“We are all weathered by the seasons of life and gain serenity from surviving them all.” ~Franciscan Priest Richard Rohr
Today I address the spiritual tasks of the latest stages of life: the “winter season.” Gerontologists tell us that there are three stages of being elderly: the first stage is ages 65-74, the second stage is ages 75-84, and the third stage is ages 85 and older.”
There are seventy-seven million baby boomers in the U. S. today (ages 55-73). So there are a lot of folks navigating through this first stage of “elderhood” (including myself). I’m always shocked that I am considered “elderly” even though my children are between the ages of 35 and 39. Where did the time go?
My mother died in the second stage at 80 and my dad was blessed to have lived to a week shy of his ninetieth birthday. So when I sat down with my investment professional recently to decide how to set up my financial portfolio, he respectfully and gently showed me the actuarial charts for my own life expectancy. That was sobering.
He reiterated that one of the more macabre features of financial planning is that you get to try and decide what your own end date will be. I have an end date? Like the expiration date on my skim milk? Further, he said that a reliable predictor would be the average between the death dates of my parents.
So I wrote a financial plan based on the possibility that I would “kick the bucket” around 85. Whoa. That is only eighteen years down the road for me. But no guarantees for that “end date” either. My husband Mark had a massive heart attack fly-fishing at 57 and died at 60. Obviously, we can’t foresee our life-span, or how long our health will hold.
Most of the patients that I ministered to in hospice were between the ages of 58 and 92. And almost all of them would grumble to me about how challenging getting old was and that they weren’t prepared for the “silver season of life.” I always pushed back on their premise that the elderly years were “foreign territory.” If we were really paying attention to the trials and tribulations of our lives along the way, we would admit that it was a journey of constant change, loss, surrender, and reminders of our mortality from the moment we were born.
So what do we do during these last stages of life when the profound issues of life, love, death, suffering, God, and infinity become more urgent? The antidotes for the last stages are prayer, contemplation, love, spiritual growth, faith, surrender, gratitude, and reliance on our hard-earned wisdom. We must keep growing until we take our last breath.
Just like the season of Lent, the elderly stage of life is sometimes about sitting in the ashes and fasting from our fears, anger, greed, wounds, and prejudices. It is a stage that demands courage, patience, trust, forgiveness, adjustment, and adaptability. On the other hand, it is also a season of simplicity, serenity, joy, reflection, graceful humility, and acceptance. No, the elderly years are not for the faint-of-heart or sissies; but we can help one another.
The last stage of life is about becoming “Real.” For example, I noticed how both my mother-in-law and my father mellowed in their final years. It was beautiful to watch them relinquish a lifetime of closely-guarded feelings and to witness their fledgling attempts to express heartfelt affection. Life had weathered them and whittled them down into a precious vulnerability.
One of my favorite adult stories on the journey of life and “becoming real” is The Velveteen Rabbit by Margerie Williams (1922). I read this book quite often to my elderly patients. I offer an excerpt here from that lovely story.
“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day. “Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child (or any person) REALLY loves you for a very long time, then you become Real.”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit. “Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “But when you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, or bit by bit?” The Rabbit wanted to know.
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time . . . Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all; because once you are Real, you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
“I suppose you are Real?” said the Rabbit. and then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive. But the Skin Horse only smiled. “The boy made me Real and once you become Real, you can’t become unreal. It lasts forever.”
The Rabbit sighed. He longed to become Real, and yet the idea of growing shabby and losing eyes and whiskers and ears was rather sad. He wished that he could become it without these uncomfortable things happening to him.”
Yes, we wish that we could become “who we were meant to be” without these uncomfortable things happening to us. It is difficult being “loved-to-death.” One of the things I learned sitting vigil at the bedside of my dying patients is that not everyone becomes Real before they die. To become Real, one needs to be open-hearted, humble, hold a willingness to be vulnerable, and to have the courage to grow in self-awareness and forgiveness. For me, when a patient departed this world clinging to rigidity, still hard-hearted, and self-centered . . . well, it was very sad for me.
I always wondered what the Skin Horse meant when he said: “When you are Real, you don’t mind being hurt.” Franciscan priest Richard Rohr stated something similar: “When a person is spiritually mature, they are not easily offended.” Patients inquired of me what it meant to be “spiritually mature.” It means that you have done the work to look deeply at your own shadows and capital sins. In my work as a theology teacher and chaplain, the spiritual tool that most enabled my own brutal examination of the negative aspects of my personality and character was to study The Enneagram. I learned that when I hide from myself, I hide from God. The study also illuminates one’s giftedness, so it’s not all shocking news.
I have two suggestions for wonderful books on the tasks of aging: The Gift of Years: Growing Older Gracefully by Joan Chittister. She is a Feminist Theologian and Benedictine nun. She currently serves as co-chair of the UN-sponsored Global Peace Initiative for Women. She examines the qualities of spirituality and how the practice of these values can make the transition into the last stage of life the summit of life. She uses a format of short essays on each quality. She emphasizes that one of the gifts of age should be that we become comfortable with the self we will become.
The second book is Ripening by Franciscan Priest Richard Rohr. The author calls us to be spiritual elders and pacesetters in the practice of spiritual aging. These selections work well in tandem and would be appropriate for a book club or for a spiritual group. I taught these books in a spiritual group that I started fifteen years ago. We meet every two weeks all year. The support of these lovely women has given me much support to address the trials and joys of earthly life.
“For a grape to be harvested, it must first be crushed.” Author Unknown.
“Very truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls unto the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.”