick and dying might bear witness to in the context of a world where suffering is inescapable and even necessary.  This was particularly poignant for me this Lent, because besides currently traveling through Lent’s second week, I recently finished reading John F. Haught’s Resting on the Future (New York: Bloomsbury, 2015), in which he runs at a number of theological issues he believes need significant development if Christianity—particularly Catholicism—is to take seriously the notion that the universe is still coming into being, still unfinished.  One of the chapters is on suffering, and while much of the book was stimulating, I found this portion to be distinctly unsatisfying, which is of course why I’d like to spend some time here wrestling with the problem.

Haught Resting on the Future

Haught’s attention in this chapter is mostly aimed at the question of what is sometimes called “natural evil,” or suffering that does not have a cause easily blamed on sin or free will.  After critiquing some of the classic theodicic arguments that attempt to explain suffering (i.e. that suffering is God’s pedagogical tool, or that suffering fulfills some expiatory requirement), Haught more or less leaves his readers with the idea of what he calls “cosmic hope” in the context of a “metaphysics of the future” (p. 98), the content of which seems to be an expectant humility before the unknown.  We Christians hope this existence is all developing toward the good, but exactly how we cannot say.

This isn’t theologically inconsistent so far as it goes, but to my reading, it leaves open the question of whether a God who looks at a world built on suffering—from predation to pestilence to disease and natural disaster—is actually worthy of worship.  It seems to me Christians should be ready to give an account of their hope (1 Peter 3:15), and I am not sure the best account (or really even a very helpful account) comes from desperately trying to reconcile theologies of a just and loving God with the sufferings of the world (or, in Haught’s case, seemingly retreating into hope in things unseen).  That said, next on my reading list is Elizabeth Johnson’s Ask the Beasts (New York: Bloomsbury, 2014), so maybe my view will be amended after that encounter.

Explanation vs. Accompaniment

Morrill Divine Worship and Humnan Healing

A more satisfying account, to my eyes at least, comes from letting theodicy fall away, and embracing the pastoral instead.  This is where Morrill’s book does a fabulous job of approaching the question, albeit implicitly.  Morrill’s main thrust in the text is to articulate a cohesive liturgical theology of healing, but in doing so, he fleshes out a concept that would help immensely in giving a practical basis for Haught’s cosmic hope: accompaniment.  Much of the early chapters of Morrill’s book is devoted to developing a robust understanding of what “healing” might mean in the context of anointing the sick or pastoral care for the dying.  He argues (especially in chapters 2 and 3) that healing is not, theologically speaking, exclusively or even primarily the category of moving from physical ailment to physical soundness.  Instead, healing can be a development of wholeness and (re-)integration into one’s community, such that healing is not simply experienced by the one anointed, but also by those who surround her or him.

It is this accompaniment that is the necessary condition (or at least one among others) to precipitate healing in the context of sickness or death.  Entering into and proclaiming the paschal mystery in this context of suffering can move the experience from “why isn’t this fixing me?” to “God is present even and especially here.”  Liturgical, ritual accompaniment in this sense is not “standing by” while existence wreaks havoc on the body of a loved one; it is instead a witness to the love of God in the context of suffering.


The reason I find this so compelling is that oftentimes when questions of God and natural evil boil up, the answers—even if theo/logically sound—do not necessarily satisfy spiritually or bodily.  Oftentimes, at least in my experience, what I or my students long for in exploring questions of suffering is not the explanation of suffering, as if that would help, but the healing of suffering.  To strive to explain suffering, often enough, can actually exacerbate it, deepening what can genuinely be an already tragic experience.  To enter into the story of the suffering person however, is something different entirely.  Even if a particular suffering cannot be alleviated or cured, the witness of God’s presence in and through one’s community provides a bodily—as opposed to intellectual—account of Christian hope. 

This bodily, pastoral aspect is also why the connection to Christian ritual is so important.  It is one thing to pledge one’s presence verbally to a person who is sick or dying, but it is quite another to be present in body, and to take symbolic bodily action along with Christ and the church.  Ritual mediates this kind of real presence in a way that theodicy often simply cannot.  With no disrespect meant to Haught, I would rather my friends pray with me in suffering than explain to me why suffering is acceptable or necessary. An account of Christian hope in the context of sickness and suffering, in my view at least, must be a bodily experience as well as an intellectual one.  If explanation leaves accompaniment behind, the paschal mystery is ossified instead of animated.  It can evoke dead weight, instead of living witnesses, and loses the necessarily pastoral character of theology.