When sickness or injury comes upon us, we face the question of whether we really believe what we profess to believe. There are temptations to self-absorption, and medical science can encourage us to spend much of our time relaying technical information to friends and family. What, then, is the path of faithfulness when we are sick? Here are six points of practical wisdom.
First, recognize that your pastor does not have ESP. If information has not been given to your pastor, your pastor doesn’t know it. And that’s true of everyone on the church staff. So if you are sick, and particularly if you are in a hospital, you should phone the church and let them know. Email works, too.
Second, you may request prayer, the laying on of hands, anointing, and the sacrament of Holy Communion. Prayer is basic. It can be simply a request that clergy pray for you in their personal, private intentions, or that your name be included more formally in the prayers of your parish. Or you could ask for someone to come and pray with you in person.
You can also request the laying on of hands in prayer, a specific way of praying for healing that’s commended in the New Testament. (In Mark 6:5, Jesus lays his hands upon the sick; Paul does so in Acts 28:8.) This can be accompanied by Unction, an anointing with holy oil. “Is any among you sick?” asks St. James in his epistle. “Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord” (5:14). Although practices differ, my custom when anointing is to dip my right thumb into the oil and make the sign of the cross on the person’s forehead. Then I lay my hands upon her or him, saying something like this: “Name, I lay my hands upon you and anoint you with holy oil in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, beseeching our Lord Jesus to fill you with his grace, to drive away all sickness of body and spirit, and to give you that victory of life and peace that will enable you to serve him both now and forever. Amen.”
Some people are offended by the blunt realism of this—or any other prayer for healing—thinking it selfish or presumptuous or unrealistic. But in truth they’re not offended by prayer for healing, but by any prayer at all. For to pray is to ask; to pray to God is to ask God for something. When you are sick, you pray, and the Church prays, that God will heal you.
Thus I never lay on hands and anoint without explicitly asking God “to drive away all sickness of body and spirit.” I do so even when it doesn’t seem at all likely that there will be healing, even when it seems that death is imminent and indeed might be a blessing. Christianity is a physical religion. We believe in the Word who took on human flesh, who bled and died on the cross, who rose bodily from the tomb. We believe in the resurrection of the body—your body and mine. So beware of slipping into a spiritualism that ignores or despairs of the body. We must boldly pray for healing in every case without mental reservation.
In addition to all this, you may also ask for Holy Communion, the bread of life. My Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer provides for the reservation of the sacrament to administer to those who are unable to come to church for Communion. Most other denominations have corresponding practices. Communion can be brought to you, and it is meet and right for you to request it.
The reception of Christ in the Eucharist reminds us that when we pray for the removal of sickness, we’re in fact aiming much higher. The point of all our prayers is that we be able to live fully as human beings, which means living in a way that serves God. As we all know only too well, we can be very healthy people in the physical sense but not live to serve God. Which brings me to my third point.
Sickness may be a mode of sanctification. When we are sick, we often realize we are not Superman or Superwoman. In the infirmary, we are connected with many other people, and we need all those other people. When our bodies fail, we see that we’re not perpetual motion machines. We need God. In these ways, sickness helps us recognize our neediness, our vulnerability, our created-ness, our interdependency. In other words, we recognize human reality.
When we are not sick, it’s only too easy to ignore that reality and imagine ourselves as existing independently and living on our own terms. Thus the spiritual blessing illness sometimes provides. When we are sick, we often depend on someone else to take care of our basic physical needs. Having someone else bathe us provides a powerful lesson in humility. The same goes for needing assistance to the toilet—or someone to pay the bills and take care of everyday life while we are incapacitated.
Many of the things we normally do for ourselves we cannot do when sick. Do we resent this? Do we say, “I don’t ever want another human being to wipe my bottom! That’s an insult to my dignity!” A human being loses dignity only through his or her sin. You lose your dignity when you are wrongfully angry, not when you need to wear a diaper.
So illness and incapacity can be used by God and by us for our sanctification. But there’s another angle, as well. Sickness can be a mode of sanctification for others. My wife had a brain tumor diagnosed when she was thirty-eight years old. We had then been married fifteen years. She lived another nineteen years. Looking back, I can see that taking care of her—being dropped into the situation where I had to take care of her—was an instrument of divine grace for my sanctification. I used to think that Victor Austin might just possibly be remembered as a teacher or as the author of this or that work of scholarship. Somewhere along the way, God revealed to me that the most important thing about Victor Austin is that he was the husband of Susan Austin.
Fourth, not every medical treatment must be taken. God has given us stewardship over our bodies. Our bodies are not mere tools of our souls, as if the real me were the program and my body just indifferent computer hardware. So there are things we may not do with our bodies. We may not cut off our limbs at will (although, if your foot has gangrene, you may well cut it off in order to save the rest of your body). We may not kill our bodies. Quite the contrary, we are to give thanks to God and take good care of our bodies. This is why exercise and healthy eating and all sorts of healthy living are legitimate Christian concerns.
That said, we need not do everything possible to keep ourselves alive. Suppose you receive a cancer diagnosis. You should be brave and be willing to suffer the usual treatments if there is a reasonable chance that they can fight off the cancer. But if your body is already weakened, and you have already (say) gone through a number of rounds of chemotherapy, and the cancer has returned with virulence, you need not suffer still more. It is okay to say, “I accept that my body is dying. I am ready to die.”
To do so does not contradict our prayers that God restore the sick to health in body and spirit. The point is that we no longer expect that God will heal us through the instrumentalities of medicine. Nonetheless, we should continue to pray for healing, including what would then be the miracle of physical healing. It is no more a contradiction to say “no” to death in our prayers while accepting it in our refusal of unnecessary or futile medical intervention than it was for Jesus to pray, “If it be possible let this cup pass from me, nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt.”
Fifth, sickness can be a time for self-examination and confession. Sickness brings us up short. It interrupts our lives. We cannot go on doing all those things we think we need to do. This is especially true when we are severely ill and are facing death. The Great Interruption looms before us.
While we are alone with ourselves, it is a good time to put ourselves in mind of the presence of God and examine our conscience. Are there sins that weigh upon us? In the quiet and enforced rest of sickness, do we become aware of wrongs we have done, or things we should have done but have failed to do? This can be an excellent time to make a confession.
Finally, say your prayers. Those who are hospitalized often feel useless. They should not. Even when you are confined to bed, you can pray for me, for your clergy, for your family, for your neighbors, for the people of Ukraine, for the people of Syria, for your doctors and nurses, for the fellow who sweeps your floor, for the young woman who offers you a magazine, for the people who write for the magazine, for the people who made the paint that is on your wall, for the people who invented your medicines, for the people who manufactured your medicines, and so on. There is a lot for the sick and incapacitated to do. Prayer is important work. As St. Paul urges, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
Victor Lee Austin is theologian-in-residence at Saint Thomas Church in New York City.