Toward a Spirituality of Aging

by André Mathieu, C.P.

André Mathieu, C.P.In his funny but very wise and moving play, "Shirley Valentine," playwright Willy Russell presents us with an early-middle-aged wife and mother of two grown children who finds herself reduced to talking to the kitchen wall while preparing her husband's evening meal. She feels trapped and longs for something more. She finally seizes an opportunity to travel and encounter a totally different lifestyle. The end of Act II presents us with a powerful line that reflects the crippling situation of many women and men in our society.

Shirley exclaims:

"An' most of us die . . .long before we're dead.
An' what kills us is the terrible weight of all this unused life that we carry around."

The streets of our cities and towns are haunted by multitudes women and men of all ages but particularly of middle years who are externally busy about many things but internally carrying around a lot of unused life. Many if not most of the ills of our society such as substance abuse (from alcohol to nicotine and caffeine) and other forms of addictive behavior (from over-eating to numbing oneself with pornography or losing oneself in TV) are often rooted in this unused life, the weight of which kills. An increasing inner emptiness can rob those moving on in life's journey from experiencing quality of life in old age.

We are meant to grow not only in age but in wisdom and grace before God and others. A process of personal integration and self-acceptance ought to accompany us as we navigate the phases of life. As believing Christians, we know that there is One who can help us deal with the terrible weight of unused life that we carry around. That One is Jesus Christ whom we acknowledge as Lord. John 10:10 cries out with saving clarity:

"I have come that they may have life
and have it to the full."

Spirituality is about life -- the fullness of life promised by Jesus and given to us by the Holy Spirit. In and through the power of the Spirit, we are guided on the path of truth and schooled in the Spirit's fruits: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. The Spirit reveals to us in the depths of our hearts, and in and through the experiences of our lives, that God is love and that God's love for us is unconditional and all-accepting.

At the same time, the Spirit nudges us to let go all that is within us that is not worthy of Love -- to respond to the Spirit's promptings, to make the necessary choices for tapping our potential and become the persons that God wants us to be. There is no need for us to be walking around with the terrible weight of unused life within.

We have but to turn our gaze in the direction of the Spirit and open our hearts just a little bit (which in itself is the work of the Spirit!). The Spirit enters in and fills our hearts with Love so that there is no longer any unused space.

This is a life-long process -- the journey that we are invited to walk -- and its end product is the fullness of life first promised us in Baptism. Our life is God-oriented. We come to see and accept our one and only life-cycle as whole: the physical, psychological and spiritual. From the moment of our conception deep in our mother's womb to the twinkling of an eye that completes our passage from this experience of life to life with God forever in heaven, we journey seeking wholeness. The journey ends with our personal, face-to-face encounter with our God.

Aging is the ordinary human process that God uses to bring us to God's self. Nothing unclean can enter the presence of God. God works in and through the physical and mental changes that occur to us as we age to purify us -- to remove the uncleanliness within so that we may be ready for our encounter with God. Two current theories on aging, the "Wear and Tear Theory" and the "Program Theory," help us to understand how God works.

Wear and Tear Theory

The Wear and Tear Theory simply says that our bodies gradually wear out after a period of time; the parts break down and eventually we cease to live. No matter how often we are "fixed" by the medical establishment, there comes a time when fixing is no longer possible. We experience a gradual (and sometimes not so gradual) breakdown.

God makes use of this process to purify us. As our bodies begin to break down and no longer respond to our wishes as they once did, we experience a growing lack of control over ourselves and over basic bodily functions. God uses this normal, ordinary human process of aging to invite us to let go and turn over control to God -- to trust that God will provide.

Letting go of control, depending more and more on others to do what we once did can make of us angry and disillusioned people. Or it can be an opportunity for accelerated growth in relying on the Providence of God. This is a gradual process and one that ordinarily begins with earnest in mid-life as the reality of aging begins to settle in.

