Who Killed Extreme Unction?

Whatever happened to Extreme Unction? Who are the baleful liturgists who drove a stake through the sacrament and nailed it to the ground?

No need to answer that. I know who they are. They are the same ruinous bien pensants who confused the Zeitgeist of the 1960s and ‘70s with the cooing of the Holy Spirit. Let God forgive them; I cannot.

Death of Daniel O’Connell. Currier Lithograph (1847). Museum of the City of New York. 

Unction for those in extremis was stripped of its exclusive purpose and ritual dignity in the wake of Vatican II. All astringent solemnity is gone. The reduction—a theft—is implicit in the name change: sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. If the theology has not changed, the practice surely has. Last Rites are obsolete, outmoded by cultural resistance to the awful significance of a ceremony so named.

We are all sick in some way, are we not? Sick of sorrow, sick of coping, worn down by the stresses of the lived life. We want to be healed of caring too much, or cured of paralysis in caring at all. Old injuries act up, a knee is out, iron is too low, the PSA too high. Then comes that hint of cataracts, the heart murmur, or the family history of diabetes. Count in the growing list of pathogens that make the nightly news. Lastly, and for lack of greater specificity, there is what our forefathers knew as the ague. We are only made of clay; and clay breaks down.

So my parish offers what it calls a Healing Mass. One Sunday of every year, parishioners are invited to file altarward with their vulnerabilities and complaints to receive the Anointing of the Sick. The not-so-sick, the anxious, and the out-of-sorts queue, palms up, for bodily and spiritual healing. It is this same quick, casual anointing that substitutes now for the Last Rites.

The old rubrics were strict:

The sacrament may not be given more than once during the same illness, unless after receiving the sacrament, the sick person has recovered from the danger and then has a critical relapse.

That was then. In these indulgent times, so obsessed with “wellness,” the holy anointing is closer to a spa treatment than a rite of initiation into the dreaded mysteries of death. A woman I know in California wrote to tell me that she stood for anointing monthly while her husband lay terminally ill. The sacrament was prophylactic against the impending loneliness of widowhood. All to the good, the comfort of it. But heartbreak is not a mortal disease.

From the Codex Trujillo del Peru (18th C.). Real Biblioteca del Palacio Real, Madrid.

A precious friend died not long ago. Some weeks before the end, while he was still able to speak and take the Eucharist, the local pastor came to anoint him. In requesting the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, the family anticipated Extreme Unction as they had always known it. They were wrong.

The priest commissioned to carry out this liturgy in the name of Christ arrived in dungarees, a plaid flannel shirt, and red suspenders. He had troubled to put on cologne but not his Roman collar. Was dishabille a democratic gesture toward the demotic tastes of the times? By the look of him, he had come to help with yard work. Left behind with his clerics was any visible sign of the divine Agape that was the reason for his being there.

He offered no personal words of consolation, no talk of Jesus, nothing of what it means to pass through death to life as a child of God in Christ. After a bit of light chat about his sciatica and the hazards of an icy road, he announced his intention to get on with administering the Sacrament of the Sick.

The dying man quipped, “Well, I certainly qualify.”

It was the remark of a man fully conscious, poised for accompaniment through the concluding step of the dialogue between himself and his God. But the move never came. The family was not asked to leave the room while the priest heard the man’s last confession. There was none. After a brief spasm of blessings, the priest was gone. Bewildered by grief, and constrained by deference toward a priest in their home, the family saw him politely to the door. But the deficiency stayed behind, dangling like an unpaid debt.

Some weeks later the wife asked why the traditional sacrament of Penance had been omitted. The answer: “Unless someone requests confession, we don’t offer it any more. That would be an intrusion.”

The pity of it.

Nikolai Ge. Crucifixion (1893). Musee d’Orsay, Paris.

We call it Anointing of the Sick. But the dying are not sick. Not any longer. They and sickness are finished with each other. Sickness is a tool of mortality, a loyal servant to the germ of death we were born with. In the moribund, sickness has done its work. It has accomplished what it was ordained to do. No matter now the affliction or assault that opens the grave. Every deathbed is a slaying stone.

The dying lie at the edge of the world, at the very verge of their allotted time. In their extremity, they suffer on the margin of time itself. All flesh is grass, Isaiah tells us. It shrivels at the root; dust in the wind. Where is grass on Golgotha? The place of the skull is rock. The shadow of the Cross is sharpest there. And in that shadow mercy learns its own name.

A fatal chasm exists between the hour of death and the deluge of unwelcome conditions that overtake us. Sickness yearns for treatment; death thirsts solely for redemption. And for the last rite that escorts the dying into the fellowship of those for whom time no longer exists.

