During my retreat this year, I broke a longstanding rule. Many years ago, when I was a Jesuit novice, my first spiritual director counseled that the only books one should read during a retreat (other than those in the Bible) are lives of the saints. Other spiritual reading, he felt—particularly books on prayer—may tempt you from actually praying. There is great wisdom in that: reading about prayer is usually easier than praying.
Since then, I’ve adhered to this rule and always looked forward to reading a new saint’s life during my annual eight-day retreat. This year, however, I thought I might treat myself and enjoy some more general spiritual reading. And I was grateful that I did.
The book I brought along was the superb Sacred Fire, by Ronald Rolheiser, O.M.I., which focuses on “Christian maturity.” It’s a follow-up to his wildly popular book The Holy Longing, an introduction to the spiritual life that I’ve recommended to more people than I can recall. In essence, his new book is designed for those who have moved past the “introductory” stages of Christianity and have settled down for the long haul. It is crammed with wonderful insights.
Reading Sacred Fire led me to two other fine books on the same topic, which I read after my retreat: Falling Upwards: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, by Richard Rohr, O.F.M.; and The Gift of Years: Growing Old Gracefully, by Joan Chittister, O.S.B.
Some of our more superannuated readers might smile at the idea that someone at my age, 53, is reading about aging. But some of our younger readers might think it’s completely appropriate! After all, when I look around our editorial table, I see mainly editors who are younger than I—two are in their 20s. And with the normal aches and pains that come with moving past 50, and also the sadness of seeing more than a few friends grow ill and die, mortality is on my mind.
But there’s another reason for reading these books. While all three can be fairly described as books on aging, they are nonetheless appropriate to readers at any stage of life. Because what they’re really about is not growing old, but growing up, something we all try to do.
The three authors—all religious men and women well known to Catholic audiences—approach the topic from three different angles. Each writes with a highly distinctive voice and emphasizes different points, somewhat like the writers of the Gospels. Father Rolheiser offers a systematic overview of what it means to move into Christian maturity, with an emphasis on letting go of some of the passions and problems of youth. Father Rohr’s book makes ample and creative use of both psychology and classic literary patterns (for example, the story of Odysseus). And Sister Chittister’s book is a more general overview of the joys and struggles of aging, which could be used profitably by anyone—religious or not. Let me just highlight my three favorite insights.
Father Rolheiser reminds us that an essential element in growing older is recognizing that while the passion and excitement of our youth may have waned, and “boredom, the longing for a second honeymoon, midlife crisis, misunderstanding, disillusionment” and other struggles may weigh upon us heavily, there is a deep place within us that knows that “real life depends upon staying the course.” I dog-eared that page and underlined that passage.
Father Rohr notes several times in Falling Upwards that we are often invited to move ahead without fully understanding what is happening to us, trusting in what Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J., called the “slow work of God.” Besides, if we did fully know what God was asking of us (which is usually to let go of something that keeps us unfree), we would “either try to take charge or stop the whole process.”
For me, the best aspect of Sister Chittister’s book is the series of inventive dyads she uses to address the various aspects of aging, each of which brings “blessings” and “burdens.” In the chapter entitled “Freedom,” for example, she notes that a burden of growing older is allowing stereotypes of aging to hold one back from real growth. A blessing is that aging can give one the chance to “break the bounds of a past life, and to create for myself a life more suited to what I now want to be.”
I’m sure I’ll be returning to each book frequently. Because, as hard as it is sometimes, I hope that I grow old.