A dear friend and role model for voyaging the senior years died during the Christmas holidays. He had lived a rich and full life and ended his days with an undaunted but surrendered spirit. His exemplary way of handling things often came to mind as I read Emilie Griffin’s helpful spiritual guide to Christian aging. My friend lived, to my mind, what Griffin so beautifully describes.
“I’m adjusting to the new normal,” was his frequently brave and always hopeful comment as he “navigated longingly toward home” with an inspiring blend of restlessness and accommodation.
“There are right and wrong ways to deal with our fears as we move into later life,” writes Griffin in a chapter on the challenges that must be faced. “As we pursue the life voyage, we stop keeping a résumé; earning a degree seems less important than receiving an accolade; it is time to do less, to accept the thanks being given for what we have already done.”
Griffin is a writer and editor. A native of New Orleans, she worked and lived for many years in New York City. The author of 16 books on the spiritual life, she has contributed to many more. She and her husband, William, an author, editor and translator, now reside in Alexandria, La. As playwrights, they studied under Edward Albee in New York. This rich experience is reflected in these pages.
A lover of words who wrestles with the implications of her British and German heritage, Griffin enriches her chapters with quotations from such notables as C. S. Lewis and John Henry Newman. She includes examples of her own poetry to emphasize a point. Her wide-ranging literary and dramatic tastes show her to be as adept at quoting from Latin authors as she is in using songs from Broadway musicals like “Gypsy” or “A Chorus Line.”
A woman whose forebears knew privilege, and lost it, she writes from a background of both opportunity and difficulty. She has had to contend with physical loss and walks today with a cane. From it all, a profound spiritual maturity serves as grounding for what she discusses in this book’s 10 chapters.
As the title suggests, the author uses the images of sailing and voyaging to reflect the imagery and metaphor she believes to be necessary for unpacking and clarifying the mysteries of faith encountered along our life journey. We set out on this new and uncharted mission recognizing that old age has indeed arrived. We may deny it or try to fight it, but ultimately we will need to surrender to it if we want to be enriched. Older people can serve as our mentors, both in how we too want to live and what we want to avoid.
Our true “vocation” in the senior years, the author stresses, is to spend time working with the people who inspire us and encourage those things at which we excel. Cardinal Newman said that we all need to be engaged with “some definite service” that provides meaning and the rewards of faithfulness. Living well with a “baptized imagination” (C. S. Lewis) is a gift we give ourselves and others as we cultivate old and new friendships across the years.
We all need to learn, as my spiritual teacher was able to do, how to transcend and reframe the infirmities we encounter, while we continue to grow with those we love and seek to forgive our adversaries while there is still time.
In her chapter “Night Fears,” Griffin refers to the temptations we possibly face as certain powers diminish. Sexuality, for example, remains part of our humanity. Both men and women may be tempted to resort to thoughts and behaviors that can deceive us into thinking we retain the prowess we once commanded. Spiritual courage helps us to realize that we still have much to offer and to discern what truly nurtures the ego.
Family rituals on special occasions like Thanksgiving and Christmas need to be rethought. The weave of family personalities and their stories gives meaning, but senior members need to “give way” to the younger generations, treating them as peers and allowing them to take responsibility for many family activities. A great gift of aging is to be able to look at “spiritual pinpoints,” when we become more keenly aware of the things that matter and the things that do not.
George Bernard Shaw was a late bloomer as a playwright, who did some of his best work as an octogenarian. We too can find creative ways that bring us joy. The important thing is to be focused on the present and to let the future tend to itself.
Readers of this book will need to square their own unique experiences with those of the author. Few of us share her ancestry, her professional achievements and her gift for using words, yet all of us can identify with her because of the way her writing engages us.
The voyage tends homeward as a longing toward completion becomes more real. “Growing older doesn’t have to be learned,” Griffin writes. “It simply happens. But to live it with grace is a kind of learning, which like all learning is painful.”
We must be concerned about practical things; people of faith are often better prepared for life’s vagaries. We hope that we too can continue to adjust to the ever-changing “new normality” that life brings; and that when our time for completion comes, we too will face it with equanimity.
Souls in Full Sail should find a place in our libraries, even as many of us seek to divest ourselves of much lifelong accumulation.