In his 1999 Letter to the Elderly (#12), Saint John Paul II encouraged the young to remain close to the elderly. He said, “Older people can give you much more than you imagine. The Book of Sirach offers this advice: ‘Do not disregard what older people say, because they too have learned from their parents’ (8:9).”
Francis Thompson wrote an incredible poem, “The Hound of Heaven.” In it, he compares God to a bloodhound who, no matter how hard we try, we can’t shake off our trail. Thanks be to God! How can you do an even better job at letting the Divine Bloodhound catch up with you?
Saint John of the Cross said, “Where there is no love, put love, and then you will find love.” It’s true. Somebody has to initiate, to be the first one to love—a kind word, a generous gesture. Like the stone dropped in the middle of the pond, whose ripples go all the way to the shore, even so the love we bring to others multiplies far beyond ourselves.
I love to think of my Mom and Dad and my aunts and uncles up in Heaven praying for me. Isn’t it wonderful, the Communion of Saints, all in Heaven and in Purgatory and on Earth, all united in prayer?!
Do you think of the elderly as evangelizers? Saint John Paul II does. He says, “Old age with its immense capacity for evangelization by word and example, and by activities eminently adapted to the talents of the elderly is a force for the Church of God yet to be thoroughly understood or adequately utilized.” (ADDRESS OF JOHN PAUL II TO THE PARTICIPANTS IN THE INTERNATIONAL FORUM ON ACTIVE AGING)
The saints weren’t perfect. They had to work on it. Saint Paul persecuted Christians. Saint Peter denied Christ three times. Saint Jerome had a terrible anger problem. Saint Teresa of Ávila began as a very mediocre nun and went through the motions with no heart. Many of the early Christians “lapsed” during times of persecution, then came back later. It’s the same for us. Keep on working on Holiness. We’re not yet a “finished product.” Rely on God’s grace and help, and maybe especially on the prayers of those saints who struggled.
Nobody becomes a saint alone. It’s a Communion of Saints. We help each other out with our good example, our encouragement, our prayers. It’s a great family, the Communion of Saints. We never go to Heaven alone.
There’s a special spiritual responsibility that comes with family. Husbands are especially charged with helping their wives get to Heaven, and wives have that same charge for their husbands. Parents have a great responsibility to pray for and give good example to their children. We can’t live loved ones’ lives for them, but our prayers for them are an important part of our vocation.
We should, no doubt, speak more often of a common spiritual reality—that often in our spiritual life we may go through periods of dryness in prayer, where we pray but “feel” nothing. This was and is very common in the lives of the great saints and mystics of our faith. Saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta went for years without any sense of the presence of Jesus in her times of prayer. God seems to “withdraw” so we’ll be faithful to Him and not just to feelings of closeness to Him. He’s taking us beyond the gifts to the Giver Himself.
Saint Francis of Assisi is upbeat even about death. In The Canticle of the Sun he says, “Praised be my Lord for our sister, the bodily death, from which no man can flee.” He praises God for death! He invites us to consider death as a beloved sister who helps us keep our right focus. Looked at it that way, it makes sense to praise God for “sister death.”
Many of the great saints and heroes of our faith have lived, and spoken of, the “Duty of the Moment.” That simply means that the way to holiness is to embrace whatever is the duty of the moment as God’s own will for us. If I’m grocery shopping, or unpacking the dishwasher, or driving to work, or planning tonight’s dinner—all those things, embraced as God’s will for me, are the royal road to Holiness.
You’ve probably heard the little story about the visitor to hell who found tables laden with food but everyone starving because they had such long forks and spoons attached to their wrists that they could not put the food into their mouths. The visitor found the same long forks and spoons on the wrists of those in Heaven, but they were well-fed and happy—they put the food on their utensils and fed their neighbors across the table. You get the point—we’re to learn now on Earth the virtues that will prepare us for Heaven.
“Heaven is the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness” (CCC #1024). There’s a lot to meditate on in those words.
