Interfaith wisdom for ‘aging with grace’: an interview with Thomas Ryan, C.S.P.
Thomas Ryan, C.S.P., is a priest of the Missionary Society of St. Paul the Apostle who directs the Paulist North American Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations in Washington, D.C. He is the author of 15 books, including Remember to Live! Embracing the Second Half of Life. Father Ryan’s current projects include co-leading an interfaith retreat called “The Wisdom of Aging with Grace: A Multifaith Exploration.”
On Jan. 8, I interviewed Father Ryan by email about his work.
You are currently preparing an interfaith retreat called “The Wisdom of Aging with Grace: A Multifaith Exploration.” What does “aging” mean to you?
It’s a season of my life where I have the opportunity for creativity. Creative aging is expressed not just in “giving back” but in “giving forward,” making the world in which we live and work better than we found it. That involves a choice. As we gradually have more time and energy to spend on exploration and discovery, where will we invest it? Is endless leisure the reward for our striving, or will we look for more? I will continue to look for more.
When you stop to think about it, it’s remarkable. Never before have so many North Americans reached retirement age with such advanced education, social consciousness and good health. But the question is: What will we do with it? We have an unprecedented opportunity to learn, to grow and to offer our unique gifts to our neighborhood or city, to a school or health care facility.
Gerontologists now recognize three stages of “old”: the young old (65 to 74), the mid-range old (75-84); and the oldest old (85 and above). These distinctions have become more meaningful for us all with today’s longer life spans, increased mobility, better care of physical needs and more independence in financial matters.
“What does aging mean to you?” is a big question because aging is a process that can extend over 30 or more years! And there are several delicate passages to negotiate, depending on one’s profession or vocation: the loss of one’s professional identity; the departure of one’s children; a new role to define vis-à-vis one’s spouse; the arrival of grandchildren; the decline of strength and energy; the necessity of finding a better-adapted place to live; the illness or death of loved ones; the confrontation with solitude; and finally, the facing of death itself. “Aging” involves all of the above, so as I say, it’s a big question, worthy of our conscious reflection, choices and action.
How do you understand “wisdom” in the context of this retreat?
Real wisdom is the light that comes from the soul. In some cultures, still, old people are seen as people of great wisdom, and there’s immense respect for elders. Because they have lived long and deeply, they’re accredited with understanding or intuition.
This is different from “knowing.” Ours is a culture obsessed with and flooded by information. There is so much information available to us about everything. But this information tends to move on the level of “head” knowledge. There’s too much of it to absorb or process.
And there lies the difference between knowledge and wisdom. Wisdom comes from the things you deeply realize. Wisdom is a deeper way of knowing and involves the art of living in rhythm with your soul. This kind of knowing does not come just by reading another book or taking another course. It comes from the experience of living. These ideas and understanding have taken a lifetime to develop and cannot be simply replaced by something “new.” Wisdom involves integration, the gathering together of the separate experiences of a lifetime, the suffering and the joy. They are held deeply in the soul.
In your experience, what are some of the “graces” of aging and what helps people grow older with grace in the latter half of their lives?
Among the graces of aging is that there is more stillness, more solitude. Multitasking, the virus of our time, increases the difficulty of simply being present to what is, giving our full attention to it and experiencing some joy or delight in engaging with it. In the phases of aging, one has the time to look through the personal and familial archives of photos, to savor the joyous times and reflect on the sad times. One can let both the successes and the failures pass by in review and be grateful for them all because the whole of it has been the purveyor of wisdom.
Another grace of aging is integration, the linking of one’s whole life together in a new and deeper kind of unity. The grace given in this period of our lives is to authentically live what we have discovered about life, revealing in the use of our time and energy what we know to be important and what is not. The phases of old age are not when we stop growing but the time in which we have the opportunity to grow in new ways.
Needless to say, the question is not: Is the older generation still capable of learning? It is, rather: What shall we learn now? And the grace is that the time is now available. Shall we become even better at what we have always done? Become an expert in the field, a consultant in the region, an authority on the subject? Or shall we open new doors, like learning a language so as to help new immigrants in town; becoming a mentor for struggling students; leading cultural or historical tours in our local area; working with Meals on Wheels to deliver food to shut-ins?
Our senior years offer us the grace of liberating ourselves from ourselves—from our routines, our workaholic compulsions, our constricted range of interests. The field of possibilities is as wide open as the doors to the local art gallery, library or tour bus; as wide open as the entry to the park for bird watching or the place next to the stranger on the bench ready to engage in the creative act of conversation.
And what about those programs at our church we’ve never had time for before, like the prayer group or the Bible study class or the food pantry or the choir or the new environmental group? It’s time to plan our days rather than to simply let them slip by unnoticed. It truly can be a graced time in our lives. The founder of the Paulists, Isaac Hecker, once made a striking statement: “My best years have always been the present ones.” What would it take for you and I to be able to say the same?
How would you describe the “multifaith exploration” aspect of this retreat?
In ages past, the West was largely associated with Christians and Jews and the East with Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist and Muslim. The one knew precious little about the others. All that is changing. The once clearly demarcated lines are blurring as Middle and Far Easterners come to the West, and Westerners travel and live in the East.
The global character of the church, its universality and catholicity, necessarily imply an ability and a readiness to enter into dialogue with all that is pure, wise, profound and humane in every kind of culture. In this one sense at least, Middle Eastern and Oriental wisdom become necessary. A Christian culture that is not capable of such dialogue would show, by that very fact, that it lacked “catholicity.”
