Oil of Gladness
Published in Meridian Magazine, March 2010
The Elders’ Quorum president held up the quart-sized bottle for everyone to see. “For anointings we use olive oil—preferably extra virgin,” he explained. The women nodded and gave little clucks of approval. Anyone who watches cooking shows knows that extra virgin, product of the first pressing of the olives, is the best.
The liquid in the bottle shone a rich yellow. Pretty, but not as impressive as the olive oil my grandmother poured freely in the days of my childhood. Imported from Greece, the thick green oil came in square, gallon-sized cans marked with strange images: words in geometric Greek, creepy symbols like an unflinching eyeball with three legs bending out of its sides. The filigreed designs in red and gold reminded me of the stained-glass windows in the Greek Orthodox church, where I fidgeted every Easter, nose wrinkling from incense, under the eye of the emaciated Christ hanging above the nave.
I curled on my side in the hospital bed, eyes squeezed shut against the piercing overhead light and the crisis at hand. Anointed, I felt the droplets of oil seeping into my hair, cool and wet. Reed’s hands shook as he pressed his palms against my skull; his voice shook as he called me by name and began to pronounce a blessing of strength, comfort, and healing. All desperately needed. If the baby came now—three months early—his chance of surviving would be low, and his chance of thriving even lower. I had never been so frightened. Yet as the words of the blessing seeped into my skin, soft and warm, I knew we would be okay. The baby might live, to one degree or another; he might die. But we would be okay.
Many times before I’d felt cool drops and weighty hands upon my head. The first was the day of my endowment, when white-winged sisters whispered gentle yet potent words of cleansing and renewal, of unspeakable peace. In the years that followed, that peace returned again and again under the hands of my husband. Blessings of light, truth, guidance and succor flowed to each member of our growing family by virtue of his priesthood and our faith. And while my own hands sometimes longed to press against a child’s feverish scalp with ministering grace, and my mind often longed to understand why I must forbear, my periodic communion with the white-winged sisters was enough to sate the hunger.
The Relief Society sisters bowed their heads. Holding the bottle aloft, the Elders’ Quorum president pronounced a blessing upon its contents, setting the oil apart for the healing of the sick in the household of faith. Then he stepped aside as the Relief Society president took center stage to lead a discussion about the purposes and practices of the priesthood. By the time she finished, the EQP had poured the consecrated oil into dozens of small plastic vials—one for each woman in the room.
When the filled basket reached me I chose one of the golden vials, holding it for a few minutes before tucking it in my purse. Strange, to have my own consecrated oil. I could’ve called it pointless, since I couldn’t use it myself, and those who could typically carried their own. I could’ve called it insulting to be offered a tool I was not entitled to wield. I could’ve used my rational mind to slice and dice the situation into a hundred sexist pieces if I wanted to.
But I didn’t want to. Sitting in the Relief Society room, surrounded by sisters holding bright vials of oil, I knew—in a fleeting yet enduring way—that I was holding a gift. One I could not open, true. But one I could rightfully own.
The streets of downtown Salt Lake were dark and damp from recent October rain. I stood on the corner of South Temple and Main with my daughter Christine, craning my neck to see if my husband’s car was in the stream of vehicles pouring from the direction of the conference center. Priesthood session had just ended, and so had the book-signing event I’d attended with Christine. Making an exception to his usual practice, Reed had stayed home with our other children that evening, missing conference so I could take this rare opportunity to meet some readers and include my daughter in the fruits of my professional labors. He was due any minute to pick us up.
As we waited in the dark, damp night, clusters of men approached from the conference center to the north, waited for the walk signal, then crossed South Temple to reach the Trax platform. At first the crowds seemed familiar enough–bunches of heads and legs like those crossing any busy metropolitan street, except the heads were all relatively close-shorn and the legs were all covered with dark suit pants and fluttering trenchcoat flaps. Uniform. But as minutes passed and the conference center emptied, the procession gathered in strength and spectacle. Wearing the only skirts in sight, Christine and I watched in awe as the moving crowd of men, young and old, swelled from a steady stream to a mighty sea. Hundreds of priesthood holders, thousands, flowing outward from the center of the city to fill the dark, damp world.
On a warm spring afternoon I reached into my purse for my car keys, then quickly withdrew my hand in surprise. Black ink, thick and sticky, covered my fingertips. Sighing in frustration, I dug for and found the offending pen—a cheap ballpoint that had inexplicably cracked and leaked all over the contents of my purse. I lifted items out one by one, checking for damage and sorting them into “keep” and “trash” piles. The old, folded receipts and packet of Kleenex could be easily tossed, of course. Chapstick too. Silver-cased lipsticks smeared with black—mentally I counted the cost, then tried (and failed) to clean them with some of the unscathed Kleenex. Thankfully my keys were untouched. But to my dismay, the vial of consecrated oil was ruined. Ink saturated the once-clear plastic casing, dripping from the ridges of its small white cap.
I lifted the vial gingerly between thumb and forefinger. In the months I’d carried it with me it had never been used—at least, not for its express purpose. It was a comfort nonetheless, resting in my purse in case the need arose. A token of things precious to me–grandmother and Christ, breathing baby and white-winged sisters. And a daily reminder that while I couldn’t administer the blessings of the priesthood, I could receive them in full, and carry them with me always.
I moved my hand toward the inky trash pile, reluctant to dispose of the blackened vial. Before dropping it I hesitated for a moment, imagining the glowing yellow oil inside, still clean and pure, still potent with potential. And it sobered me to realize how easily such beauty and value can be obscured, or abandoned, or lost.