Aging With Ignatius: Applying the Spiritual Exercises in the later stages of life
When I retired after a career as a lawyer and a judge, I found myself confronting questions of identity and choice. Overnight, I went from feeling respected to feeling practically invisible. Who am I? What should I do? Facing these questions led me back to principles of Ignatian spirituality that I had first encountered in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius many years earlier. These reflections, in turn, convinced me that St. Ignatius has much to say to older adults as we embark on a new stage of the spiritual journey.
Making the exercises involves a commitment away from self-absorption to a God-centered life. Thus the advice St. Ignatius gives in the course of the exercises does not cease to be useful after four weeks. The sections of the exercises that I have found most helpful entering retirement are those relating to the making of choices, attitudes toward possessions and status, rules for the discernment of spirits and some of the particular graces prayed for in the third and fourth weeks.
First and foremost, the Exercises are about seeing, loving and following Jesus. At any age, we need to continue contemplating the life of Jesus—in Scripture-based prayer, the daily examen and regular journaling. Living this commitment poses new challenges for older adults. There are new kinds of choices, including life changes that may be involuntary, inevitable losses and frustration when favorite activities are no longer possible because of diminished capacity or reduced income. It is important to preserve the freedom to discern what underlies these feelings. Which are drawing us to God, and which are drawing us away?
For many people, the realization that they are entering a new stage of life comes with retirement from full-time work (voluntarily or not) or from finding themselves empty-nest parents. St. Ignatius recommends detachment.Ideally, we should be no more disposed to retire or to keep working; to live with our children or apart from them. How is it possible to consider with detachment what may be a traumatic loss? Who will I be if I retire? Who am I when my children no longer need me?
One of the first decisions to make is how to spend our new “free” time. Playing golf and shopping? Going back to school? Taking a part-time job? Finding new ways to give back to the church and the community through volunteer service?
When it comes to decision-making, St. Ignatius has a great deal of practical advice. His principles for making what he calls a “changeable election,” i.e., one that is not irrevocable, can be summarized as follows. First, place the question before God in prayer. Second, strive to be as detached as possible without assuming the result you prefer. Third, rationally consider the advantages and disadvantages. Last, ask God to move your will toward what pleases him and makes you a better Christian. God can indeed move the will toward choices we might never have imagined: a new call, timed by the Holy Spirit, for this stage of life. For me, praying over what to do in retirement, the call was unmistakable.
Shortly after I retired, the Holy Spirit pushed me toward the Ignatian Volunteer Corps, an organization that serves the poor in the context of Ignatian spirituality. And I do mean pushed. I had twice set aside the application materials for later attention, and the local coordinator twice followed up with me—the second time with a phone call. I asked myself in astonishment how many people would make that kind of call, with the obvious risk of rejection, unless impelled by the Holy Spirit. I got the message. For the last 16 years I have taught English at an immigrant services center on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, all while sharing the spiritual journey with other volunteers in monthly meetings and periodic retreats.
Many retired people have substantial property; some barely have enough to live on. How much is enough? There is no one-size-fits-all answer.
Most of us need to make prudent decisions so that we do not outlive our money. We are not all called to lives of evangelical poverty, even in old age. Yet those of us who have worked hard all our lives feel a sense of entitlement to the fruits of our labor. “I’ve earned it” is not a Christian attitude; it is a cultural assumption that calls for honest prayer and prudent discernment. St. Ignatius’ advice on property is a useful starting point. We should, he writes, “desire to keep it or dispose of it solely according to what God our Lord will move [our] will to choose,” and we should not “desire or feel...strongly attached to have wealth rather than poverty, or honor rather than dishonor, or a long life rather than a short one.”
We may not all have the grace to feel a genuine preference for poverty, but we may still find greater clarity in distinguishing what we really need for a well-balanced life. For me, it meant the painful decision to give up my car. When I was working, driving was a necessity; in retirement in New York City, a car was a luxury. For others, it might mean moving from a house to an apartment or something as simple as fewer restaurant meals.
No matter how modest our circumstances, St. Ignatius reminds us of the need to provide “for the poor and other good works.” Retirees on limited incomes may be able to make only small financial contributions, but for many of us the opportunity to give our time and talents in service can be a special grace. Downsizing can thus help to focus on social justice, in both what we give to the poor and what we might be called to do.
Finally, we can return to focusing on Jesus, who took on our humanity so that we might learn how to be fully human. St. Ignatius urges that at mealtimes we reflect on how Jesus ate and try to imitate him. While this should not be reduced to “What would Jesus do?” (often asked as a preface to a predetermined answer), it is a good reminder to reflect on Jesus as our model in all things.
Although St. Ignatius prescribes a meditation on hell for the first week of the Spiritual Exercises and includes among the criteria for decision-making the advice that we imagine ourselves “at the point of death” or “on judgment day,” he has little explicit advice on how one should look at death. This is not surprising, since his expectation was that the exercises would most often be made by people making irrevocable decisions about the state of life. But all the graces of the third and fourth weeks of the exercises prepare us for death and the promise of eternal life.
Praying about how much of my spiritual journey might still lie ahead of me, I had a vivid recollection of an experience I had while making the Spiritual Exercises many years earlier in the form called the exercises in daily life.
I entered the third period of the exercises shortly before Easter. I prayed for the grace to share the Passion. At the beginning of Holy Week, my father entered the hospital for a minor procedure, where it was discovered that he had lung cancer and would require immediate surgery. On the train from New York to Hartford early on the morning of Good Friday, full of sadness and worry, I was reading the Passion narratives and trying to place myself among the sorrowful women at the foot of the cross. Suddenly I realized that they did not know how the story ended. How total their desolation must have been, without knowledge of the resurrection! It was an extraordinary experience of entering into the minds and hearts of the companions of Jesus and sharing their experience. At the same time, it was an experience of hope, because we know how the story ends.
But the Holy Spirit has not finished with me. After a long period of discernment, I am currently enrolled in the Christian Spirituality Program at Creighton University, working toward a certificate in spiritual direction. My journey continues. I hope the graces I have experienced will help me accompany others in my age group.
The Spiritual Exercises are inexhaustible. While anyone, at any stage of life, can experience abundant grace meditating on the passion and resurrection of Our Lord, these mysteries can be particularly consoling to the aging. Instead of looking back on what has been lost or given up, we can ask for the grace to look forward with hope to life eternal, remembering the promise of Jesus, as quoted in the Gospel of John: “I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you.”