Reflections on Aging
Issue 25, August 2008
Any reflection on aging as a process is enriched by the process of theological reflection. There used to be a book for students of the piano called "Easy Tunes for Little Fingers" - the theory being that once you had the basic scale or the foundational notes to music, you could build a tune that was as simple or complex as one would want to play. Theological reflection is a similar process. Like any discipline it begins with some very simple concepts and then adds in more complex thought as one encounters the mystery that is Christ. Theology is described variously as "faith seeking understanding" or "the clothing of the faith experience in Christ." It begins with an experience, and, guided by the light of the Holy Spirit seeks to understand this experience in both a reasonable and faith-filled way. The task of theology, and it is a disciplined and demanding task, is the search for truth. The seventeenth century poet John Donne expresses the challenge of searching for truth very beautifully when he says:
"On a huge hill,
Cragged, and steep,
This search for truth requires a gentle trust in our questioning and discernment as well as a healthy scepticism. It also requires both faith and reason, always together, as Pope John Paul II reminded us in Fides et Ratio. Faith by itself leads to a type of fundamentalism, and reason by itself ultimately leads to disappointment. All of the great theologians from the Catholic theological tradition were also men and women deeply skilled in prayer. Prayer enhanced their knowledge and understanding of the mystery of the revelation of God in Christ. Prayer and theological reflection, in turn gives birth to charity and compassion, justice and integrity of life.
Justice is defined by the spiritual writer Anthony Padavano as "the ability to discover connections and to live by them." Many of the great theologians and spiritual leaders had this highly developed ability to make connections between faith and reason and compassion, and this ability, in turn, enabled them to build up a more comprehensive and richer understanding of God and humanity. For example, saintly women like Catherine McAuley and Suzanne Aubert, foundational influences in Catholic healthcare in New Zealand, had a remarkable capacity to connect apparent opposites. Their writings reveal women of faith, leaders who embodied clear logical reasoning and wisdom. They both had a wonderful ability to connect the rich to the poor, the healthy to the sick, the educated to the uneducated, the skilled to the uninstructed, and the influential to those with no voice. Consequently, their spiritual legacy and that of other great theologians and spiritual leaders would suggest that any theology of aging is a means to understanding the connection between all of life and ministry with Christ as the Alpha and Omega Point of the life's journey.
Aging as Journey into Christ
The context for our reflection is one of journey in Christ but one that focuses on a specific part of this journey, namely, the process of aging. This journey begins at birth and evolves until death.
In his letter to the Romans (8:18ff) Saint Paul speaks of the evolutionary nature of grace when he says that the whole of creation is groaning in one great act of giving birth. Similarly, when we reflect on the call and response of the early companions of Jesus, we readily see it as a process that only gradually evolves as the disciples mature and become more open to the workings of grace. In his post-resurrection dialogue with Saint Peter (John 21:15ff) Jesus beautifully describes what this journey of growth into Christ will mean.
The great theologian and mystic Teilhard de Chardin expanded these themes of growth in his writings when he said that the whole of creation is moving towards Christ as the Omega Point or end point of the human narrative. Just as Christ is the Alpha Point or origin of the human narrative so Christ is the Omega Point. As creation and the human narrative move towards Christ they become more unified and integrated – a process Teilhard called hominization.
Teilhard de Chardin's influence is evident in the Second Vatican Council in its Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World (n.5) where it states that the destiny of the human race should be viewed holistically: "The destiny of the human race is viewed as a complete whole, no longer, as it were, in the particular histories of various peoples: now it merges into a complete whole. And so mankind substitutes a dynamic and more evolutionary concept of nature for a static one, and the result is an immense series of new problems calling for a new endeavor of analysis and synthesis."
Some of the new challenges that the Second Vatican Council alludes to lie in the field of bioethics and specifically with the challenge of developing richer theological insight to enhance our reflection on the so-called life issues. For the purpose of this paper Teilhard de Chardin's insights help to encapsulate a central strand in any theology of aging, namely, that all of history, be it the communal or personal narrative, is a gradual movement toward Christ. That is why I argue that aging can only be viewed as a process and holistically.
