The first time I showed my mom my skinned and bloodied knee, she took this, Mercurochrome, out of the bathroom cupboard. Its bright orange color, added to my already bright red blood, the color code of “DANGER”, sent me into a crying panic. Yet Mom blew her breath on it and I watched as it stung my scratch and turned into a weird taut skin stain. “See? It doesn’t hurt,” said Mom. It would stain the open scratch and the channels of skin around it, like a highlighter for the body. After that experience, I no longer feared the Mercurochrome, and would administer it myself when I had another bloody skinning scratch.
So…what does this have to do with the more sacred task of anointing?
Anointing–with oil, water, or other substance–is the physical act of rubbing chosen substance, often blessed, on a surface or person. Merriam’s definition says it better: “to point oil on (someone) as part of a religious ceremony”. The Catholic context for it is in the Sacraments of Baptism, Anointing of the Sick (“Extreme Unction”) and Confirmation/Rite of Christian Initation for Adults (RCIA). Today, I use olive oil to anoint myself when speaking formally to the ‘Iluma, the Canaanite Deities.
This brought to mind, where did I really learn about anointing? A skinned knee, Mercurochrome, and a bandaid.
[A second example (and probably even more ‘pagan’) is having Vicks Vapor Rub on my throat when I had a cold. It stunk to high heaven and put me off of anything peppermint until high school.]
I’m of the opinion that the gestures and meanings I find for devotional activities has its roots in everyday experience. Touching the wounded part of our bodies is quite natural–even when it’s someone else’s pain, a comforting touch near the source of the pain is offered.
In my own practice, anointing arose from wanting a physical marker to teach myself that here was sacred space, here is where I formally address the Gods. In Whisper of Stone, there is a short prayer that I’ve adopted (with some changes) to settle myself and be open to the ‘Iluma.
Ancient Deities of the Canaanites,
Divine Assembly of Mout Lalu,
Sons and Daughters of ‘Ilu and ‘Athiratu,
Open my mind that I may sense you,
Open my eyes that I may see you,
Open my ears that I may hear you,
Open my nose that I may smell you,
Open my throat that I may…*
Open my senses that I may feel you
Open my heart (or liver) so I may know you.
I give honor. Shalam.
The first time I read this prayer aloud, it felt clunky and a little fake. It was the equivalent of using a phrasebook in a language I didn’t know yet to a native speaker. And that clumsiness came with self-consciousness…being opened up for ridicule, snubbing, or a smiting (still a holdover from Christianity, and probably some cartoons). I was reaching out of my shell, and while I didn’t get smited like I’d feared, I didn’t get the choirs of inspiration either that said I’d made A Connection with Them. The prayer stayed with me though. “My mind…eyes…ears…nose…heart…” These were things I could connect to, that centered me while being open to Them.
Over the next couple weeks, as I got used to the words and its rhythms, I felt the urge to make the prayer concrete. I’d read about anointing oneself in various publications, but didn’t make the connection until I went to Mass with my family one weekend. There is a small bowl of water next to the doors to cross oneself with it. After I did that, it hit me that this touch was making the prayer more physical, more real for me.
Since then I’ve started using olive oil as a part of my devotions. I ask a blessing from Choranu, God of Purification and Exorcism, to let the oil cleanse me of khat’sa (misdeed). When I read the prayer above, I use the oil on my forehead, the corners of my eyes, ears, tongue, my heart. In doing so, I am telling myself that I am speaking with, keeping company with the Gods. *I added “Open my throat…” because that where the spirit of the person, the napshu, resides. From my own experience, doing any prayer or concentrating on family/friends/outcome seemed more solid when I prayed with Mary, Uriel, ‘Athiratu, ‘Ilu, and the ‘Iluma, praying with Someone. My throat and both my wrists are my ‘senses’. It’s not as clear as the physical senses, and that can be good. The senses of the sequence set the stage, and the open verse allows for inspiration, mine or Theirs.
By the time I finish the prayer and anointing, I have quieted down, to be able to hear Them. The ritual action of anointing helps me to be ready for Them. I use extra virgin olive oil from Trader Joes ($5.99 last time I bought a bottle), and less than a tablespoon in using it. Like the Mercurochrome and the oil, a small action changes the perspective. In that change, in that practice, it makes a world of difference.