They’re coming. Just as surely as pumpkins and cornstalks are appearing on porches and doorsteps, you’ll soon see them popping up from behind pulpits. Microphone in one hand, scribbled notes discreetly clutched in the other, the men and women religious of the country are coming to your parish. In the parlance of fund-raising circles, they’re going to “make the ask.” In more subtle phrasing, you’ll be invited to “Share in the Care.” This December is the time for the 17th annual national appeal for the Retirement Fund for Religious. Their prayer-filled hope is the same: that you will donate some of your hard-won money to the appeal.
Statistics provided by the National Religious Retirement Office are stark, the need clear:
• projected retirement liability of $6.1 billion for American religious orders,
• daily cost of $1.3 million for skilled and assisted living nursing care for over 12,000 religious men and women,
• 40,000 Catholic religious past the age of 70.
Those are the numbers, but I don’t consider them the heart of the appeal. The real meaning is hidden in the gentle lives of the women and men religious who are now in need of those funds. The depth of the appeal is found not in the soaring numbers but in the profound holiness of those religious who, after offering their entire adult lives in service, find themselves having to rely on the generosity of others.
It is not an easy place in which to be. We all like to be in control, to be the ones able to help, to give to others. That is exactly where these religious have stood for most of their lives, serving tirelessly, usually for insignificant stipends at best, in schools, hospitals, parishes and social agencies across our country. But now life is asking of them another form of giving, of self-emptying.
We religious profess in our philosophies of aging and community documents that in their faithfulness, elders continue to be vital members of our communities, valued contributors to our world. But I wonder if they believe it. Aging is clothed in mystery that can confound as easily as it can astonish.
Some time ago, I found myself in just such a paradoxical situation. In less than a month, my religious community had buried three of our sisters. These women had been our friends, our companions, our mentors; women of grace and wisdom. But something bigger than personal loss was taking place in those funeral rites. As we looked around at one another, gathered for the wakes, funerals and receptions, it was as if we could see our community literally dwindling before our eyes. Our congregation was aging. We seemed to be growing old, and it felt terrible.
This particular afternoon, it suddenly became more than I could bear. I needed to escape the noise of grieving, so I walked to the cemetery behind our motherhouse. I stood there alone, my feet mired in the freshly dug earth of new graves, and I tried to pray. “What is it with this aging business, God? Where are the beauty and wonder of life in diminishment and aging? Failing eyesight, hearing loss, slips in memory, the constant companionship of physical aches and pains, limited mobility, increased dependence, death drawing near—how are we supposed to hold up in the face of such adversities?”
It was, I suppose, more of a lament than a prayer. I was losing heart. A large portion of my life is spent working with senior members of religious congregations. Traveling to communities in the United States and Canada, I speak with them about their joys and sorrows, consolations and desolations, blessings and wounds. Together we seek to find and believe in a desire for living that is not bounded by the restrictions of advancing years. Together we search for what can be done to facilitate and ensure a rich quality of life, a life that speaks of passion and depth, of holiness, of God.
Usually I move with great energy in my ministry, for the women I work with give me hope. They are women who have lived lives of faithful constancy through decades of incredibly challenging change. They are women who have spent their entire lives in service, and who still are seeking, longing to contribute to our world. But this day, it was too close. This time it was my community, my sisters. Having buried three friends, I was beaten. Age and death, two intimate companions of life, had sapped me of hope.
Standing there in the cemetery, my prayer seemed to no avail. No voices, visions or blinding insights served to comfort my heart. I was not knocked off my horse that afternoon. With some measure of disgust, I turned to leave, and in doing so caught sight of one of our sisters making her way up the hill. Inch by inch, she was pushing her walker ahead of her, pausing briefly to pray at the various Stations of the Cross that line our pathway. “That is ridiculous,” I thought, and moved to get a car in which to drive her up the hill to the cemetery. Instead, for some reason, I stopped. Sister did not seem to be in any apparent distress, so while she continued her walk, ever so slowly making her way up the path, I stood silently to watch.
I don’t know how much time passed. It is a long path and her steps were tiny. But while I was watching her, I began to see her life pass before me, and in her life, the life of our community. I saw a woman—and in her a community—of quiet simplicity, generous spirit, affirming love, a ready smile, forgiving memory and a deepening desire for God. It doesn’t get much better than that. This woman was one of my sisters. This woman was my friend. And like our community, she was growing old.
As she walked along the stations that marked the final hours of Jesus’ life, her journey itself became for me a sort of Stations of the Cross. Watching her, I found myself drawn into the mystery that is central to life, death and resurrection. I felt deeply the love that refused to yield to boundaries and efforts of self-protection. I sensed the love that freely chose to yield to absolute emptying of self, a love ultimately consummated in deliberate surrender. I knew of the love that is life.
Lost in my musings, I jumped when I felt my friend’s hand on my shoulder. Slowly setting her walker aside, she turned me toward herself and took my head in her hands, tears streaming down both our faces. She did not ask why I was crying. She simply stood there and cried with me. We cried for our friends, for ourselves, for our community. Ever so softly, she said, “We are growing old, my friend.” I nodded and knew she had uttered an unalterable truth. She and I and our whole community were aging; it was simply a matter of degrees.
Silently, we stood in the presence of that truth. Then again, she said, “We are growing old, my friend.” But this time, as I continued to nod in response, she added, with a slight smile, “And it is wonderful!” Again, a truth was between us, and we stood silently, almost without breathing, to honor it.
I am still trying to unfold that truth: “We are growing old, and it is wonderful.” Somehow, it seems that the wonder of life is intimately connected to the wonder of aging. If we are breathing, we are alive; and if we are alive, we are aging; and if we are aging, we will eventually grow old. But we have the opportunity to embrace our aging, our growing old and to do it gracefully, lovingly, passionately, hopefully, with deep desire and in God. Closely intertwined, one with the other, we are all tumbling about in that depth and breath and height of grace that life holds for us. Together, each responsible for the other, we can move into God’s invitation of aging with dignity and delight.
In the cemetery that afternoon, ever so slowly, smiles began to work their way through our tears as Sister and I stood together. “Thank you,” I said to my friend, and the moment was over. It was that simple. Most beauty is. Pain had been shared, wisdom passed and the mystery of life continued onward. In its wake, joined arm in arm, my friend and I turned to journey together in community, back down the path, into our lives of aging grace. We are growing old, and it is wonderful. Won’t you join us, and “Share in the Care?” That is our real “ask.”