In his Letter to the Elderly (1999) Pope John Paul II wrote similarly when he said that, "it is no coincidence that the Church, at the solemn Easter Vigil, uses the same two Greek letters in reference to Christ who lives yesterday, today, and for ever: He is the beginning and the end, Alpha and Omega. All time belongs to him and all the ages. Human experience, although subject to time, is set by Christ against the horizon of immortality" (p.2).
It is Christ who "joins" the beginning and end of time and the beginning and end of the communal and community narrative. At the very beginning of this journey into Christ we learn that the paradox of life and love and service is intertwined with the mystery of suffering and death. The providence and mercy of God in Christ brings healing for humanity and, equally, a call to growth for all no matter the particular way men and women live out God's call. I will firstly examine this in the context of religious life and then more generally.
Aging and Religious Life
John Bamberger, Abbott of Genesee Abbey in The United States of America, says that monastic life, and by extension religious life, causes the monk to "confront the essential challenges and opportunities associated with the process of aging from the very first day that he enters the monastery" (Bamberger 1997, p. 6). He continues by saying that few if any would choose such a life unless there was some intimation that his (or her) state of soul at the end of life will determine the value of this life. Over time and under grace, and within community, the focus on Christ as the Omega Point grows even stronger. Such a conviction was beautifully expressed by Saint Jerome when he said, that "for the Christian, what matters is not how one begins life but how he or she ends it!"
From the earliest days in religious formation the religious is forced to confront the fact of separation from loved ones and from other wonderfully legitimate possibilities such as children and a particular partner. Holistic formation leads one to focus on the journey within where the goal is based on a common search for truth and service of others in Christ rather than one that is necessarily based on natural attraction or similarity of temperaments. The outer losses which cannot be dismissed or underestimated, give way to inner transformation and greater awareness of the transcendent. In real life this process of growth is rather complex and often obscure (Bamberger, 1997, pp. 6-8).
Because Christ is the Omega Point, growth will always be paradoxical, that is, any personal or communal growth will be essentially incomplete and embryonic. That is the precise nature of the journey in Christ. Questions and challenges that have been visited and integrated at one stage of life require reassessment and reintegration at a later and deeper level of our hearts as we age and make the deeper journey within. For example, as we age, the decision to freely forego children and a partner in life may compound, particularly as our own circle of family and companions die thereby removing the boundary between ourselves and eternity. As these companions age and die the threshold of eternity comes ever closer for ourselves.
Aging in Life
Abbott John Bamberger's insights apply to all vocations in life because the experience of loss intensifies for everyone no matter the particular way we follow Christ. The loss of a partner, health, independence, mobility, networks, roles and intimacy all affect people at various stages of life's journey. That is why, in its search for truth, theological reflection must confront the starkness of human realities and the experience of death and loss and admit of its powerlessness in the face of such mystery as it does so. This is not said as an exercise in despair but simply to underscore the fact that, in the process of any theological reflection, our reason only takes us so far along the road to a larger truth.
To have "no answers" is not the same as saying the process of aging and death is meaningless and neither does it logically lead to the abandonment or isolation of the elderly. Rather, the stark reality of death and the vulnerability associated with aging calls for an environment that reverences and sustains the elderly and dying through compassionate presence. Such presence is intimately tied to our own growth in Christ which is why the saints consistently link service of neighbour with personal growth in Christ. Whatever contributes to the one necessarily promotes and enhances the other. The journey in Christ and into Christ requires charity to self and to others.
In our growth into Christ as Omega Point Teilhard de Chardin understood Christian charity as more than "simply a soothing lotion poured over the world's suffering". He viewed it as the most complete and most active agent of hominization. For him charity was the precise means that enables the progressive development of human life to higher and higher levels within the human heart and beyond in charity. Thus, if life is to develop and evolve and mature to a high degree in Christ in this aging process, then charity to others becomes the essential element through which, and by which, this growth occurs. Charity, then, is essential in the journey of maturation and ripening that is the process of aging - both the act of giving it and the act of receiving it (McBrien 1980, p. 126).
