Companion in Illness

•About Prayer in Illness

"Is anyone among you suffering?
He should pray"

(James 5:13)

Bedroom at Arles - Van Gogh

Prayer during illness may sometimes be only a brief word or cry, because our minds and hearts can manage nothing more. Yet only a word, yes even a simple cry, is enough for God, who sees into the heart before a word is expressed.

I have waited, waited for the Lord,
and the Lord stooped forward and heard my cry.
(Ps 40)

Revisiting Everyday Prayers

Sickness is a time to revisit everyday prayers we learned long ago, for often prayers prayed before carry memories of God's faithfulness and love. Recalling them can support us in illness.

Listening to the Word of God

Holy Scripture is another good source to turn to in sickness. With its many examples of people like ourselves, wrestling with the experience of suffering and struggling to respond in faith, the Bible offers strong comfort and unique support.

Listen to Elijah and Job, to the nameless ones who speak in the psalms, to Paul the Apostle, to Mary, who stood by the cross of her son, to Jesus who shares the suffering of others and drinks its bitter cup himself.

The Sacraments

Because Christian sacraments provide distinctive signs of the presence of the Risen Christ, we should celebrate them in time of illness. In illness two sacraments have a particularly important place in the Catholic tradition: the Anointing of the Sick and the Holy Eucharist.

The Anointing of the Sick

In the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, the Risen Jesus offers those who are sick power not only to bear suffering bravely, but to fight against it. The sacrament is administered with simple, powerful signs. Jesus usually touched those who were suffering; in this sacrament the priest lays his hands on the head of the one to be anointed. Prayers for healing are offered. The head and hands of the person are anointed by the priest with olive oil, an ancient healing medicine. This anointing with oil is a reminder of the anointings received in baptism and confirmation. Sometimes, if it will benefit a person's salvation, the sacrament brings about a return to physical health. Regardless of the apparent effect on physical health, it always bestows the help of God's grace on anyone receiving it in faith.
"Through this holy anointing, may the Lord in his love and mercy, help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit.

"May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up."

Sacraments are signs of our union with others in the church, and so the family of those who are anointed, their friends and others involved in their care should be invited to participate in the sacrament of anointing.

The sacrament may be received by those whose health is seriously impaired by sickness or age, and may be repeated as the person's condition becomes more serious.

Communion of the Sick

The sacrament of the Eucharist, the most important sign the Risen Christ has given to his church as a reminder of his presence, is also a sacrament one should receive frequently during illness. Even though unable to celebrate the Eucharist in church, Christians should try to receive Holy communion at home or in the hospital. Jesus assures us:

Whoever eats this bread
will live forever;
and the bread that I will give
is my flesh for the life of the world (Jn 6, 51)

Flowers by Gaugin

The Sacramentals: Signs of the Spiritual

In sickness we need reminders of the spiritual world. Catholic tradition has always recommended visual signs like holy water ( a reminder of baptism), a crucifix, the rosary, and blessed pictures to keep our minds and senses aware of God's presence. Nor should we neglect any sign of beauty that will lift up our hearts when they are heavy. A flower, a plant, a card of greeting, music that we love can raise our spirits and give our bodies strength. In illness we need an environment of hope.

Fighting Illness

How should we face illness? Certainly not with fatal resignation, or avoidance, or paralyzing fear.

"Part of the plan laid out by God's providence is that we should fight strenuously against all sickness and carefully seek the blessings of good health, so that we may fulfill our role in human society and in the Church. Yet we should always be prepared to fill up what is lacking in Christ's sufferings for the salvation of the world as we look forward to creation's being set free in the glory of the children of God" (General Introduction, Pastoral Care of the Sick, 3).

We should seek the blessings of good health and use all the means at hand to help us.

At the same time, we recognize that this life ends, and another begins. As Christians we are united to Jesus Christ, who died and rose again. At baptism we were initiated the mystery of his death and resurrection. This mystery, now at work in us, promises life beyond this one. Our hope goes beyond the present.

Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick

Medical and Spiritual Care

Fighting against sickness means that we look for good medical attention and strong spiritual support. It means cooperating and collaborating with others:

"The sick person is not the only one who should fight against illness. Doctors and all who are devoted in any way to caring for the sick should consider it their duty to use all the means which in their judgment may help the sick, both physically and spiritually. In so doing, they are fulfilling the command of Christ to visit the sick, for Christ implied that those who visit the sick should be concerned for the whole person and offer both physical relief and spiritual comfort (Ibid, 4)

A Helping Hand from Others

Some try to bear the burden of sickness alone, but there is no time when we need the support of friends and others more. Keep in mind St. Paul's powerful analogy: "We are the Body of Christ" joined together like the body's limbs. "If one part suffers, all suffer together; if one flourishes, all rejoice together." Illness is a time when friends, family members, even strangers, bring Christ to us.


A helping hand.

Society today too often sees the sick, especially the chronically ill, as almost useless compared to able-bodied people. The Christian vision esteems the sick as Christ did and says: Attention should be paid.

Everyday Prayers | Simple Prayers | Prayers in Sickness
The Wisdom of Scripture | Mary and Prayer in Sickness
Thoughts from a Physician | Why Suffering?
Index Page
Jesus, Crucified

Prayer books and commentary provided by
Passionist Publications and Fr Victor Hoagland, C.P.
Send questions or comments about this page to Bread on the Waters