Last Rites; Last Responses

The last days of August. It is time to let be. Time to lie in a hammock and take bribes. Read. Doze. Plan the rest of my life. Anything except trawl for words at a computer. 


Girl on a Swing in Central Park. New York Historical Society.


But first, let me post the last of the comments that came in on the declension of Extreme Unction into an all-purpose Anointing of the Sick. A thread that runs through them is recognition of what one respondent refers to as a lack of discernment—or faithful discharge—on the part of either priest or parishioner. Sometimes both. Let me leave you until September with someone else’s words. (Mine have packed a bag and are waiting at the station.) Each of these speaks for itself.

An Orthodox deacon treats the historicity of the Anointing of the Sick with a care that makes his letter valuable:

It seems to me that the post VCII rite, if discharged faithfully, might be more like it’s Orthodox counterpart, at least theologically. Orthodox unction has always been “healing unto salvation,” so has not had the “last rites” component, although it is nonetheless a common feature of end-of-life ministrations. Significantly, it can be done in conjunction with confession; it isn’t required nor expected, necessarily.

But it’s that “discharged faithfully” business that is the real tragedy for Catholics. I’m only a deacon and would not think of going to a hospital or nursing home in anything but a collar, and would also always have a cassock and an orarion in the trunk in case someone wants to commune.

Also, we have done our best to insulate ourselves from the solemn reality of death. We are just now, in Orthodoxy, starting to have families want cremations (nyet!), closed caskets (except due to extreme disfigurement, NYET!), and to avoid seeing the lowering of the coffin into the grave (only recently become optional). Avoiding that last one gives us, or so we think, a temporary reprieve from having to consider death in it’s entirety-but it’s only a hall pass, not an “excused.”

A priest of the Congregation of Holy Cross writes to confirm distinctions between the rite itself and way it is conducted:

A distinction certainly exists [between the sick and the dying] but it does not exist within rubrics or the rites. The distinction is in the actual praying/celebrating of the sacrament . . . as well as a detrimental lack in discernment.

Catholics have forgotten how to discern the sacraments. For example, am I properly disposed to receive the Eucharist? This question is complicated by the lamentable assumption that one’s Sunday obligation entails receiving the Eucharist rather than the truth of the matter that one’s obligation is merely in attending the Mass.

Is my illness dangerous and/or serious? From the very start, James 5:13-15 says, “He should summon the presbyters of the Church.” Implicit in that “should summon” is the discernment that a person is sick. So sick that s/he can’t go TO the presbyters but must summon them.

This lack of discernment—[thinking that] anyone goes up for communion and that a hangnail warrants anointing—is more lamentable than any sort of systematic liturgical destruction of the sacrament of anointing. There is a problem indeed. It’s not with the rite but with wise discernment and reverential prayer.

There was common agreement that the sacrament, while deservedly offered to someone facing surgery or risky treatments, has been diminished in practice. This respondent adds a rueful note that raises a question less about the rite itself than about the culture of priestly training:

It [the sacrament of Anointing] is made not so important because one can just go the sacristy after Mass and be anointed. And it is true that instead of a dignified sacrament which may also include confession and holy communion, I personally know of priests refusing to hear a confession saying it is not needed as the anointing covers everything.

Fr. E. writes to remind that the Anglican tradition recognized the gravity of the rites designed for death. He quotes the rubrics from “Communion of the Sick” in the Book of Common Prayer. Reading the passage, it is impossible not to note the gulf between the older ceremonial seriousness and today’s demotic expectations shaped, as they are, not by religious sensibility but by popular culture. As you read, notice the emphasis on the communal aspect of the sacrament (“two at the least”) and the implicit assumption that the home visited is familiar with the protocols of the rite (“all things necessary so prepared”):

Forasmuch as all mortal men be subject to many sudden perils, diseases, and sicknesses, and ever uncertain what time they shall depart out of this life; therefore, to the intent they may always be in a readiness to die, whensoever it shall please Almighty God to call them, the Curates shall diligently from time to tim . . . exhort their Parishioners to the often receiving of the holy Communion of the Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ, when it shall be publickly ministered in the Church . . . . But if the sick person be not able to come to the Church, and yet is desirous to receive the Communion in his house; then he must give timely notice to the Curate, signifying also how many there are to communicate with him, (which shall be three, or two at the least,) and having a convenient place in the sick man’s house, with all things necessary so prepared, that the Curate may reverently minister, he shall there celebrate the holy Communion, beginning with the Collect, Epistle, and Gospel, here following.