However, the need for charity occurs for the aging within a context of increased vulnerability. By this I mean not only the frailty that comes from physiological aging but also, and particularly, the vulnerability of faith. Faith is essentially a risk and paradoxical, and, in the process of aging as we make the even longer journey within, that risk is heightened. Let me illustrate what I mean.
I recall visiting a Little Sister of the Assumption in Hutt Hospital just after she had suffered a severe stroke. Like several sisters in her Petone community Sister Magdalena Dolan was known as a woman of great prayer and great charity. Neither of those two virtues seemed to help her when she took sick, so much so I can recall her saying to me, "I can no longer pray. I start off with a Hail Mary and I end up in Timbuktu!" The living charity of others, primarily through loving presence became her only reassurance that God was still her familiar and her companion. Further, the living charity of her sisters, in this case, also reminded her that parts of the journey are indeed dark and provide little by way of reassurance save the reminder that faith is fundamentally a risk. At these times we become very poor judges of concepts of progress or models of integration and growth and we very much need the Good Samaritan's acts of charity to bring us back to a sense of being nurtured and loved. In turn, the one ministered to is able to reassure the Good Samaritan of his or her own place in the community. In a very real sense, then, the person ministered to calls forth the gifts of the Good Samaritan.
The biological and psychological drivers of aging are the same no matter what our particular vocation in life is. Following Christ as disciple does not preclude the aging process and neither does it preclude any particular vocation. Particular roles may in fact add to the suffering implicit in aging because of unrealistic expectations placed by ourselves or upon ourselves by others. Nevertheless, particular vocations can present the disciple of Christ with greater opportunities to appreciate both the trials as well as the possibilities for growth in the aging process.
The Charisms Proper to Old Age
By way of grounding this theological reflection on aging I will focus on five charisms or gifts which are particularly evident in the aging process. These charisms help to further rediscover the deeper meaning and value of old age and are taken from Chapter One of The Pontifical Council for the Laity 1998 document The Dignity of Older People and their Mission in the Church and in the World.
"Disinterestedness: The prevailing culture of our time measures the value of our actions according to criteria of efficiency and material success, which ignore the dimension of disinterestedness: of giving something, or giving ourselves, without any thought of a return. Older people, who have time on their hands, may recall the attention of an over-busy society to the need to break down the barriers of an indifference that debases, discourages and stifles altruistic impulses."
In the process of aging the charism of disinterestedness is expressed in virtues such as in the letting go of ambition, the reprioritization of relationships, and increasing appreciation of the transcendent. Such virtues are clearly expressed in the writings of spiritual giants, for example in the "suscipe" (act of resignation) of Catherine McAuley, and Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago. Abandonment to the loving providence of God freed their hearts again and again to reach out to the needs of others, particularly when they had understandable reasons to withdraw from service to others.
"Memory: The younger generations are losing a sense of history and consequently the sense of their own identity. A society that minimises the sense of history fails in its responsibility to educate young people. A society that ignores the past more easily runs the risk of repeating its errors. The loss of an historical sense is also attributable to a system of life that has marginalized and isolated older people, and that hampers dialogue between the generations."
There are many activities older people carry out which appear to be forms of living in the past, but which are actually forms of life review. Rightly understood, memory is not the place where the past is excluded, but rather, the place where the past is preserved and integrated in Christ. That is why creative activities such as journaling, writing memoirs and letters or social histories, researching genealogies, and making pilgrimages all help to enhance the growth of the human spirit.
Pope John Paul II describes the elderly as the "guardians of our collective memory, and thus the privileged interpreters of that body of ideals and common values which support and guide life in society." To exclude them "is in a sense to deny the past, in which the present is firmly rooted, in the name of modernity without memory." Far from being a reason for exclusion the signs of human frailty that are connected with advanced age "become a summons to the mutual dependence and indispensable solidarity which link the future generations, inasmuch as every person needs others and draws enrichment from the gifts and charisms of all" (1999, p.10).