Our primary identity is that we are all human beings. Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (“Gaudium et Spes”) affirmed that all peoples share a common vocation, a common destiny, even though they don’t necessarily share it in the same way (No. 22). And the Council’s Declaration of the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (“Nostra Aetate”) said it “rejects nothing of what is true and holy” in these religions. So it counsels us to engage in dialogue and collaboration with members of other religions, and “to acknowledge, preserve, and promote the spiritual and moral good, as well as the socio-cultural values found among them” (No. 2). That describes well what we’ll be doing on this retreat.
Who is your audience for this kind of interfaith retreat?
It’s wide open to anyone who would like to age with greater wisdom and grace!
As a Paulist priest, you belong to a U.S.-founded religious community. What is distinctively Paulist about your approach to spirituality and retreats?
Yes, we were founded in 1858 in New York City by Isaac Hecker, whose cause for canonization is presently in process. Founded in an era in which America was largely Protestant, the Paulists have a real commitment to both the work for Christian unity and, in our present context, to interreligious collaboration and dialogue as well. Both are part of our mission direction as a community. Consistent with this, on the retreats I lead the participants often are from different traditions of Christian faith and sometimes from different world religions. The approach is one of mutual enrichment. We have so much to share with one another for our mutual benefit!
I also co-lead ecumenical parish missions entitled Gospel Call with a Protestant preaching partner. The three- or four-day mission is co-sponsored by anywhere from three to six different denominational congregations, and we move the Service of the Word with preaching around to a different church each evening to provide people with an opportunity to get into each other’s rooms of the Christian household and develop a little “family feeling.”
What have you learned from your work in ecumenical and interfaith relations?
The answer to that question goes much farther that just “head” learning, so let me avoid the abstract and take it to a personal level. My spiritual life has been wonderfully strengthened and enriched by my lived experience with both other Christians and members of other religions.
I have been motivated by Protestant and Anglican friends to spend some time with the Scriptures every day, and, through their ways of praying, have become more comfortable with free expression and spontaneity in prayer. Because of my experiences with Orthodox Christians, the “Jesus prayer” fills available moments throughout the day, and there are icons on the walls of my room and office that I venerate each day. Both Protestants and Orthodox have increased my love for singing the faith. My encounters with their communal traditions of faith have increased my desire for more effective participation of clergy and laity in decision making within my own church community.
And with regard to interfaith relations, attending Shabbat services in Jewish synagogues has helped me to live with a Sabbath rhythm and honor the commandment to “keep holy the Lord’s day.” My relations with Muslims remind me to take time out for prayer at different intervals each day and help me keep in place a weekly spiritual practice that has fallen off the table for most Catholics today: fasting. Buddhism’s teachings around mindfulness practice support my living what Brother Lawrence called “the sacrament of the present moment” in his book The Practice of the Presence of God. The practice of yoga helps me unload tension and stress from my body and quiet my mind before sitting each day in centering prayer. And the Sikhs have taught me some powerful lessons in hospitality and service.
Through the exchange of spiritual gifts such as these, we have come to realize that in our progressive historical estrangement from one another, the other’s diversity was no longer perceived as a common treasure but as incompatibility. The ecumenical and interfaith harmony movements are now calling us to accept that some kinds of diversity are a richness. The Holy Spirit is asking us to look more deeply and to see that all these gifts, as Paul writes, are activated by one and the same Spirit for the common good of the whole body.
What can ordinary Catholics do to create relationships with people of other faiths and denominations while still respecting differences of practice and belief?
Let’s start with Christians of other denominations. We could use the instruments of social media like Twitter, Facebook and blogs to share activities of interest with one another. We could plan a tour of churches in the area with commentary offered on each one’s devotional particularities, worship space, style and the like. We could: Organize an ecumenical concert. Offer a parish support group for interchurch couples. Have a lay organizations exchange which would provide opportunities for these groups to get to know one another and to develop some cooperative program areas. Share educational tools and resources, like an audio/visual library. Share occasionally in one another’s worship. Initiate service projects. Share an Ash Wednesday service, Palm Sunday procession, Stations of the Cross. Pray for each other regularly in the Sunday Mass Prayers of the Faithful.
With other faiths: Attend the prayer rituals as respectful observers. Consider reaching out and starting some projects together. Place greetings in local newspapers on their major festival days. Form a Jewish-Christian reading group that reads books of our common Scriptures. An interfaith book club. A support group for interfaith couples. A women’s discussion group to talk about women’s issues. Organize living room dialogues. Form a welcoming or visitation committee whose function would be to welcome new neighbors, advising them of the location of churches, synagogues, mosques, temples in the area. Have an interfaith prayer service (see my book Interreligious Prayer: A Christian Guide) on national holidays or as a community response to tragedies such as a plane crash or natural disasters like floods or tornadoes, where everyone is affected and wants to turn to God.
If you could say one thing to Pope Francis about interfaith and ecumenical relations in the United States, what would it be?
Well, every religion in the world has what we call the Golden Rule in its sacred texts and teachings, albeit in different formulations: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength. And love your neighbor as yourself.” What I would want to say to Pope Francis is: “You are providing inspiration for us all, because you’re living it! May God protect you and keep you from harm that you might continue for yet some years to motivate us to roll up our sleeves and bring the love and mercy of God in concrete expression to those around us by responding to their needs.”
From your perspective, what does the U.S. Catholic Church most need right now?
To learn to serve those outside the church community. To develop synodal forms of government at diocesan levels that give a voice to both laity and clergy in the life of the church and its decision-making process. Clerical leadership formed in the principles of Vatican II and following the pastoral example of Pope Francis in having the “smell of the sheep.”
What are your hopes for the future?
For a real and visible unity among Christians. For peace in our world. For a compassionate response to the needs of immigrants and refugees. And for a spirit of mutual respect and collaboration among people of all faiths in creating relationships of harmony both within the human family and with our surrounding environment.
Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America.
Thanks everyone for reading. Have a blessed Holy Week.