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Liturgy and Healing: Prayer for the Sick

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Sickness and death, pain and grief—our own or others’—are perhaps the most powerful motives for human prayer. Even if someone’s doubt or indifference about God outweighs faith, sickness often leads them to ask for prayer. And when they ask, no matter how busy, how intimidated, or how apathetic we have become in our prayer life generally, most of us attempt, once again, to frame a prayer. How can sickness be so powerful, and what is it we want when we ask for healing?

We pray because the perception that someone we love is vulnerable, suffering, or broken compels us to wrap that person in care, to exercise our muscles—however atrophied—of spiritual solidarity. If nothing else can be done, we at least want to suffer with the one who is suffering. This instinct is one of the first liturgical impulses we learn as children, to pray for the sick. Like our other liturgical impulses, it can help us recognize who God is, as in our prayers we realize that this love for the suffering is a manifestation of the image of God in us.

In the drama of the Old Testament narratives, God’s character is often displayed in contrast to the gods of the nations around, notably Pharoah and Ba’al, the god-king of Egypt and the ruler of the Canaanite pantheon. What sets God apart, in the narratives and poetry of ancient Israel, is a concern for those who are suffering, those who are ill and oppressed, widows, orphans, the poor, and foreigners. The Lord of the covenant, who tells Moses, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry. . . . Indeed, I know their sufferings” (Ex 3:7, NRSV), stands in stark contrast to a divine king who uses his people to increase his own power (see 1 Sam 8) or to a god of storms and fertility who is associated with the power and beauty—but is also responsible for the illness and suffering—of the natural world.

When we are confronted with illness, we are also confronted with the question of God’s goodness. “Why me, God?” is a prayer that asks, directly, where God is in our experience of pain and suffering. Does God use our suffering, like the god-king of Egypt? Is he indifferent to our plight, like a deadly hurricane? Or is he “God with us,” who knows our suffering? We may think we know the answer intellectually, but do we know it in our suffering?

The General Introduction to Pastoral Care for the Sick (1983) addresses this set of questions immediately, beginning with the Good News of the gospel that “sickness has meaning and value for their own salvation and for the salvation of the world [and that Christ] loves them in their illness” (PCS, 1). Sickness should not be regarded as a punishment imposed by God in retribution for personal sins, but should be understood as part of human nature which Christ, although he was sinless, also experienced as pain, lack, and suffering (PCS, 2).

In his excellent book Divine Worship, Human Healing, Bruce Morrill points out that neither the liturgy nor the scriptures restrict “sickness” and “healing” narrowly to what we, in our medically-informed culture, would call biomedical “disease” and asymptomatic “cure.” Rather, both are concerned with those aspects of human existence that threaten our “wholeness,” which (as we are beginning to recognize even in our medical language) have somatic, psychological, social, environmental, and spiritual components. “Healing” is a return to human wholeness that goes beyond medical symptoms, addressing alienation, pain and fear. When Jesus heals a leper or cures someone suffering from demon possession in the gospels, or when an anointing is done for someone who has lupus, AIDS, or Alzheimer’s, healing addresses the isolation, fear, and frustration of the sick as much as their physical symptoms. It also heals the fear and frustration that prevents us from caring for them.

The gift of the Holy Spirit offered in the Anointing of the Sick may bring about physical healing, or it may grant strength and trust (PCS, 6). Regardless of the circumstances, the rites proclaim that God stands with the sick and with the Church that unites to pray for them. God is not, for the sick, a harsh taskmaster or unfeeling force of nature, but is the friend that stands at their side.

Perhaps no liturgy of the Church expresses this conviction better than the Commendation of the Dying (PCS, 212–222). The Commendation is not a sacrament, but a flexible ritual to accompany someone who is near to or at the point of death. It does not require a priest, but may be prayed by anyone. It is especially appropriate after Viaticum (the Eucharist for someone in imminent danger of death), but could also be prayed when Viaticum cannot be received.

The scriptural texts suggested in the Commendation reveal a God worthy of trust and confidence: “I know that my Vindicator lives” (Job 19:25); “The LORD is my shepherd” (Ps 23:1); “My refuge and fortress, my God in whom I trust” (Ps 91:2); “He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain” (Rev 21:4) (PCS, 218). The prayers that follow entrust the dying person to the arms of God, remembering the Incarnation and Passion that show God’s love for him or her. There is no anxiety that sickness and death are signs of an angry God, nor suggestions that the sufferer deserves love because he or she is perfect; rather, God is the source of confidence and hope:

Go forth, Christian soul, from this world
in the name of God the almighty Father,
who created you,
in the name of Jesus Christ, Son of the living God,
who suffered for you,
in the name of the Holy Spirit,
who was poured out upon you,
go forth, faithful Christian. (PCS, 220)

If the God of the liturgies of the sick is more Advocate than Judge, we also need to abandon our attempts to explain the plight of the sick, and instead console them with the unconquerable and conquering love of God—addicts as well as asthmatics.

Featured Image: Jesus Heals the Paralytic of Bethesda (Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna); Photo: Nick Thompson; CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Kimberly Belcher

Kimberly Hope Belcher is an assistant professor who teaches sacramental theology in the Theology Department at Notre Dame and writes for Give Us This Day and PrayTell.