Program Theory

The Program Theory offers us the insight that no matter how good our health, there is a cap on human longevity. The theory postulates that according to our understanding of cell reproduction, our bodies are programmed for some 120 years of life. The day will come when, no matter what, we will go to God. Longevity offers us the opportunity to reflect on our life and put it in order for the day of the coming of the Lord.


Our society, in the words of Dr. Robert Butler, one of our most noted experts on Aging, is afflicted with ageism. In his heavily documented, highly readable and insightful, ground-breaking best-seller, "Why Survive: Being Old in America" (Harper & Rowe, 1975), Butler defines ageism as:

". . . a process of systematic stereotyping of and discrimination against people because they are old, just as racism and sexism accomplish this with skin color and gender. Old people are categorized as senile, rigid in thought and manner, old-fashioned in morality and skills . . . Ageism allows the younger generation to see older people as different from themselves; thus they subtly cease to identify with their elders as human beings. . . . Ageism, like all prejudices, influences the self view and behavior of its victims. The elderly tend to adopt negative definitions of themselves and to perpetuate the very stereotypes directed against them, thereby reinforcing society's beliefs." (pp 12-13)

Ageism strikes at the very roots of a spirituality in aging. Instead of acknowledging aging as a normal, natural process that can and ought to purify us and lead us to God, ageism teaches us to fear our aging process -- to deny it and to do all that we can to prevent it.

Rather than honoring older people as repositories of faith, wisdom and culture -- in effect, as pillars of society -- ageism relegates the elderly to oblivion and dismisses their experience and wisdom as outdated.The elderly individuals are perceived by many individuals and society as a whole to be a burden, a problem to be dealt with rather than a channel of God's grace for themselves and for society as a whole.

Older adults, buying into the prevailing ageist philosophy, often find themselves carrying around "the terrible weight of all this unused life."

A challenge for those concerned, especially those in ministry with older adults, is to do battle against ageism and all its manifestations -- from the dismantling of social services for the elderly to the raising of consciousness about the sanctity of life at all phases of the life cycle; in this instance, the final phases of the life cycle.

Counteracting Ageism

In counteracting the negativism of ageism, as well as in developing their own personal spirituality of aging, older adults may wish to reflect on the following six points

  1. Live in the now -- the present moment. The past is important; it has shaped us and brought us to the present moment. Memories, especially the good ones,need to be treasured and brought to consciousness from time to time. Good memories help provide a sense of well-being and validate one's life. Painful memories remind us that there is still work to do. The future is not yet, and while planning needs to be done and relishing up-coming events can give one a reason for "getting out of bed," the reality is that life is not lived in the future. It is in the present moment that we encounter our God. God is not a god of the past; nor is God a god of the future. God is God of the present moment.

    When Moses asked God to give His name so that he could tell the Israelites who was sending them out of Egypt, "God replied, 'I am who am.'" (Exodus 3:14) God is God of the present and God's gift to us is the present moment.

    St. Paul of the Cross, the founder of the Passionists, laid great emphasis on the practice of the Presence of God. He urged women and men to begin their day by consciously choosing to place themselves in the Presence of God by making acts of faith and trust in God present in the moment -- in the here and now -- and renewing those acts of faith and trust at intervals throughout the course of the day. For Paul, God was alive and at work in the present moment and it was vitally important to maintain conscious contact with God throughout the day.

  2. Periodically, engage in memory work or life review. Engaging in memory work helps to bring home the realization that God has always been at work in the course of one's life. Oftentimes, it is only in retrospect as we look back over life's events that the Providential Hand of God can be seen ever clasped around our shoulders. We may have felt abandoned during a given experience, but from the distance of time we can better see God's design.

    St. Paul of the Cross states his firm conviction that God is right there with us in the darkness. Even though there may no feeling of God's presence, God has not left us.

    Realization that God has journeyed with us both in the good times and in the bad times is a source of gratitude and an occasion to express thanks.

