by André Mathieu, C.P.
I recently heard it said that "Old Age" is always ten years ahead of us! When I hit forty I felt young and vigorous and relegated getting old to hitting fifty. When I hit fifty I still felt young and vigorous and figured "getting old" was hitting sixty. Now I'm sixty-three and it seems to me that seventy might be getting old. I remember my mother at eighty-five having little patience with those "old people" who lived in the same senior residence with her. The attitude that we have toward ourselves and towards life greatly affects our perspective on aging, especially our personal perspective.
Senior retreat at Shelter Island
We live in a society that wants to deny the reality our own personal aging. The "keeping young" industry is a multi-billion dollar a year scheme to convince people that they will live forever. People know that they will die, but many are eager to play the game of eternal youth. Taking good care of one's health with proper diet, exercise, leisure and medical care is important. Our bodies are precious
gifts given to us by a loving God. We have an obligation to treasure this gift. Taking good care of ourselves physically, spiritually and emotionally is simply good stewardship. Pampering ourselves and living with the illusion that we can somehow avoid aging, dying and death is living in denial. The truth is that we are all aging from the moment of conception. From that mysterious moment onward, we are on a journey that will ultimately bring us into the loving arms of God.
Three phases of life
I suggest that there are three phases of life. The first is life in the womb which is a brief period of about nine months when all of our basic needs are taken care of by our mother. During this phase we simply exist, grow and develop. The second phase is the one that we are presently experiencing--this life. Biogerontologists (experts in the field of aging) tell us that we are programmed for some 120-125 years of life--that is, unless illness or accidents intervene, which is usually what happens. This life is filled with challenges as we struggle to tap our potential and
become the persons that God knows we can be. This is a period of trial filled with joys and sorrows, expectations and disappointments as we live in faith, knowing that God calls us to a more perfect life.
The third phase arrives at the moment of death, which is simply a passageway from this experience of life to life with God forever. Faith is no longer needed for we now see our loving God face to face. The particulars of heaven we don't know. What we do know is that we will have attained the goal of our being. We will be in communion with God and with all the others. St. Augustine and all the great saints remind us that we "have not here a lasting home--that we were made for God and God alone." And so we live in hope of what is to come.
God loves us as we are
I believe that the fundamental basis for all spirituality (but especially for those of us who are moving on in life) is rooted in an ever-deepening conviction of God's absolute unconditional love and God's unconditional acceptance of us as we are. God loves us as we are, not as others think
we should be. But yet he is always inviting us to become better--to tap our potential--to be converted. A spirituality of aging is all about falling in love with God and allowing God to guide us; it's about entrusting our wills and our lives into God's Providential Hands and letting God lead us where God wills.
In the last chapter of St. John's Gospel we listen to a momentous conversation between Jesus and Peter (John 21:15-17). Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him. Peter is exasperated and finally cries out, "Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you." Jesus says to
him and to us this very day:
"Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go."
Aging is the ordinary process that God uses to purify us. When we are young we have a certain freedom of movement. There are always options of one sort or another (old age is always ten years ahead of us), but as we grow older, our options become fewer and we have less freedom of movement. Old age is the time of letting go of the superfluous in our lives and focusing in on what really matters in our relations with others and with God. Old age is the time of reviewing our lives and setting
our priorities straight.
The gift of memory
We are blessed with gift of memory. Of all creatures, we have the gift of being able to remember, to relive that which has happened. In old age we
open this treasurehouse of memories fromtime to time. The good memories we delight in and express our gratitude to God. Saying "thank you" is one of the highest forms of prayer. And we all have so much to be grateful for.
In our treasure house of memories we may well find painful experiences. None of us gets through life unscratched. Some of the memories may remind us that we have unfinished business. There may be people that we
need to forgive; we may also need to ask forgiveness from others.
We may also need to forgive ourselves for not being "perfect." None of us has been the perfect spouse, parent, religious, priest, sibling, friend. Old age presents us with the opportunity to put our house in order.
And finally, we may be haunted by memories that leave us with a sense of powerlessness. We don't know what to do about them. In this situation, we recognize and accept the loose ends that make up so much of life, and we commend ourselves to our loving God. God is a God of
completion. In God's time, all will be well.
We visit our treasure house of memories--but we do not live there. We live in the present moment. God is a God of the present moment and it is in the present moment that we encounter God. In old age we find ourselves face to face with the mystery of the sacred Passion as lived out
in our own lives. We may find ourselves nailed to the cross with Jesus, the nails being our nails of declining health and increasing dependence. We can either rage against this--or see it as an opportunity to unite ourselves
more intimately with Jesus.
Suffering in itself is an evil. We try to eliminate suffering but we all know that there is a certain suffering that will not go away. Our suffering united with the suffering of Jesus on the cross is not wasted. Our suffering
united to Jesus' suffering can be redemptive. In our own little way, we become Jesus present in the world by our total self-giving united with that of Jesus.
This is a great mystery, and one that our death-denying society dismisses. You and I, as women and men of faith, know that God is actively at work in our world, and when we unite ourselves with God we participate in God's saving work.
"Follow me," says Jesus to Peter. Old age challenges us to accept Jesus' invitation. It requires that we let God take us where God wishes to take us.
(André Mathieu, C.P. made his profession of vows as a Passionist Brother in 1962. For thirty years he has been in ministry with older adults and their families. Brother André has an M.S. in Gerontology and is Certified in Death and Dying by the Association for Death Education and Counseling.)
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