Lastly, a spirited letter from the pseudonymous Clay Potts. He has no patience with priests who permit themselves to be buffaloed out of their cassocks:

A soldier, especially during times of war, is required to always appear in his uniform, even in non-combat situations, primarily as to deter the soldier from desertion, from abandoning his post, from blending into the crowd; And, as to remain ever battle ready.

A soldier’s uniform also serves to instill in a military force, self-confidence and popular confidence, as well as to diminish the enemy’s popular and self-confidence. Even a soldier operating a military drone seated in at a desk a thousands of miles away from the battlefield wears the uniform. How much confidence would a soldier dressed in a Hawaiian shirt, khaki shorts and sandals and seated at the command center with his finger on the nuclear button, instill in the public? . . . Or, a surgeon entering the operating theatre dressed in a bright gold Steeler’s sweatshirt and sweatpants? . . .

Even an off-duty cop will spring into action when he or she sees a crime being committed! They know they have a moral and ethical duty to take charge of the situation regardless of the danger to themselves. They don’t even think about it, they just react, it’s second nature. And, yet a priest is prepared to walk onto the eternal battle field of the deathbed dressed in street clothes?! Or fail to take charge of the deathbed?

All gratitude to each of you who took time and thought to respond. Enjoy this summer’s end. We will meet again in September. 

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A Correction

The freedom of a weblog comes with one high-voltage hazard: the absence of a proofreader. Unsung and half-resented, a proofreader is every writer’s guardian angel, a protector of literacy and the credibility that rests on it.


Keepers of blogs are home alone with their own prose. And their own slippages. Their copy is at the mercy of their mind’s eye, a treacherous thing that insists on seeing what it expects to see instead of what is really on the screen. There is no one nearby to signal a warning like this:

Hey, you cited the author of The Mass of the Roman Rite as Joseph Youngmann. Shouldn’t it be Jungmann?

Yes, it should. Mea maxima culpa. There is no excuse. 


Manuscript of Pío Baroja, as famous for his grammatical errors as for his prose.

An eminent liturgical scholar, Joseph Jungmann, S.J., dedicated himself to writing a comprehensive history of the Mass in 1939. Beginning work on the text in earnest around 1942, he called the work “a child of war.” It was difficult during the war years to gain access to manuscripts and incunabula critical to periods under discussion. Fortunately, most of the necessary material on the primitive Church and up to the late Middle Ages, even into the sixteenth century, could be had in translation (which included Arabic, Coptic, Ethiopian, and Syrian) or in modern editions.

Collating a great mass of material and crowded with citations, the text grew from the stringencies of what Fr. Jungmann called “a sort of scientific conscience.” Technical and precise, his history of “the Mass-liturgy” remains a consummate work of loving scholarship:

This book is not meant to serve only for knowledge—even the knowledge of the most precious object in the Church’s accumulated treasure—but is intended for life, for a fuller grasp of that mystery of which Pope Pius XII says in his encyclical Mediator Dei: “The Mass is the chief act of divine worship; it should also be the source and center of Christian piety.”

His introduction closes with this caution against antiquarianism for its own sake:

It is not the fact of antiquity that makes liturgical customs valuable, but their fullness of content and their expressive value. Even newer ceremonies, like the priest’s blessing at the end of Mass, can possess a great beauty.

[That second sentence was written in innocence of today’s dismissals that, often as not, follow the blessing with: “Have a nice day.” It is a safe bet Fr. Jungmann would prefer the ancient command: “Go, catechumens!”]

At the time of its publication, in Vienna, 1949, the two-volume text was the single most authoritative study of the origins and development of the Roman Mass. It is still in print. It endures as a fascinating and enriching study of the springs of our transmitted culture.



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Extreme Unction: Responses

My earlier essay on Extreme Unction generated a considerable volume of mail. All of it was thoughtful. There were simply too many to quote, or to include in a single blog post. So, herewith are two that represent the tenor of much of the correspondence. Others will appear in another post.