    Memory work also reminds us -- sometimes painfully -- that there is much messiness in life and that in approaching our final days may see us with some (maybe a lot of) loose ends. Faith tells us that completion is God's work. A significant part of our "letting go" is the turning over of our loose ends to the loving care of God.

  3. Arriving at resolutions and reaching out to make peace. Memory work may bring up issues of anger, guilt, shame, rejection, misunderstandings and other disquieting feelings. As we come to the final days of our earthly journey, memory work -- backed up by a massive dose of the gifts of the Spirit -- may spur us on to make efforts to resolve the unresolved, especially in the delicate art of mending broken or damaged relationships.

  4. Capacity for growth. Even though we recognize the incredible undertakings of extraordinary women and men in their old age (John XXIII and Mother Teresa for example), we may overlook the fact that each older individual still has within herself/himself potential yet to be tapped. A challenge of old age, with the help of the ever-present Spirit, is to tap the potential within and become the person that God desires us to be.

    There is never a time when the potential for growth ceases. Sometimes, in God's Providence, it is precisely during the time of one's last hours in this life that remarkable growth takes place. When the Spirit is involved, there is always room for surprise. The Spirit has little tolerance for "the terrible weight of unused life" that we might be carrying.

  5. Being a Sacrament of Hope. There are many signs of despair in our society. Younger men and women need to know by word, deed and example that the Christian life -- indeed life itself -- is worth living and that it can be lived. The presence of older women and men, filled with the Spirit, committed to a Christian value system, reaching out to others with Gospel compassion, walking around with a smile on their faces and in their hearts testifies to the promise of Jesus that all may have the fullness of life.

    Little children, in particular, growing up in a world of absentee parents can benefit immensely from the active presence of faith-filled, joy-filled grandparents or grandparent figures (foster grandparents or just friendly next door neighbors). Older adults,assertively combatting the evils of ageism and open to the creative power of the Spirit within, have the opportunity to make an important contribution in stemming the tidal wave of "emptiness" engulfing our society.

  6. An understanding and acceptance of one's passion. All women and men somehow wrestle with the mystery of suffering in their lives and in our world. Old age gives one the precious opportunity to leisurely pray about and reflect on this great mystery and possibly integrate it in one's life.

    Kenosis -- the letting go -- is at the heart of Christian spirituality. Jesus Christ is our model. Jesus invites us to go up to Jerusalem with Him to be betrayed, condemned to death and to die on the cross -- each one in his/her own unique way. The invitation is universal and to the point:

    "If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me." (Luke 9:23)

    Jesus died, but the story did not end there. On the third day, in and through the power of God, His Father, he rose from the dead. This, too, is our faith. In old age we gradually die, letting go of all, in the hope that with Jesus we will have a new experience of life.

    For St. Paul of the Cross, Jesus' great act of love for us is His death on the cross. For Paul, it was imperative for us to connect with Jesus' great act. In this manner, we come to know and experience in mind and heart -- Love itself. For Paul, suffering has no meaning apart from the choice we make to unite our sufferings with His. Old age affords us the opportunity to make those kinds of choices.

Spirituality is about life -- the fullness of life promised by Jesus. A spirituality of aging focuses in on the aging process itself as the ordinary human process that God uses to bring us to God. Spirituality fills "all this unused life that we carry about." Spirituality is the environment for wholeness.

André Mathieu made profession of vows as a Passionist Brother in 1962. Since then he has served in various Passionist ministries, currently being assigned to the Passionist Preaching Ministry directing lectures, workshops and retreats wherever requested. Brother André holds a Master's degree in Pastoral Theology (Ministry) as well as a Master's degree in Gerontology (Aging) and a Certificate in Thanatology (Death Studies). For information about his services, contact him at Passionist Residence, 5801 Palisade Avenue, Bronx, NY 10471. Phone: (718) 548-2791.)

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