Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen teaches in his Book of Sacraments (Sophia Institute Press) that there are two sacraments of healing: one for spiritual illness, which is the Sacrament of Penance; the other for physical illness, which is the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. An older term for it was “Extreme Unction,” which some interpreted as meaning that it was administered only when death was inevitable. For that reason, the sacrament was sometimes postponed until there was no hope of recovery, so as not to frighten the recipient or unduly sadden the relatives and friends.
This is a misinterpretation of the sacrament which is directed to the uncertainty which sickness implies; the sacrament looks to sickness as such. Two extremes are to be avoided, one which would say it was destined only for death; the other, that it is solely a grace of healing. It is rather a sacrament for the time of serious sickness; that is why it may not be given to those who are facing death for any reason other than illness. If it were a sacrament destined solely for those who are about to die, it would be given to a criminal on a scaffold. But the sacrament may not be given in such a case. In those under sentence of death there is no hope of recovery, which this sacrament implies.
It is not a sacrament exclusively for those at the point of death. In the liturgy of the sacrament, the priest does not mention death, but prays for a return to health of body and soul.
Sickness and the Soul
A serious illness cuts us off from the occasion of sin. The will to sin is weakened by the physical inability to sin. It is true that many a man believes he has left the passions behind, when it is really that the passions have left him behind. This moment of enforced detachment from the allurements of the world is always an opportunity for the reception of grace.
The approach to death emphasizes the uniqueness of personality. During life we lose ourselves in the mob, in the anonymous “they,” in the masses, in “togetherness.” But the nearness of death confronts self with self: “I am I — unique — responsible for every thought, word, and deed of life.” The soul begins to see itself as it really is, and God in His mercy prepares a sacrament for this dread moment when personality is confronted with its load of sin.
Sickness breaks the spell that pleasure is everything, or that we ought to go on building bigger and bigger barns, or that life is worthless unless it has a thrill. Sickness enables us to adjust our sense of values, as an actual grace illumines the futility and emptiness of many ambitions: “What does it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his soul?” (Matt. 16:26).
The Christian, having been signed with the sign of death, the Sign of the Cross at Baptism, is committed to leading a life of mortification, which means a dying to the ego, in order that the Christ-life may be more manifest.
The Church is, therefore, constantly recommending a daily rehearsal for the great event, or tiny little deaths in preparation for the final one. No masterpiece is ever created in a day, and death itself is a masterpiece. The sculptor who wishes to carve a figure out of a block of marble uses his chisel; first cutting away great chunks of marble, then smaller pieces; finally he reaches a point where only a brush of the hand is needed to reveal the figure. In the same way, the soul at first has to undergo tremendous mortifications, then more refined detachments and little deaths until finally the divine image is revealed. Because mortification is recognized as a practice of death, it was fittingly described on the tomb of Duns Scotus: Bismortuus;semelsepultus— He died twice, but was buried only once.
To understand the sacrament, one must never lose hold of the fact that there is a double life: biological and spiritual. So there is a double death, death of body and death of the soul. St. John states: “Thou dost pass for a living man, and all the while art a corpse” (Rev. 3:1). A body may be physically alive but the soul spiritually dead. Such would be a person in the state of serious sin and alienation from God. We see corpses walking on the street every day; biological life is in them, but not spiritual life.
The real reason man dies in his flesh is because his soul, having turned away from God, has lost the dominion it once exercised over the body. One of the penalties of Original Sin was that the body should die. When the sinful soul is restored to the state of grace, it has its power returned potentially to effect the quickening of the flesh and the restoration of the body, but the actual rejuvenation is deferred until the last day.
In its present state, the body often depresses the soul; it restrains it in its upward flight. It is almost a cage which prevents the soul, as a dove, from flying to God. A sickness accentuates this weight, producing sometimes a lethargy in the soul. Herein is the purpose of the Anointing of the Sick: to enable the soul to be free in this life, either through the healing of the body, or else to be eventually free from the body in death, with all the traces of sin blotted out.