Oil of Gladness
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 murmured in approval. They knew 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 in geometric Greek. 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. 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. Yet as the words of the blessing seeped into my skin, soft and warm, I knew we would be okay. The baby might live, ; 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. That peace returned again and again under the hands of my husband giving blessings of light, truth, guidance and succor to each member of our growing family. 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 consecrated the oil for the healing of the sick in the household of faith. Then he stepped aside as the Relief Society president lead a discussion about the purposes and practices of the priesthood. By the time she finished, the Elder’s Quorum president 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. My own oil. I could’ve called it pointless, since I couldn’t use it myself, and the priesthood brethren 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. Reed was due any minute to pick us up.
As we waited in the dark, damp night, clusters of men from the conference center 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 of hair were all relatively close-shorn and the legs were all covered with dark suit pants and fluttering trenchcoat flaps. 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 leaked all over the contents of my purse. I lifted items out one by one, checking for damage. 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 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.
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Kathryn Lynard Soper is the author of the memoir The Year My Son and I Were Born (Globe Pequot Press, 2009) and the founder and editor-in-chief of Segullah. She contributes to Mormon forums on a variety of topics including gender issues, disability, mental health, sexuality, family life, and spirituality.
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