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Saturday, July 4, 2015

Prayer and Anointing with Oil when Ministering to the Dying

The following is the first in a series of guest posts for
Sacramental Saturday.
This post was written by my friend, Katie Boner,
whom I met through the GTOE program at NNU,
where Katie earned her M.A. in Theology/Spiritual Formation.
We spent two years together in the program,
and Katie had many valuable insights to offer.
She is well qualified to speak to the subject of
anointing of the sick and ministering to the dying.
I am thankful to her for agreeing to post here,
especially in the midst of my very busy summer!

I serve as a spiritual care provider in hospice. My background is Christian/Protestant, but I am trained as an interfaith chaplain. I meet people wherever they are in life, whatever belief system they may have, to love them as Christ loves us. Many times facing death brings a person closer to their spiritual roots. It causes that faith to be tested, questioned, confirmed. It is amazing to see how God works in the lives of Christians and non-Christians alike during this time.

A dying person comes face to face with what they believe about life, death, God, and the afterlife. For some, a strong faith in God exists and it brings peace. They know where they are going and though there is sorrow, there is also hope. For others, there is no belief system regarding God, other than that He does not exist. This life is all they have. There is both sorrow that things are ending and pride over a life well lived. Fear can also play a role in those last days. Others face death with no prior eschatological thoughts or relationship until the terminal diagnosis. The common threads are belief systems, traditions, and sacraments, all woven together.

Perhaps the most commonly known sacrament surrounding death is the Catholic sacrament of Last Rights, also known as the Anointing of the Sick. This is when a Catholic priest anoints a person who is gravely ill, or near death. “The anointing of the sick is administered to bring spiritual and even physical strength during an illness, especially near the time of death. It is most likely one of the last sacraments one will receive.” ( When a catholic patient requests this sacrament, as a chaplain, I contact a catholic priest, preferably one who knows the person. The priest will then visit the patient and perform this rite. This sacrament’s meaning is to help the person to become ready to face God in eternity.

During a recent visit, I met a patient in her late eighties. She had a Catholic background, but had not been active in church for many years. Her family had varying belief systems, only a few were Catholic, but all agreed that she should receive the Anointing of the Sick as it was one of her last wishes. The patient was unable to speak for herself at this point. I was able to contact a Catholic priest who arrived and performed this sacrament for the patient. It brought the family so much relief that her wishes were followed and that she received this blessing.

Anointing with oil is most often accompanied with a blessing or prayer. Throughout the Bible there are examples of people being anointed with oil. Many of these are of kings and prophets being set apart for God’s purposes. James 5:14-15 takes on a different tone for anointing with oil. “Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven.” (NIV, There are differing interpretations of this passage, however it gives way to the idea of anointing those who are hurting, sick, and dying. It is again intended to set a person apart for God’s purposes.

In some Christian denominations, the sacrament of prayer and anointing with oil is an integral part of a person’s passing into eternity. Anointing with oil symbolizes something special, to be set apart and marked for God. The prayers offered at this time can bring peace, help the person get closer to God and deeper in their faith; it can bring a sense of hope, comfort, and peace. Many people request prayer for a swift and easy passing as the time gets closer. An important thing to remember here is not the sacrament itself, but the One to whom the prayers are offered. When a person gets closer to the end of their life, these sacraments bring them closer again to God and their beliefs, reuniting them with Hope.

Sometimes sacraments are not familiar to the dying. They once practiced these sacraments, or maybe have only heard of them, but dismissed them or walked away. I am amazed how this group of individuals responds when asked if a prayer can be offered. Some reject, some show ambivalence, some cry and are reunited with the faith and God of their past. The response is varied, but usually quite honest.

During another recent visit, a patient who believes in God, but also believes in working her way into heaven through good acts, was struggling with peace. She worried about all of the things she had done wrong in her life and felt she could not pray for herself. She asked me to pray. I prayed for peace in her life and for her to understand the full extent of God’s mercy and grace. She felt more peace than she had felt in awhile. It was God who brought the peace, but I also think God was working through having someone listening to her struggles without judgment or correction, letting the patient be herself. It opened her heart to asking God for peace and forgiveness.

I believe being fully present when we are ministering to people is vital. We can miss so much if we are preoccupied with our own judgments of what the person is saying, or our responses to what is being said. I am guilty of this. But I have found that when prayer for direction, awareness, and discernment is given before and during a visit, God opens my soul and my eyes to amazing things. The sacrament of prayer is not only important for the dying person, but also for the minister. If we are tuned into His voice, we see and understand more. Being fully present and listening to God’s direction allows for one to hear the meaning behind what another has said. A person’s facial expressions hold a myriad of information, as do their surroundings. The mention of a pen and tablet on a table can lead into a conversation about what is not yet written in a person’s life and is left to accomplish.

I have had the privilege of being present when a person takes their final breath. It is a sacred event when someone breathes their last and steps into Eternity. Those who know God and are at peace with life, their past, and what lies ahead, often die peacefully. Many times a family will ask me to pray over their loved one who has just passed. It gives closure and peace for those left behind.

In approaching physical death, we approach the unfamiliar, a doorway into God’s presence. It is something no one currently living has experienced before and all of us will likely only experience once. It is new territory. Medical personnel can tell us what it will look like and what we may experience physically, however the only first-hand experience a person has is when they walk that path themselves. Faith brings us comfort in this journey. Traditions and sacraments bring hope and relief for emotional and spiritual pain and questioning. They bring reassurance. Anointing with oil and prayers offered before and after death, are sacraments that bring closeness to God. This in turn brings peace, meaning, and a sense of that which is holy.


  1. Katie, and L.-

    There is some really good stuff here!

    I especially liked the connections Katie made here between holiness and anointing - that the act of anointing, whether of the sick or another, is meant to signify the setting apart of people to God. Since one meaning of being holy *is* to be "set apart," this just makes sense - but I don't think Protestants in particular make this connection very well.

    I think most often in the kinds of churches I have been a part of, people would think of anointing as "I need God to do something *for me*," and that is certainly a part of it, but it is also about "We need to set apart this person *for God.*"

    Thinking of anointing in this way changes our expectations of both God and the person being anointed. Perhaps when God doesn't heal a person who has been anointed, as is sometimes expected based on the James 5 passage, it is because our expectation was off from what it should be. For the sick person to be made well, perhaps sometimes what is needed is a physical healing and recovery in order for them to be set apart and made holy - and other times what is needed is to pass on from the physical life into the rest that awaits us for them to be set apart and made holy.

    The goal of anointing then, is to make holy, not necessarily to physically heal, even though that *can* happen as a part of the setting apart. I wonder if when Jesus healed people, this is primarily what he was doing - setting apart and sanctifying people for the work of God to advance the reality of the Kingdom.

    If as Katie said, "the sacrament of prayer and anointing with oil is an integral part of a person’s passing into eternity"...and if Jesus comes to bring us eternal life that begins *right now*...then the life we are living in each moment is itself a "passing into eternity"...a life that must be set apart, made holy...anointed...

    Anybody have any oil handy?

    1. I really like the connection between anointing and holiness, as well. When we look at anointing as a means of grace, it is more about preparing a person to meet God (and to belong to God) than about expecting a physical healing, and you're right, we haven't always made this connection very well. This has me thinking about how we often ask for something less than what we really need or something less than what God is willing to give.