Spirituality for Today – April 2010 – Volume 14, Issue 9

You'll Never Walk Alone

By Sister Lou Ella Hickman, I.W.B.S.

Even though St. Paul admonishes us to "never tire of doing good," people do. In fact, some people are more than tired; they are exhausted. I can still remember after 9/11 acquaintances said they just couldn't bear to watch the news any longer. These caring people had not only reached their limit; they were suffering from compassion fatigue.

A photo of a single person walking alone in the desert

This scenario is only one of the many faces illness wears. Too many people are unaware they are heavily burdened. The polite word would be stress.

Yet stress is basic to life. In the form of gravity, it keeps us upright. Stressful situations can challenge us to be our best selves. In the process, we can also discover skills we never knew we had. But unduly prolonged stress kills. It can crush the spirit and wound the body. Some people are even driven to suicide. Suicide is not only a desperate cry for help; it is also a plea for relief. About the business of living, sad to say, we Americans believe we can go it alone. As a result, many people seldom ask for help. No wonder stress kills.

When one thinks of someone who carries a great burden, usually an Alzheimer or a cancer patient caregiver comes to mind. However, there are invisible others who need to be reminded to care for themselves as well. It is not overly simplistic to say our age is the age of great burdens. Nevertheless, this dark reality is not without hope. We Catholics are especially blessed; we have a sacrament of Christ's healing touch: the Anointing of the Sick.

It is almost a cliche today to say that parents have a highly stressful job. Yet they live out their 24/7 vocation without the solace this sacrament can give. This is especially true of parents who raise children with special needs. Parents who have lost a child have a great burden to bear. The Anointing of the Sick can help transform this black hole of loss into something redemptive. Even grandparents are experiencing similar stresses as they take on the role of parenting their grandchildren.

Siblings of children with special needs or battling catastrophic illness can feel abandoned or overwhelmingly powerless in the situation. Children also carry a great burden when a parent suffers a prolonged illness or dies. They need the sacrament of the sick as much as their brother, sister, or parent who is ill does

During our school's graduation reception, I happen to meet a couple who had gone through a rough situation a few weeks before. The husband had lost part of a finger in a home accident and the healing had slowed down due complications. The wife had witnessed the accident and was still dealing with the sock. At one point, I mentioned to her about the Anointing of the Sick. Her face lit up then turning to her husband she told him what I had said. They, too, had the idea this sacrament was reserved for only the really, really sick.

Oddly enough, teachers comprise another invisible group. I have met some who must battle major difficulties in order to educate at risk or throw away kids. These students are often hard to reach and teachers must do so with the "support" of an indifferent society as well as indifferent or even hostile parents. I had a conversation with one such teacher several months ago. In the process I asked her, "Have you ever thought of getting anointed?' Her reply was, "I thought it was for sick people." American to the core, she added, "I'm pretty tough." Though unaware of it, she was bearing the burden of compassion fatigue.

While not all teachers work with at risk students, teaching is still a very demanding job. As such, teachers, being human, need support. The Church is there to reach out to remind them they are not alone.

Another invisible group are those experiencing the trauma of divorce. After the divorce is final, both men and women I have found, have few skills to help them mourn the loss of a relationship. Far too many people still believe the Anointing of the Sick is reserved only for the dying. As a result, there are those in this category who fear asking a priest for the precious gift of healing.

Those going through the annulment process would also be wise to consider being anointed. Due to experiences that must be dealt with, this process can be painful. Yet facing this pain can help bring healing and closure especially when augmented with the sacrament of the sick.

Come to think of it, there could be a litany of the invisible who carry great burdens. For example, there are the police, firefighters, emergency medical personnel, and those who work with the homeless to name just a few. Perhaps the best insight into our human nature came from one woman who shared with me about this sacrament. "We are all sick." She went on to elaborate. "We are all broken and few of us, if any, lives without some burden."

We are all indeed broken. However, this brokenness does not have to own us. Thanks to Christ's touch in this sacrament, the separation that illness brings is bridged and we can be empowered. And this is ours just for the asking.