"Experience: Today we live in a world in which the responses of science and technology seem to have supplanted the value of the experience accumulated by older people in the course of their whole lives. This kind of cultural barrier should not discourage people of the third and fourth ages, since they still have a lot to say to the young generations and to share with them."
In commenting about the inspiration of those elderly people "who remain amazingly youthful and vigorous in spirit", Pope John Paul II quotes Cicero who remarked that "the burden of age is lighter for those who feel respected and loved by the young"(1999, p. 12). Those who are young at heart implicitly recognise that the gift of wisdom, which often reaches its fullness in later years, needs to be expressed as a gift for others. It is never for the person alone. The passing on of this wisdom is a need of those who have it and the gift of respect allows that to happen.
"Interdependence: No man is an island. But growing individualism and self-seeking are obscuring this truth. Older people, in their search for companionship, challenge a society in which the weaker are often abandoned; they draw attention to the social nature of mankind and to the need to repair the fabric of interpersonal and social relationships."
Interdependence implies the cultivation of relationships and companionship, both of the same generation and between the generations. Mutual interdependence is integral to giving expression to other charisms. Precisely in their need the elderly help us to view human realities and all of creation with greater wisdom. That is why Maori and Polynesian cultures, for example, accord their elders honour and respect and regard them as the storehouses of the moral wisdom and traditions of the community. For these cultures, the well being of the community is not separate from the well being of the individual no matter what the particular circumstances of the individual may be (McCabe, 2002, p. 9).
"A more complete vision of life: Our life is dominated by haste, by agitation, and frequently by neurosis. It is a distracted life, a life in which the fundamental questions about the vocation, dignity and destiny of humanity are forgotten. The third age is also the age of simplicity and contemplation. The affective, moral and religious values embodied by older people are an indispensable resource for fostering the harmony of society, of the family and of the individual. These values include a sense of responsibility, faith in God, friendship, disinterest in power, prudence, patience, wisdom, and a deep inner conviction of the need to respect the creation and foster peace. Older people understand the superiority of "being" over "having". Human societies would be better if they learnt to benefit from the charisms of old age."
The gentle review of life is not only a way of sorting through issues and relationships. It is also a process that allows for a bigger and more complete vision of life to emerge. When this is done well it allows recognition of the larger patterns of accomplishment and generativity which can be obscured by the details of everyday life.
To integrate one's life experiences in a spiritual understanding which makes sense of the journey is at the heart our journey in Christ whatever our particular vocation in life is. Such a process will entail the blending of inner resources and the integration of light and shadow as well as the judicious use of various medical, social and spiritual supports.
One cannot do any theological reflection without a spirit of gratitude for the myriad ways we have been blessed by the Providence of a loving God. Gratitude, in turn, gives birth to a living hope. Part of this living hope is the reassurance that, whether or not God is implicitly acknowledged, the beginning and end of every road an individual sets out on is in reality part of a deeper journey into Christ. Ultimately he alone is the Alpha and Omega Point of every journey.
Father Michael McCabe
The Nathaniel Centre
An earlier version of this paper was given at Mercy Congregation Day at Dunedin on 4 October 2003.
Bamberger, J. E. (1997). Aging and monastic life.
McBrien, R. P. (1980). Catholicism (Vol. 1). London: Geoffrey Chapman.
Pontifical Council for the Laity. (1998). The dignity of older people and their mission in the church and in the world. from http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/laity/documents/rc_pc_laity_doc_05021999_older-people_en.html
Pope John Paul II. (1999). Letter of his holiness Pope John Paul II to the elderly. from http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/letters/documents/hf_jp-ii_let_01101999_elderly_en.html
McCabe, M. (2002). Autonomy and community care – are they compatible in aged care? The Nathaniel Report (6).
A full list of references is available from The Nathaniel Centre on request.