by Barbara Booth-Jarmon
Joan Chittister, in her book “The Gift of Years,” quoted famed Austrian novelist Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach who wrote at age 75, “In youth we learn, in age we understand.”
Each person journeys through life in one of two ways: into a place of spiritual peace with God or into a state of melancholia where chaos and remorse prevail. Since everyone is in the process of aging, each person has equal opportunity to attend to the spiritual dimension of life. In the later years, many recognize that this stage of life is also part of the creator’s plan. It is a time to reflect and make peace with the past so that the blessings life has given might be enjoyed.
When aging is viewed only from a biological or emotional perspective, an important aspect is missed: the spirituality of aging. It is not only a part of aging, but may be its deepest dimension. Spirituality encompasses all the concerns encountered as people seek peace and understand the meaning of their lives.
Obstacles innate within Western culture can hinder older adults from finding spiritual peace. Advances in communication technology may leave older adults feeling isolated from family and friends, overwhelmed by the complexity of the information age. They may assume they have no value within their family as they wonder why they have not received a letter from a relative for so long. Older adults are often left with the impression that they are being relegated to a life apart from friends and loved ones.
Previous generations placed a greater value on older adults and respected their wisdom, as do many other contemporary cultures. In humankind’s natural cycle, the younger generation benefits greatly through the elder’s wisdom. Despite this, older adults in Western culture often lack encouragement to make an important contribution to a society or a platform to offer their wisdom. When they do not have an avenue to deliver their wisdom, they may feel unable to fulfill their natural role. Sadly, older adults with wisdom to offer instead feel unneeded, unproductive and unwanted.
In her book “Winter Grace,” Kathleen Fisher claims, “A spirituality of aging calls in question the deepest values of our civilization. For if the aging process gradually reveals to us the mystery of life, then life’s ultimate meaning cannot lie in speed, consumerism, youth, achievement and physical beauty as defined by our culture.”
Congregations have opportunities to tap into this fount of wisdom. Church leaders benefit from a sage’s input. Intergenerational encounters allow older members to give broader life perspectives to younger generations. Ministries, such as Stephen Ministry, rely on the wisdom of the caregiver and longer life experiences allow for a rich contribution to the congregation’s ministry.
At Florida Presbyterian Homes in Lakeland, Florida, the oldest participant began her caregiver training for Stephen Ministry when she was 92 and, although she requires a wheelchair for mobility and her eyesight is fading, she remains an active caregiver at 95. Her wisdom and insight, along with her compassion and desire to do for others, are priceless. It is only through the trials she has endured and her grounded faith that she provides the sagacity needed for this ministry.
Alice, at 105, had many life lessons to share. One such lesson she offered was to find a reason to love each person. Commenting on how she lived in her later years, she would say, “Most people are struggling with something each day. Do whatever you can to help lighten their load.” Alice had few regrets. She reminisced with gratitude and joy, feeling that she had lived her life well, and she attributed her relationship with her maker as the source of her peace. She transcended the burdens of a worldly life and participated with joy in the sacred dance with God.
Claiming God-given meaning
Culture tends to view the ability to produce as a primary value. Those in their later years often struggle because they can no longer do what they once did and often perceive themselves as having diminished self-worth. The idea that their worth in God’s eyes is grounded in their being rather
than in what they can do is difficult for many to fathom. Henri Nouwen wrote that in a culture where “being” is far less valued than “doing,” the fear of becoming old is determined by the fear of not being able to live up to the expectations where one can produce, achieve, have and keep.
Older adults might find a gaping void, an emptiness that can only be filled through an exploration toward an understanding of self and of God. In “Markings,” Dag Hammarskjöld wrote:
The longest journey
Is the journey inwards.
Of him who has chosen his destiny,
Who has started upon his quest
For the source of his being.
This lifelong journey intentionally looks inward to the heart, where God abides. From there, all are called back to a loving relationship with God, by God through the heart and soul. This is often done in later years while trying to find new meaning in life.