The first, by a Lutheran pastor, is a cry of the heart. Pastor B. opens a sad window onto the dilemmas and anxieties awaiting priests at the bedside of the dying:

Lutherans might not call it Extreme Unction, but Commendation of the Dying with confession, absolution and Eucharist was historically practiced. . . . . There are two things often going on around death beds, although we can’t call them that. The first is that the bastardizers have separated us from the ancient scripts and roles. I would love to show up in Cassock. But when you show up properly dressed you are told to leave and eventually the whispers start that “Pastor is stiff”. . . . Their life and practice has not prepared them to hear the words of comfort from the servant of the Word. So you go as a friend and say what you can. You know that isn’t good, right and salutary, but it is what they can hear. And then you go and pray.

The second point: For those further away from the church, by the time the minister is called there is usually nothing that can be said. For those closer, whom you have probably been visiting, you still have to confront the “white coats” and the [adult] children. White coats is my mental slang for the medical establishment which keeps the children on the drugs of false hope as if death were an option and keeps the dying on strong drugs. This is not an argument for no pain medication, just a recognition that a good confession requires one to be in their right mind. This would usually place you in confrontation with the white coats who are easing the way and the children who often have no belief what-so-ever. Either you confront and put the dying in the position of confrontation with their kids, or you mumble a few words about sharing a meal. And then you go and pray.

The church gets what she asks for. You will know the church has turned a corner when her people start asking for the Sacrament and the Servant.

The letter throws a sympathetic light on clerical reluctance to wear clerical garb to the bedside of the dying. And I am inclined to believe that, yes, a priest who comes dressed like the yard man or a lumber jack is likely following advice from the chancery to meet people “where they are,” in the illusory cant of the day. Nevertheless, a priest is not a technician, like the appliance repair man or meter reader. He embodies the Omega of our hopes; his presence asserts it even among those who have surrendered hope and trust. Those, most especially. 

Is confrontation the sole means of bearing witness? That is not for me to answer. I can only believe that retreat in advance affirms the very loss of trust the pastor mourns. Maimonides said it well: “The beginning of all defeat is retreat.” Is not a cassock testimony in itself, a silent instrument that gives word of what we ourselves might be unable to say? It must not be put aside, mothballed for more congenial times.



Reader Jack writes in what reads like sectarian pique. Nevertheless, his point deserves note:

All of the Eastern Churches, both in union with Rome or not, have ALWAYS called it Anointing of the Sick, and it’s never been reserved for those in danger of death. Changing it to “Extreme Unction” is one of the many ways the local Roman Church fell away from the original Apostolic practices preserved by the Eastern Apostolic Churches. . .

The Roman Church has NEVER been the standard of the Church Catholic, but merely one part of it. . . . So many of the things that “traditional Catholics” complain about being innovations are standard, old, and established among Eastern Christians, Catholic or not.

Antiquarian correctness is a false issue. What Jack considers a falling away from apostolic practice could as easily be welcomed as an advance on it. It helps to remember that the sacraments were made for man, not man for the sacraments. As man’s condition changes down the centuries, the formal qualities of the sacraments—their manners, if you like—alter with it. The choreography of the Mass itself has changed in relation to the temporal facets of our existence. [Browse Joseph Jungmann’s The Mass of the Roman Rite.] 

Each generation begets its own obstacles; each seeks its own way to renewing inherited trusts. Christian freedom remains open to liturgical change. Our concern is with the character and symbolic import of altered protocols, not with the crude fact of historical adjustment. What matters is whether changed decorums achieve refinement or degradation of sacramental purpose.

 I can only repeat what I wrote earlier: The chasm between sickness, which seeks treatment, and the final stage of terminal illness is vast. The hour of death is a time unto itself, unlike any other. The conceptual framework of Extreme Unction bowed to the profundity of that distinction. Anointing of the Sick—most certainly in contemporary practice—erases the harrowing particularity of death.  

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Audubon’s Seeing Hand

This weblog began as First Things’ art page, so to speak. Yet I have a hazy suspicion that you are not all that interested in art. Certainly not art in the lower case. Upper case Art, yes; ART in ten point caps, yes. Art as a cover for theological and philosophical reflection, or flights of creative writing, yes, yes. Then there is art as Exhibit A in the case against contemporary culture. That is always fun. But art as the work of a hand and an eye? Not so much.

It is a great loss.