Extreme Unction has been relativized, made friendly for a generation that does not want to hear the death knell in the words Last Rites. All the while, death grins in our faces.


Blog Talk

Straightaway, a housekeeping item. Several readers have emailed to ask why there is no place to comment at the end of this blog. One reader complained, “It is a nuisance having to look up responses on Facebook.” Maybe I should explain. 

World War I spoof postcard published by Cynicus Company, 1915.

The comment box is disabled for a jumble of reasons. Chief among them is the snowball effect of comments on individual readers. Positive comments roll one way; negative ones, intimidating, roll another. It matters to me that readers respond to the content of a posting on their own, without being distracted— bolstered, diluted, or bedeviled—by other respondents.

Considered remarks that amplify and extend a posting are valuable. But they are also less common than other kinds. Comment threads tend to evolve into readers signaling to each other. Sometimes it is contention for the sake of it, a kind of antler display. Too often, comment boxes offer a pretext for plugging a reader’s own website, latest book, or line of sportswear. Previously, when my comment box had been on, I sometimes thought I was hosting a dating service. “Great comment, Joe! Where can I see the rest of your stuff?” That sort of thing. 

Pablo Picasso. Card for Guillame Apollinaire, 1916. Musee Picasso, Paris.

One popular argument in favor of a comment section runs along the lines of community-building. The comment box is thought to serve as a sort of drop-in center where locals can chat and get to know each other. That is the same rationale the CEO of Starbucks once offered for the existence of the chain. I did not believe it then, and I do not believe it now.

An online community is a mirage; an e-community is no community at all. It is a faceless, soundless collection of pixels in drag as a community of persons. Hashtag Nation.

This goes against the grain, I know. And to some extent, it is an aesthetic judgment. But it is mine. I simply do not share the prevailing assumption that blogs exist as open forums for reader exchanges. That expectation is little more than the sense of entitlement peculiar to online media. James Kalb, experienced in writer/reader protocols, is dry about it: “There is something about joining an internet discussion that’s a little like putting on a clown suit.” 

Vittore Carpaccio. Legend of St. Ursula (detail, 1495). Accademia, Venice.

I have no clue to the nature or tone of what gets passed along on social media. Something about Twitter and Facebook—especially Twitter—reminds me of stalking. I have no personal account on either; am innocent of both. Is that a fault? Not sure. I just know that I care about the words of readers who take time to write off stage and under their own name. These matter to me very much. That is why an email address appears at the bottom of every post.

If clarification or correction is in order, tell me and I will make it. Thoughtful yeas and nays are forever welcome. And helpful.

•     •    •     •

Note: One reader emailed to ask what was the point of the earlier posting on Roy Strong. Forgive me. I had thought it was clear: Strong made a choice.

He preferred marriage—to a woman he did love—to living under the strictures against homosexuality of the era in which he came of age. In other words, social disapproval contained his impulses toward homosexuality.

Moral of the anecdote: When culture puts out a welcome mat, Dionysus leaps in to the parlor.



Is he a youth? Is she a woman?
Is she a goddess or a god?

Love, fearing to be ignoble,
Hesitates and suspends its confession.

To make this beauty maudit
Each gender brought its gift.

—Théophile Gautier, Enamels and Cameos (1852)

James Slattery aka Candy Darling, transwoman, Warholian superstar and drag queen.

Gautier, writing in French a century and a half ago, used the noun sexe. It is doubtful he would have recognized the word gender except in relation to other nouns. Gender is a linguistic signifier, not a biological one. But a modern translator, speaking to his own cultural moment, observes the protocols of his time.

In our cultural climate, almost all writers, even conservative ones, surrender to the word gender, reserving sex for mere genital mechanics. Gender is a term taken from linguistics, not biology. The gender designation is arbitrary. La tavola or il tavolo, take your pick.

In the best thinking of our savants, society assigns a gender to each child born just as it does to words. But unlike words, which have to obey their assignment, we can reject the mandated designation and pick our own. Gone is any fixed relation to biology of the masculine or feminine.

This impetus toward androgyny is not as novel a peculiarity as it seems. It is the encroachment on life and law of tendencies in nineteenth century aesthetic movements. Fervent belief in the transformational powers of art and artifice, hallmark of the Decadent sensibility, has slouched its way toward us as a social phenomenon.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Mnemosyne (detail; 1881). Delaware Art Museum,Wilmington 

I was reminded of this by Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Lady Lilith. How ambiguous are the faces of his female portraits. Is she a goddess or a god? They could easily be the faces of drag queens, physiognomy blurred by hair and cosmetics, their beauty—if that is the word—artificial. Among the Decadents, nature had had its day. The rest is style. Or, in the words of Stéphane Mallarmé, “To suggest, that is the dream.”