It’s tempting to consider the second half of life as largely about getting old, dealing with health issues and accepting the loss of mobility and diminishing senses. Instead, what if this part of life was experienced as an upward journey into a deeper relationship with God? Richard Rohr call this journey “falling upward” to a broader and deeper world where the soul has found its fullness and is finally connected to the whole. It is not a loss but somehow a gain, not losing but actually winning.
While some older adults remain entirely focused on the temporal world, blessed are those who understand that spiritual growth happens when one experiences transcendence, recognizing the innate need to find a connection between physical and emotional experiences and the other reality, which exists in a divine state beyond the self.
In “The Theory of Gerotranscendence,” author Lars Thorstam describes gerotranscendence as a condition that some older adults have through an experience that engages them with a spiritual world beyond the physical realm. It is a state in which they are able to rise above the activities of this world and retreat spiritually into a place of peace and acceptance. There is an increased identification with past generations and a decreased interest in participating in social interactions that are unnecessary or pull one from peace. There is a desire to spend time in quiet meditation. There is also often a feeling of cosmic communion with the spirit of the universe and a redefinition of time, space, life and death.
Experiencing gerotrancendance does not mean that one has withdrawn. Thorstam notes that for older adults there “is a shift in meta perspective, from a materialistic and rational view of the world to a more cosmic and transcendent one, normally accompanied by an increase in life satisfaction. Gerotranscendence is regarded as the final stage in a possible natural progression towards maturation and wisdom.”
There are also riches and possibilities, joys and hope that come with spirituality in the later part of life. This is the time to comprehend with greater depth, reassess values and focus and frame one’s life in a redefined context. There is a great opportunity to redirect one’s perspective and look forward to the future.
During aging, many become able to see more clearly. Meaning and meaningless come into focus, and engagement is done with different intentions. It is within the new frame that renewed spiritual meaning can be found. One spiritual value of a reframed life is a move from the “doing” to the “being” part of life. In his book, “Aging and Ministry in the 21st Century,” Richard Gentzler Jr. notes that to age well means to creatively accept the many changes in life and to maintain a spirit that grows healthier, wiser and closer to God.
Humor also provides a hopeful way to approach the season of aging. As meaningless parts of life become more apparent, older adults can contribute lightness to a world that takes itself too seriously. Separating themselves from a youth-driven society allows older adults to, as Henri Nouwen states, “break through the illusions of immortality and smile at all the urgencies and emergencies of their past life.” Approaching life with hope and humor
allows people to see beyond the limitations of the human self. The loss of self and preoccupations with one’s past are overtaken by a vision that defines the importance of what exists now.
Older adults might feel they live in a world of loneliness. But in the spiritual realm, being alone can create solitude, a place that nourishes the inner being. This time of solitude can be an invitation to draw near to God. Loneliness becomes solitude when God’s voice can be heard in stillness. Gentzler also makes the point that contemplation can fill the silence and perceived emptiness with the reality of God’s presence.
Aging allows the opportunity to attend to the spiritual dimension of life. In coming to terms with aging, this stage of life might be understood as a chapter in the plan of the creator to enjoy with gratitude the blessings that life has given. Joan Chittister says, “This is the period for allowing ourselves to rejoice in the past that brought us to this point, as well as to revel in the possibilities that are the present.”
The search for wisdom is the blessing that older people are called to find and to celebrate. Life can be a journey towards wisdom, but it will not be complete until coming to terms with the unchangeable nature of the past. Spiritual peace comes from accepting that what the future holds is unknown and a willingness to enter into that future with hope and wisdom. Age help people understand themselves and God and apply the lessons that took a lifetime to learn. As Alfred Lord Tennyson said, “Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers.”
BARBARA BOOTH-JARMON is the pastor at Florida Presbyterian Homes in Lakeland, Florida. A graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and Drew University- Theological School, she is the author of “Mandy,” a book for young readers.