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The Healing Power of the Anointing of the Sick: It's Not Just for Physical Illness
A Guest Post by Melissa Presser
Up until six months ago, I struggled with the will to live. There were thoughts, lots of them, and they came regularly, sometimes by the minute. Wanting to hurt oneself or end your life is not an easy thing to talk about; it’s even more difficult to write about. Because once you write it or speak it, then your words are out there for all to see. And the world is a cruel place.
My thoughts stemmed from my childhood sexual abuse: From the depression, anxiety, and other maladies that it caused me; From events since then that have triggered me; From a place at the bottom of a pit that you just can’t climb out of.
It always makes me angry when people throw religion at mental health issues as if enough Hail Marys or night prayer will make the devil go away. Yes, prayer, the Holy Mass, and receiving the Eucharist and Confession certainly do help. But for me, my moments of despair proved completely overwhelming.
There are so many things that are out of our control. The way people treat us. The unkindness and unforgiveness of people. Life’s circumstances that we didn’t see coming. There is death, separation of friends and family, and betrayal. For the average person, these life events may not drive them over the edge. But for a person who is predisposed to suicidal thoughts; these things can become the catalyst to take one’s life.
While I was in RCIA, I learned about all of the Sacraments. But the most interesting thing I learned was that the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick was not just for people that were dying or elderly. It was also for people with serious illnesses. This included serious mental illnesses. Our teachers went on to tell us that it was one of the least used Sacraments, and one that people should be frequenting more often. I remember wondering in the back of my mind if the sacrament would help me.
Mental health is a funny thing. You can be ok one day and the next day unable to get out of bed. It can be one thing that triggers you before all is lost. And these thoughts can send you into a bottomless pit of nothingness.
As I scrambled last year during one of the worst and most painful years of my life, I thought many times about this Sacrament and the words of my RCIA teachers. I didn’t think I was quite there yet and instead filled my life up with meaningless things that led me off-roading from the faith. I was still going to Mass, saying my prayers, and doing my daily Bible study, but I still wasn’t finding any hope—so I turned to worldly things instead, in a struggle to pull myself out of a mental pit.
If hell exists I’ve seen it. In the dark there is nothing. There is no meaning, no way out, no answer to the hard questions or healing balm to the physical suffering that comes with many mental health conditions. And although my life was certainly in part sustained by the Mass, the gift of the Eucharist, Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, therapy, and the great gift of family and friends, I wasn’t quite there yet. The thoughts remained that pain was too great, and the thoughts bombarded me in seconds instead of minutes.
By the grace of God, I knew they were all lies.
And at the bottom, at the very bottom, I saw a light. When I had turned to secular things to heal me and they failed, I remembered the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick. I was sure at this point I qualified, and so God gave me the impetus to reach out to my Spiritual Director. I didn’t have to say much, he already knew. I made an appointment, and in the middle of an unassuming day I left work on my lunch hour in the hope that I would come back wanting to live.
The Sacrament itself is breathtaking. The prayers the anointing, all of it. Father was humble and gentle and treated me with dignity, love, and kindness. I felt my soul rise, heal and cling to the grace that God was administering through the Priest. I knew that I was supposed to be there. Then quietly, I left and went on my way, praying that there would be light.
It wasn’t long after that I started to feel the effects of the Sacrament. My mood lifted, I felt a shift that allowed me to move forward and my voice opened. Day by day, little by little I was getting better. I continued to let go of the things that weren’t serving me, people, places, and spaces. I clung to the Mass and the Eucharist even when I didn’t feel anything.
I was changed that day. The Sacrament supernaturally broke me of the illness that plagued me. My condition improved and soon I was getting back to the things I loved, especially my writing. Life was looking better every day.
In the Catholic Church, I find that mental health is a topic scarcely talked about. Online and in Catholic media, there are many who think that having mental health issues means you don’t have enough faith, you don’t pray enough, or that all you have to do is turn to God to get better. But for someone who has not experienced the very real effects of mental illness, these types of comments can lead to the destruction of a soul, especially a mentally fragile one.
As a practicing, devout Catholic, I want to say this to you: You are not alone. God doesn’t love you any less because you struggle, in fact, He loves you more. It is more than ok to go to therapy and take medication if that is what you medically need. God knows and sees your pain even when you can’t feel Him there. People are fallible, so I would implore you not to listen to anyone who tells you otherwise.
Today, I am a walking, shining example of the healing power of this Sacrament. I still suffer from time to time, but the throws of darkness and despair are no longer there. I make sure to attend Sunday Mass, receive the Eucharist and surround myself with friends that help support my walk with Christ, whether they are Catholic or not. These souls have been the continued medicine the Lord has sent me to get well.
I encourage you to call your priest if you, too, are suffering the effects of a serious mental health issue. If you have been away from the Church or are thinking of converting, call your local parish or speak with a Catholic friend that you trust to get you to the right parish and priest for you. And know that you are so loved and wanted by God and not defined by the darkness that plagues you. In fact, you are united with Christ even more than others in understanding His sufferings.
Please share this message with someone you love.
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