Jade Starling, a pop singer and celebrated host of drag shows, phrased it less elegantly. But she meant the same thing when she said in a recent interview: “Drag queens are amazing. Their artistry, their makeup, their hair. They are always stunning.”

She would get no argument from Mallarmé. And likely none from the nineteenth century English aesthetes or their French imitators. Among the Decadents, the more artificial, the more removed from nature by the labor of the artist, the more beautiful something becomes. Androgyny, with its ideals of seductive ambiguity and sensuality, emblematizes the victory of the cult of beauty over the banality of nature. 

Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Lady Lillith. Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington


Homosexuality: the testimony of Roy Strong

If I had been born ten years later, I might’ve lived my life as a gay man.
—Roy Strong

Is homosexuality innate? Is there a gene for it? If not a complete molecular unit, then perhaps some partial genetic link? And if a link, would this sectional fragment prove a determinant to sexual preference? Or would it hover in our DNA with all the other unfinished suggestions that move each of us past the many roads not taken?

Roy Strong, dressed for a 2010 photo shoot. Courtesy of The Daily Mail, UK.

The findings of Dean Hamer, the American geneticist who claimed to have discovered a “gay gene” in the Nineties, has never been replicated. Hamer himself was homosexual and, with his partner, founded the film company Qwaves to promote sympathy for “the voices of those on the outside.”

Now the outside is In, very In. The myth of a gay gene persists together with other teasers from the corridors of higher superstition. It is not my place to argue whether there is a natural standard for human happiness or ground in nature for definitive statements about homosexuality and genetics. Others are better equipped for that debate than I am. But let me offer the testimony of Roy Strong, eminent art historian, landscape designer, and flamboyant director emeritus of London’s National Portrait Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum. 

In March, 2013, London’s The Daily Mail included an excerpt from Strong’s autobiography Self Portrait as a Young Man:

Roy Strong and wife Julia in the 1970s. Photo by Paul Lewis

I was not only cripplingly shy but aware that sexually I was ambiguous. Prosecution of homosexuals as criminals reached a peak with the famous cases of Sir John Gielgud in 1953 and Lord Montagu of Beaulieu the following year.
It is difficult to communicate to a generation where everything can be – and is – said and done what it was like to come to sexual maturity in the middle of the Fifties. If I had been born in 1945 and not in 1935, I should probably have lived the life of a gay man in a society which by 1980 accepted such orientation.
An old friend of mine, Brian Sewell, took a very different path in life from the one I chose. For that I respect him, for he too could, he admits, have married. In the Fifties, any mention of such a tendency was then unthinkable and even if I had faced up to it, I would not have known what to do about it. At 20 I was bottled up and inhibited.
There was a homosexual side to me, that much I knew; but whenever, later, I had glimpses into that world I knew that I did not wish to enter it.
There was another side to me: emotionally and intellectually I was also hugely attracted to women and I knew that, if I found the right person, I would like the stability of an old-fashioned Christian marriage. I was 24 when I entered the National Portrait Gallery, an age by which many men are not only married, but fathers.
Twice I seriously considered asking two very different women to marry me, but I fell back on contemplating the social gulf between their families and my own. But in the long run I was to be a very lucky man when, in 1971, I eloped with the designer Julia Trevelyan Oman – an elopement arranged by my friend and confessor, Father Gerard Irvine. Our marriage that same year precipitated the break with my mother who, rejecting Julia, created a slow death in our relationship. . . .
The attraction between us was instant but totally divorced from what one thinks of as London of that time, the world of David Bailey and Blow-Up. Both of us, beneath it all, were shy people born out of context and there followed a gentle, old-fashioned courtship until, at last, I plucked up courage and proposed to her in St James’s Park.
She died, to my anguish, in 2003.

Roy Strong and his “precious and private friend” designer Gianni Versace.


Bergoglio’s Garden

The maudlin 1970 movie made from Erich Segal’s chart-busting novel Love Story passed into blessed memory. All that remains is Ali MacGraw’s line to Ryan O’Neal: “Love means never having to say you are sorry.” On the list of the American Film Institute’s top movie quotes of all time, it is up there with Casablanca’s “We’ll always have Paris” and “Here’s looking at you, kid.”

