The Mystery of Holy Oil


This post was originally a paper I turned in for a class in Sacramentology in 2006.  Please do not use it without citation.

I.  Experience

During my junior year of college, I would attend the Divine Liturgy at St Sophia’s Greek Orthodox Church, and daily mass at the Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, in Albany, NY. One day that autumn, it was announced that on an upcoming Sunday afternoon the bishop of Albany would be holding a special anointing and prayer service for those whose lives were affected by AIDS and HIV. Being a young queer man, whose life had been impacted by AIDS (and other recent events), i felt attendance would be spiritually beneficial to me. i arranged to attend with a devout Catholic dorm-mate of mine, and on the appointed Sunday afternoon she and i drove through the bright autumn sunshine to the Cathedral.

It was the first time my dorm-mate had been inside the cathedral at all, although she had seen the outside of the nineteenth century neo-gothic structure every time she drove down Madison Ave on the way to Troy.  i had never been in the cathedral during the midafternoon, hours after daily mass finished.  We were both astounded when we walked through the cathedral’s north door.

Rays of liquid sunshine poured into the vast space, bathing everyone in a palpable white light.  the immense space form the dappled floor to the arched ceiling soaring above us was suffused with the soft glow of autumnal light.  The cool interior of the cathedral seemed immersed in the calm and accepting presence of the God.  The sun shining from the rows of south windows illumined the glass bowls in which the oil rested, so that light seemed to shine out from deep within the oil itself, as if the holy Spirit dwelt in the oil and patiently awaited our approach.  The oil cast golden shadows on the ground and later, when we went up to receive the anointing, we saw the yellow light reflect back upon the faces of the ministers and recipients of the sacrament from the surface of the oil, which the ministers held in glass containers at heart level.

Not many people were present, though I would not say we were few in number.  Some people were clustered together in small groups of two or three, a few were alone.  Yet I would not have called the space created by the unfilled pews empty.  it seemed somehow, just right, as if we each were being given the space to grieve, if we needed to grieve, or to open out to others if we sought such an opening outwards.  We were all united by a deep sense of sympathy, of sharing in an experience that went beyond the sense of sharing one gets from attendance at Sunday services, and even beyond the sense of community at the Service of Holy Oil on Wednesday of Holy Week in the Orthodox tradition in the United States.  It was a sharing which the space between us did not diminish, but rather accentuated.

Although the cathedral’s gothic architecture could seem ornate from one perspective, the interior was spare, composed of well-cut and smoothed paving stones, the altar with only a simple white cloth, the bishop’s chair.  It was a simplicity mirrored by both the service itself and the vestments which the bishop and the priests wore.  all the ornament of the cathedral was left along its sides, pressed against the walls, embedded in the windows.  At its heart was an utter openness, a space in which to open oneself in silence and communion, to receive the mercy which the Holy Spirit pours out to us in the sacrament of anointing.

The combined effect of soft light, cool air, and what for me is a comforting musty smell, reminding me of childhood churches, was especially suitable to the comforting, healing aspect of the service, as was the fact that those who had gathered had come at a time outside our ordinary Sunday or liturgical routines.  The people who were present cared to be present.  We cared for reasons which touched on very physical and emotional aspects of our being, if the physical and emotional can be so sharply differentiated, and not for solely “spiritual” reasons — recognising, perhaps, that the spiritual also flows out of and is shaped by embodied experience.  We also gathered in a community which is typified by its solitary and deeply personal responses to death and dying.  The space allowed for our gathering together, and the space allowed between us within that space, also contributed to a concrete expression of healing.  The simplicity and openness of the cathedral reflected the forgiving aspect of the sacrament.  it was a physical openness, like the arms of the father who welcomed the return of the prodigal son, a son who returned at his own time, when he could trust himself to trust his father.  the time of day chosen also had its role to play, demonstrating in a very tangible manner that God pours the divine light upon all who come to receive it.

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