But one thing cannot wait any longer. Before it is too late, let me satisfy a nagging ache to post John James Audubon’s glorious study for his print of a Great Blue Heron. It is on view until September 7th at the Morgan Library in A Dialogue with Nature: Romantic Landscapes from Britain and Germany.


John James Audubon. Study for Great Blue Heron. New York Historical Society, NY.


In the main, Romantic landscapes tire me. My foot worries the accelerator going past idylls, sententious ruins, and visionary sunsets. The pastoral mood is as alien to me as obligatory appreciation. This exhibition drew me in simply to see what was on show by Samuel Palmer, a British painter and etcher highly admired in the Victorian era but neglected since.

My heart stopped in front of the Audubon. I had not expected to see it. In the instant of meeting it, everything else—Palmer, too—fell away. Here is the genius of Audubon fully realized in this stunning composition. It is an exquisite conversation between meticulous observation and pure invention. In abstract terms, the image is a masterpiece—no other word will do—of graphic beauty and virtuosic design.

The Italian word disegno, common in Renaissance texts, makes no distinction between drawing and composition. The character of line itself and the rhythmic patterning of its placement on the page is understood as a unit, the single yield of a seeing hand. Audubon, largely self-taught, was gifted with such a hand.

Any standing figure—bird or man, no matter—carries the burden of stasis. But Audubon’s heron is infused with a dynamic sense of movement and immediacy. The scene gives the illusion of having been captured in the moment. Look at the tilt of the bird’s body and the arc of those wings. The bird is standing solidly on the ground poised to make a lethal strike at food. Yet the lift and billow of the wings suggests flight, as if the feet had descended to grab rock while the body was still partially alight.

That double-winged congruence, so suggestive of the bird’s aerodynamic fluency, is an imaginative device that Audubon used in other compositions. He understood that verisimilitude, untransfigured by a fertilizing intelligence, is not enough to breathe life into a subject.

The crisp silhouette of the heron’s upraised left wing echoes the curvature of its neck. The straight line of the avian leg angles in harmony with the double lines of the open beak. Marsh grass bends gently in the direction of the leg’s medial joint. Throughout, crescents and lines sing in counterpoint with each other. So much calculation; such superb illusion of spontaneous nature.

Field naturalist that he was, Audubon puts the viewer on eye level with the heron. We are there in the mire, witness to a predator intent on prey. Alert with energy, the down on the bird’s neck signals the excitement of the hunt. It would be unwise to get closer. The marsh is his, not ours.

Running through the world’s long history of bird painting is use of a bird as symbol of the soul, the Holy Ghost of things. Audubon’s birds, kissed with life, have souls of their own.



Note: The Morgan bills the image, accurately, as a study. But the word study is misleading here. This is a fully realized painting in an arresting range of techniques: pastel, watercolor, pencil, oil paint, and gouache. Even a bit of collage appears in an effort to correct the tip of a single feather. It is a study only in the sense that it was created to be rendered ultimately as a hand-colored print, sent to press in collaboration with Robert Havell, a master of acquatint.

The Havell Edition of Audubon’s The Birds of America is among the most beautiful books ever published.

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A Brief Thought

Writing in 1956, Romano Guardini reflected on man’s place in a world hurtling toward what we call today postmodernism. The End of the Modern World is a bleak reflection but a necessary one. Guardini, professor of philosophy and theology that he was, leaped beyond abstractions here to enter the battle for souls that theoretical formulas deflect.


Nicolas Bataille. Dragons Vomiting Frogs (14th C). Apocalypse of Angers, Tapestry Museum, Angers, F.



One stark passage alone is worth volumes of academic theology written by court theologians for fellow courtiers. He is speaking of the eschatological conditions under which modern man lives and the religious temper of his self-created future:

With these words I proclaim no facile apocalyptic. No man has the right to say that the End is here, for Christ Himself has declared that only the Father knows the day and the hour. (Matthew xxiv, 36). If we speak here of the nearness of the End, we do not mean nearness in the sense of time, but nearness as it pertains to the essence of the End, for in essence man’s existence is now nearing an absolute decision. Each and every consequence of that decision bears within it the greatest potentiality and the most extreme danger. 

Nearness as it pertains to the essence of the End. 



The Triumph of Death (15th C). Catalan fresco. National Gallery of Sicily, Palermo.


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