Elderhood for the World

The first time I realized that I was old, at least in the eyes of others, was when a young woman stood up in a crowded bus to give me her seat. Resisting that sobering message, I continued to think of the old as they, not we. The definitive change came only a few years ago at Bethany, when I was welcomed by two senior sisters of the Religious of Jesus and Mary, the congregation that sponsors this retreat house, into the ranks of overachieving octogenarians (O.O.’s for short).

About whom are we talking here? Seniors? Elders? The aged? The old? All of the above, perhaps, in varying degrees, but particularly those who are experiencing physically, emotionally, and/or mentally what the Jesuit paleontologist and religious thinker, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, termed passivities of diminishment. As Jesus, in the last scene of John’s Gospel, led Peter to anticipate, we are less in charge of our lives, more dependent on the support of others. And the prospect of death and dying lurks in the shadows. Is there a distinctive spirituality that can be fashioned from these ingredients?


Kathleen Fischer observes that often we only realize that we have moved into the category of what society calls old when people begin to treat us differently (Autumn Gospel: Women in the Second Half of Life [1995]). Her statement reminds me that we who are in the golden years need to be wary of being stereotyped by society, not least with respect to our spirituality. For one thing, the chronological point of entry is difficult to define, and depends in part on the eye of the beholder. Often children and adolescents appear to think that senescence begins at 30. The A.A.R.P. and the various purveyors of senior discounts start at about 55 or 60. The celebrated developmental typologies (Jung, Erik Erikson, Levinson and others) are, despite the caveats of the authors themselves, sometimes made the basis of unwarranted assumptions about the later years.

Many factors, both situational and intrinsic to the individual person, will condition the possibility and the shape of spiritual growth for seniors. I may have Alzheimer’s in my 60’s or play tennis in my 80’s. I may live with my children or grandchildren or just endure as a rarely visited resident of a nursing home. I may sleep in the same bed with a spouse of 50 years or experience the long loneliness of one never called to marriage or religious community. A retirement community in Florida or Arizona, complete with its golf course and exercise room, a demanding schedule of lecture tours or the massive infirmary of a religious communityany of these may be the setting of my search for God toward the sunset of my earthly day.

Given such variations, can chronological age alone define the characteristics of a senior spirituality? Perhaps we need to emphasize, for a change, both the uniqueness of each individual vocation and the common ground shared by all age groups. Only then may it be valid and helpful, with appropriate qualifications, to attend to what is, by and large, characteristic of the faith life of those blessed with long years.

One overarching conviction of the present writer is that a vibrant senior spirituality will know how to tap into the insights and techniques of church and culture in our own time. We may have been born into a post-Victorian world, but like the rest of you we have just become citizens of the 21st century and of the dawning era of globalization. God is asking of us what God is asking of all: What can we learn from and what can we contribute to this time and no other? Faced more immediately with the end of our pilgrimage, we seniors are called to deal more, not less, intensely with the issue of what will be passed on to future generations.

We touch here a major point for senior spirituality. One of the most important turns of the late 20th century was the rediscovery that the Gospel, together with the spirituality derived from it, is not limited to the personal and interpersonal. That we live in a world and a church of structures and institutions that are both sinful and graced has brought to the spiritual quest a new gift and a new responsibility, both of which are shared no less by seniors than by others.

The idea is not new. Almost two decades ago Eugene Bianchi proposed that persons in mid-life are called to make their lives more contemplative within the context of active, worldly endeavors (Aging as a Spiritual Journey [1982]). He deplored the polite banishment of the elderly from the world of politics, economics and civic life and concluded that the challenge to old people from today’s world is...to preserve human dignity in a hostile environment. As a motto for this call of seniors he offered Elderhood for the World.

Even at that time, many seniors were hearing the call to a societal spirituality. This movement away from narrowing privatism (not to be confused with an abandonment of contemplation) has grown by leaps and bounds. In the feminist movement, in rallies of the right to life initiative and in campaigns against sweatshops, the desecration of the earth, pornography and capital punishment (to name only some issues), gray panthers are adding a poignant but powerful presence to the ranks of the young and the middle-aged. An old friend of mine, a Sister of Mercy who in a few years will be inducted into the O.O.’s after decades in higher education and then in marriage and family counseling, has in recent years added to the latter profession several engagements in advocacy and even civil disobedience at Fort Benning. I think too of several Jesuits, some of them older than I, who through ministries of lecturing, writing and social action, embody the Society of Jesus’ commitment to faith and justice. What do examples like this say to us about stereotypes of senior spirituality?