Love Story’s one-liner became one of the most referenced chestnuts in post-Woodstock popular culture. Winding its way into song lyrics and subsequent movie dialogue, it was also one of most parodied. Even John Lennon took a swing at it: “Love means having to say you’re sorry every five minutes.” Sodden with bathos, it remains the pitch-perfect epigram for a popular culture that dictates sentimentality as a you-gotta-have-it fashion accessory.

Unhappily, popular culture is inhaled by more than the daytime audience for Real Housewives and reruns of Downton Abbey. Fumes seep under chancery doors, even into papal apartments, including Pope Francis’ business-class one.

What brings this to mind is the spiraling catastrophe in the Middle East. Things have worsened in the wake of Francis’ imprudent kiss of the graffitied security fence and follow-up theatrics in the Vatican garden. The magic olive tree planted for the cameras by Mahmoud Abbas, Shimon Peres and the pope did not work. All that thaumaturgical shoveling could not break the spell of Palestinian hatred for Israel and for Jews.

The life-sized M-75 rocket monument erected three months earlier in Gaza City to showcase Palestinian intentions toward “the Zionist entity” still stands. Within a week of Francis’ ceremony under the boxwoods, Hamas kidnapped and murdered three teenage boys in the West Bank. While Israelis mourned their sons, Palestinians gloated over their deaths. Fatah’s own Facebook page posted this: 

Also this three-fingered version of the victory sign. Its meaning unmistakable, Fatah coyly offered it as open to interpretation:

Repercussions have been harrowing. The rogue retaliatory killing of an innocent Palestinian teen has been seized as justification for a renewed intifada. In brief, since the prayer fest, the rot has deepened and spread. You would think Francis might be embarrassed.

But no. Love means never having to say you are sorry. Especially if you never intended to have a measurable effect. It is apparently enough that the chimera of peace-and-love, like Shelley’s skylark (“bird thou never wert”), be hailed while it sings and soars above concrete realities on the ground.

On June 14, two days after the kidnapping, Fox News Latino published a curious article stating that the prayer summit was not aimed at restoring talks. It was “merely to serve as a symbol of mutual coexistence and respect.” The article quotes from Francis’ interview with Barcelona’s La Vanguardia in which he acknowledged that his idea was “completely novel” and that he had but one aim: “to open a window to the world.”

In other words, an impulse for novelty, that prized media commodity, eclipsed concern for efficacy. Put plainly, the unspoken object of so much ostentatious piety was to showcase Francis’ personality. Not for nothing is the term “a personality” our synonym for “a celebrity.” Idiosyncrasy—novelty—is the lifeblood of celebrity. It distinguishes.

The only casement opened that sunny day in the garden was one that gave a view onto the papal ego. Francis admitted that “ninety-nine percent of the Vatican said we shouldn’t do it.” Faced with a reluctant Vatican, the pope pulled rank. What he achieved was a window of opportunity for an emboldened Hamas.

What we need to ask is this: What has Francis to say—clearly and in public—now that the staging has gone, the blue shovels put away, and the runic tree, a sustainable prop, is back in the hands of Vatican gardeners who dropped it in the ground to begin with?

Francis is fond of symbolic gestures. But symbols have their consequences. Why else employ them? In this instance, they are all the more mischievous for exempting the symbol-shaper from responsibility for the way his signs are interpreted and used. To borrow a maxim from Flannery O’Connor, if it’s only a symbol, to hell with it.

•     •     •     •

To what extent might Francis share, at some level, prevailing European hostility toward the Israeli state? It is feasible to wonder. For all the hype about him being the first Latino pope, he really is not. We still have an Italian pope, one raised in a white collar home in the most affluent and Europeanized city in South America. His father was an accountant, not a laborer. During Bergolio’s youth, Argentina was closer to Rome and Madrid than to any third-world Latin American country.

An in-law of mine was born and raised in Buenos Aires. Now an American citizen, he has family—all ethnic Russians and Germans—still in Argentina. He writes me this:

“I don’t like the label “Latino”, it’s an American catch-all. Francis is just another first-generation European refugee in South America, a full-blooded Italian who grew up speaking Spanish. Just like other middle-class professionals in my parents’ generation he was born in an essentially prosperous country, with great public health and education, that was starkly different than its neighbors from Mexico on down. Alas, that is very much not the case now. Maybe the current generation in Argentina is better described as “Latino,” but not Francis, my parents, even me, or anyone else in the educated urban middle classes who is older than about 40.”

Media-induced romance, whether about the first Latino pope or the first black president, is a synthetic obscurant. It hides more than it reveals. And there are pitfalls in the dark.