Jars of oil on an altar, to be blessed by the Episcopal bishop of Southwest Florida at the 2013 Chrism Mass

Anointing with oil and song

A week and a half ago, my uncle Robert sent out a message to the whole family: my aunt Suzanne had suffered a seizure, and was in the hospital. Over the next few days more details unfolded: there was a mass, but doctors weren’t calling it a tumor. Suzanne was doing well, and was back at home and still planning on hosting Thanksgiving (a major undertaking in my large extended family, 50 or so people). Surgery and biopsy wouldn’t be till after the holiday weekend. She appreciated all our prayers.

Brain masses are always scary, of course, but they’re particularly scary for my family: my grandmother died, before I was born, of a stomach cancer that metastasized to her brain. And so, while we were heartened to see Suzanne rushing about as usual on Thanksgiving Day (despite all our exhortations to “just sit down already”), I think it’s safe to say that we’re all concerned. And so we added another ritual to our festivities: an anointing of the sick. At some point in the afternoon, my eldest uncle (a Catholic priest) called all who wished to participate to the backyard. He anointed Suzanne’s forehead and hands with oil, and blessed her in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We all joined hands and prayed the Lord’s Prayer, asking for healing and blessings. My family is, by and large, rather religious, though we’ve splintered from the Catholic upbringing Dad and his siblings received. There are still a good number of Catholics, but also a collection of Evangelicals and nondenominational Christians, some agnostics and atheists (and at least one druid). In that moment, however, we were all bound together by care and concern for Suzanne, and I poured my heart into the Christian blessing she received — my love for her and my family outweighs my personal religious allegiances.

Brigid's Cross Detail
Flickr/Bart Everson

The next day, however, she was still on my mind. We were prepping another big meal with the other side of the family, but there was a quiet period as the rolls rose and I carved and picked the smoked turkey for a cold meats platter. Often when I’m performing these kinds of slow, calm kitchen tasks I find myself chanting under my breath. It’s a sort of active meditation, the mind and spirit engaging in a repetitive singing while the hands do their methodical work. I’ve tried many times to compose a song for Brigid, goddess of the hearth fire, the fire of inspiration and creation, and the fire of healing, but nothing’s ever come smoothly.

As my hands performed their work, however, separating meat from bone and sinew, my lips found quiet words of supplication: Lady of wisdom, light my heart’s fire. Lady of wisdom, be with me. I continued singing softly, waiting, until another phrase formed, now higher and more triumphal: Hail, hail the fire of Brigid! Hail, hail the flame within. I stayed with the work, lulled into a soft swaying as I alternated phrases, until a variation arose, this time a prayer for healing:

Lady of healing, stand beside her.
Lady of healing, stand beside.
Hail, hail the fire of Brigid!
Hail, hail her garments pure.
Hail, hail the fire of Brigid!
Hail, hail her healing sure.

May Brigid bless my aunt and all my family with strength and healing. May she bless the skillful hands of surgeons. May the care we have for those we love continue to outshine the lines of our division.

Musical notation of the author's chant

Featured image credit: Chrism Mass 2013 by Episcopal Diocese of Southwest Florida/Flickr

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