Perhaps one thing they say is that we need to enlarge the traditional image of seniorsor at least of those for whom life’s processes have really workedbeyond that of wisdom to the more strenuous one of prophecy. The two are often in tension with each other. Wisdom speaks to us of tranquil enlightenment, an acceptance of the way things are as manifesting the divine presence. But wisdom’s sibling, prophecy, is often angry and fearful, denunciatory, upset with the way things are. I looked at what is and I asked: Why? I looked at what is not and I asked: Why not? Does the prophetic call so often felt in youth inevitably lead to a wisdom that relinquishes zeal and anger as less mature? I would rather think that both wisdom and prophecy are abiding and complementary facets of love’s integral response to the world as it is. There is a time for saying yes and a time for saying no. While a mature wisdom can save prophecy from sterile bitterness, an authentic prophetic spirit can preserve wisdom from shallowness and evasion.

All too often anger, and its partner fear, are seen only as dangerous and destructive emotions that ideally are overcome in old age. But when one realizes that they are precious gifts of God given for responsible stewardship, then growth in handling them becomes a matter of integration rather than of transcendence. The world and the church need the mature anger and the disciplined fears of the elderly. They are essential conditions for the patience, courage and hope that bless the world in many holy seniors.

A related hazard for seniors and for those who offer them pastoral or spiritual guidance is an unnuanced interpretation of the sacrament of the present moment as an ideal to strive for. It is true that pain and suffering, especially physical, have a way of blocking the flow of energy that derives from memory and imagination. It is also true that these faculties are often employed by the old to their own harm, impeding attentiveness to the voice of God here and now. All of us, old and not, need to be grateful for the 12-step wisdom of one day at a time, as well as for the miracle of mindfulness that leaders like Thich Nhat Hanh and Anthony de Mello have promoted. But when this wisdom is understood and practiced to the neglect of grateful and compunctious memory and dreaming hope, elderly Christians are deprived of two powerful sources of psychospiritual energy. Living fully in the present itself becomes more difficult when we do not also live from the past toward the future.

The traditional image of sacrament, understood as the embodiment of faith in time and space, can be helpful here. I find that Johann Baptist Metz’s analysis of hope as the retrieval of dangerous memories of human suffering engaged in for the sake of the future, and Walter Brueggemann’s call for prophetic imagination, can rescue living in the present moment from deadness. Pastoral and spiritual ministers to the elderly do well when they incorporate the healing of memories and joyful anticipation of the future into their offerings.

Yes, there is the question of death and dying. Even in the absence of congenital tendencies toward depression, the bright promise of immortality often seems to the elderly illusory and unconsoling. Visitors to nursing homes are sometimes shocked by a climate of what looks like despair. There is no substitute for tender care given by loved ones and ministers who really believe in resurrection and eternal life. But theology can also offer assistance. Here I am thinking of the late Karl Rahner’s correction of the common error that the dead have somehow become acosmic. No, he affirmed, they are still with us, still part of our world, relating to it and to us even more intimately because they do so more consciously and more freely.

Elizabeth Johnson’s beautiful book, Friends of God and Prophets (1999), has effectively retrieved the theme of companionship with our ancestors in faith, which for centuries, she asserts, has yielded to an unfortunate patronage model of our relationship with the saints in heaven. Thus viewed, the saints cease to be mediators who do for us what we cannot do for ourselves, but are, like all of us, participants in the plea of Christ Jesus himself, who always lives to make intercession for us (Heb. 7:25).

What does this imply for Christians facing the final struggle? It calls, I believe, for a spirituality in which intercessory prayer and a sense of comradeship in intercessory faith are paramount. If anything is clear about our desperate and despairing world today, it is that we cannot save ourselves. Likewise clear is the special call of Christians to be beacons of hope. Intercession is a way of naming not just one form of prayer among many, but the very mission of the church in our time. Woven into the fabric of all ministry, including the ministry of peace and justice, is the communal invocation of the only One who in and through and despite our frail efforts is bringing the reign of God in and beyond history.

If intercession, then, is the name of the game, I believe that the group best fitted to lead it is the world’s elders. We qualify for that role not through our wisdom or even through our prophetic gifts, if we have them, but through our special brand of poverty. In generational terms, it is we who are the anawimthe poorthrough whom God works wonders. However reduced in physical, mental, emotional powers, and whether we are still active or retired, we can model for all that intercessory offering of prayers, works, joys and sufferings through which the world is graced.

All this, I acknowledge, may seem an overly ambitious agenda for seniors in various stages of dissolution, but let me recall the phrase that St. Ignatius Loyola used in the constitutions he wrote for Jesuits: each one according to the grace which the Holy Spirit has given. Not long before he died at the age of 96, my father was asked by one of my brothers just how, as a widower of several decades, he had ever managed to raise the six of us. Joe, he replied in the brogue he had never lost, you do what you have to do. So say we all. Spiritualitymy father could not even spell the wordis, after all, the art of the possible impossible.

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