Maybe you’ve heard the saying: “Old age never comes alone; it brings all kinds of buddies with it.” And we know those “buddies,” don’t we? Our bodies age, we have a lower energy level, perhaps poor health, maybe needing help of some kind—the list goes on and on. But Scripture reminds us that the fool looks for his contentment in worldly pleasure, but the wise man looks for his peace, even in the midst of all those changes, in God who is always there, so the wise man is at peace.
Another neat quote: “Gray power is pray power.” It’s true. You might even say our new career is prayer. It’s so important that we come to a deeper prayer life in old age. The rosary, the Jesus Prayer, adoration, meditation with Scripture—whatever is your favored way, retirement is all about deepening our prayer life.
Fr. Bob Bedard, of blessed memory, often spoke of “giving God permission” in our life. At first that sounds funny—we might think “God’s God, He can do anything He wants.” While that’s true enough, something wonderful happens when we give God permission to act as He wishes in our life, when we surrender to God’s will for us. “Not my will, O Lord, but Thine be done.”
There’s a freedom in growing old, isn’t there? And a joy. We can just “live.” Having lived much of life we know who we are and we are at peace with that.
Old age is the summit of life. It is the ultimate crown of life. It is a gift from God. Pope Francis said old age is not a disease, it’s a privilege.
I love the example of Pope Benedict XVI, who chooses to spend the final days of his life in prayer and union with God. What an example for all of us.
Oliver Clement, an author in the Orthodox faith, said, “A civilization that has no place for prayer is a civilization in which old age has lost all meaning. And this is terrifying. For above all, we need old people who pray; prayer is the purpose of old age.” (Touchstone Magazine)
There are some very specific and unique areas of gratitude in old age. Gratitude for the years we have been given, for the service our body has given us over those many years; gratitude we can still walk (even if at a slower pace); gratitude for medical advances that help our eyesight and hearing, and so much more. Old age offers us many opportunities to be filled with gratitude.
God uses everything, including our weaknesses and limitations, if we surrender to His will, even if we face a new loss. Everything belongs to God.
Old age brings with it a certain serenity. The ups and downs of earlier life are lessened, it seems. Our experience graces us with steadiness—serenity is not a flashy virtue, but a delight nonetheless.
We’re living longer. That will no doubt bring new challenges to us, but also new opportunities to unite our struggles and crosses with those of Jesus Christ.
Have you noticed—they’re making print in the newspaper smaller, and the stairs are being made steeper, and people talk more softly than before? 🙂
Of course, our attitude as we age is critical. We can choose to focus on our wrinkles and gray hair, and aches and pains, or we can praise God for all the positive things about growing older—like the mental faculties we still have and the simple joys that each new day brings.
When families pick out a Gospel for the funeral of their loved one, very often they select John 14:1-6. And that’s easy to understand. Listen to Jesus’ words to us from that passage: “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places… And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be.” What a consolation is our wonderful faith!
“Grandchildren are the crown of the aged…” (Proverbs 17:6 RSV). That’s so often true, isn’t it? God willing, grandchildren can be one of the true delights of aging.
It’s good sometimes to ponder what Heaven will be like. Saint Paul certainly stoked our curiosity when he tells us that eye has not seen nor ear heard and it hasn’t even entered our heart what God has prepared for us. What has God prepared for us? There is certainly a healthy longing for Heaven, planted in our hearts, I am sure, by God Himself.
I often think of the story of Peter walking on the water, and then looking away from Jesus and down at the waves, and then beginning to sink. It’s a symbol for me of the two ways we can look at death. When we look at its unknown aspects, we experience fear. But when we look at it as a meeting with Jesus Christ, we are filled with hope.
Has anyone ever approached you and asked if you have been saved? It kind of sets you back, doesn’t it? But there is a wonderfully Catholic response to that question:
- Yes I have been saved. Jesus Christ died on the Cross for me.
- Right now, I am being saved. Jesus is at the right hand of the Father pleading for me.
- And I hope to be saved. The goal and motivation of my life is that I might be with Jesus in Heaven forever.
Image: Rembrandt – Jeremiah Lamenting