Monday, December 19, 2011

Growing Old With God

Anna was old—waiting for “the death wind,” T. S. Eliot said. She had lived with a husband seven years after her marriage, and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. Anna never missed a service at the temple, worshipping night and day (Luke 2:36–38).

Anna had grown old with God, the alternative to which is to grow old without him, the end of which is boredom, futility of existence and effort

Growing old is not for sissies, as they say. It’s often overclouded by the multiple losses to which aging is susceptible—separation, bereavement, physical and mental decline. These blows can fall on us at any time, but they seem to fall heaviest in our latter years.

There’s no way to shield ourselves from the difficulties encountered as we age, but our last years can be happy, productive years, years of growth in grace and beauty, if we give ourselves to developing the inward life of the soul.

Age breaks down our strength and energy and strips us of our busyness so we have more time to develop intimacy with God. Far from frustrating God’s best in us the weakness and limitations of age enable us to grow to full maturity. The end of the process is body and spirit united—one in loving God and others. Without the limitations of old age we could never make the most of our lives.

I recall a man saying that long aging and years of weakness and failing health had made his life worth living. “How awful it would have been if, instead of getting old, I’d been extinguished in middle age without learning what God has to offer.”

The senior years can be viewed as a pleasantly useless era where we qualify for Social Security, AARP and senior discounts and have a lot of free time to do nothing at all, or they can be a time of great usefulness to God. There’s much left to do!

We can serve as mentors and conservators of wisdom and virtue, the essential role elders play in society and in the church—grand old men and women who point out the ancient paths and show young believers how to walk in them (cf., Jeremiah 6:16).

Furthermore, there is the power of an ordinary life lived with an awareness of God’s presence, seeing him in everything and doing all things for him. Teresa of Avila found God in her kitchen walking among the pots and pans. Brother Lawrence, the author of Practicing the Presence of God, saw God in his mundane tasks in a monastic scullery. This is the mark of the mature soul, quietly, humbly going about his or her homely tasks, living in joy and leaving behind the sweet fragrance of Jesus’ love.

By God’s grace, we can grow sweeter as the days go by, easier to live with, more delightful to be around. Izaak Walton, wrote of an old companion: “How comforting it is to see a cheerful and contented old age…after being tempest–tossed through life, safely moored in a snug and quiet harbor in the evening of his days! His happiness sprung from within himself and was independent of external circumstances, for he had that inexhaustible good nature which is the most precious gift of Heaven, spreading itself like oil over the troubled sea of thought, and keeping the mind smooth and equable in the roughest weather.” This is the mind that is stayed on God.

Even when our journey leads into illness and weakness and we’re confined to our homes and then our beds, our years of fruitful activity are not over. Like Anna, we can worship and pray night and day. Prayer is the special privilege of infirmity and in the end its greatest contribution.

And we can love. Love remains our last and best gift to God and to others. As St. John of the Cross wrote, “Now I guard no flock, nor have I any office. Now my work is in loving alone” (A Spiritual Canticle).

Prayer and love. These are the mighty works of the elderly.

And then, on ahead, there is the resurrection of our worn out bodies, what ancient spiritual writers called athanasias pharmakon (the medicine of immortality), God’s cure for all that ails us. This is God’s loving purpose for us beyond all earthly existence—“that when this mildew age, has dried away, our hearts will beat again as young and strong and gay” (MacDonald).

This is our hope and, I must say, the most cherished article of my creed.

The soul's dark cottage, batter'd and decay'd,
Lets in new light through chinks that Time has made;
Stronger by weakness, wiser, men become
As they draw near their eternal home.

—Edmund Waller (1606-1687) 

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