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Saint John Paul II in his 1999 Letter to the Elderly said: “There is an urgent need to recover a correct perspective on life as a whole. The correct perspective is that of eternity, for which life at every phase is a meaningful preparation. Old age too has a proper role to play in this process of gradual maturing along the path to eternity” (#10). It’s true—we are living at a vital time in our lives, preparing for eternity.
A beautiful thought by Saint Gregory Nazianzus in his Discourse Upon Returning from the Country, as cited by Saint John Paul II, is that a man “will not grow old in spirit, but will accept dissolution as the moment fixed for the freedom which must come. Gently he will cross into the beyond, where there is neither youth nor old age, but where all are perfect in spiritual maturity” (Letter to the Elderly, #12).
During the course of my priesthood, I would get a new assignment from the bishop and have to say goodbye to those whom I loved and move to an as-yet-unknown parish. A great consolation for me as I did so was Acts 18:10. It describes Paul moving on to yet another port with the encouraging words from Jesus to him, “…for I have many people in this city.” I didn’t know anyone yet in my new parish, but I had God’s own word that His people were already there waiting for me. You know, those words work when we apply them to Heaven as well.
It’s a common experience that as we age, our drive for ambition and for power pass, or at least greatly diminish, and in their place comes Peace. Many are struck by how much time and effort they used to give to those pursuits, as they now enjoy the “breathing space” that letting go of those drives for power and prestige gives them.
The blessings of old age are important, deep and real. In old age, hopefully, we can see life as a whole. We are able to identify a genuine priority of goals. We gain a sense of history, which the young also need to receive from us. We can help people identify what is truly important. In short, the years can bring a wisdom, a grasp on the meaning of life that will be a blessing for the young and the middle-aged as well.
The more we are aware of God’s loving plan for each of us as we go through life, the less likely it will be that we have to struggle with regret in our old age.
Saint John Paul II speaks of the extraordinary grace of aging: “…they (the aging) have entered a period of extraordinary grace, with new opportunities for prayer and union with God…(they have) been endowed with new spiritual forces (italics mine) with which to serve others and to make a fervent offering of their lives to the Lord and Giver of life” (Address of John Paul II to the Participants in the International Forum on Active Aging, #4).
I heard a cute one the other day: Growing older moves a person from asking “How did I put up with him?” to “How did he (and even God) ever put up with me?”
There’s a sense that, as we age, we need to detach from the things we may have attached ourselves to during earlier parts of our lives. One of the most important things for us to let go of is any anger or unforgiveness from earlier days of our lives. We may need to forgive ourselves, others, and some may feel they even need to “forgive” God. No doubt none of us have had exactly the life we had planned. Forgiveness is an important task as we age.
There’s hopefully a humility that grows in us as we age. We no longer need to be the center of attention. We can happily watch the joy and energy and goodness of the generations following us.
Hopefully we get more simple as we get older. We let go of any pseudo-sophistication. The deepest realities of life are best approached through simplicity and child-like honesty.
Meister Eckhart once said, “Nothing so much resembles God as silence.” As we age, we’re called to enter more and more into that language of silence.
Prescriptions for a vital old age: A sense of gratitude and wonder; an appreciation for life; a desire to learn and grow; an optimistic attitude.
In old age, we can thank God that we still have some time left, and at the same time thank Him that that time will not be endless. The realization that we won’t live forever does a wonderful job of clearing our mind, and, where necessary, making some corrections.
Pray for a happy death. Those words are not a contradiction. A death we’re ready for, and walk into with our Lord Jesus, is a happy death indeed.
Have you ever heard the term “greatness of soul?” A great-souled person is one who initiates love, is ready to forgive, is full of wonder at the beauties of life, and is in love with his or her God. It’s a wonderful state to aspire to.
The Catholic tradition speaks of the “four last things.” They are Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. Even to think of that list speaks to us of how important those realities are.
Make your own list of “pleasures reserved for old age.” I’ll bet there will be some surprises there. We’re used to the list of “crosses of old age,” and certainly those are real, but there are pleasures too. It’s good to be keenly aware of them.
The Catholic author Thomas Howard quotes a list of attitudes the saints recommend to us in old age: resignation, recollection, renunciation, detachment, silence, waiting, patience, withdrawal, simplicity, stillness, contentedness. Quite a list, isn’t it? (Howard 2007)
A Jesuit theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin left us a beautiful prayer-reflection on death in his book The Divine Milieu. In part, he prayed, “…at that last moment when I feel I am losing hold of myself and am absolutely passive within the hands of the great unknown forces that have formed me; in all those dark moments, O God, grant that I may understand that it is you…who are painfully parting the fibres of my being in order to penetrate to the very marrow of my substance and bear me away within yourself” (Teilhard de Chardin, 89-90).
John the Baptist’s words about Jesus work well for us, don’t they? He cried out, “He must increase and I must decrease.” That’s a good prayer for our lives as well.
There’s a real sense in which we enter a new world as we age, where we decrease and He must increase. Tasks we used to complete quickly can now take all day; words we used to call up at will refuse to be remembered; our health is compromised; our prayer gets more distracted; tasks don’t get completed; some faults we hoped to overcome are still stubbornly there; the sleep we were planning to get when life slowed down eludes us. In short, we are decreasing—dear Lord, please increase within me!
I love the “Suscipe” prayer of Saint Ignatius of Loyola: “Take, Lord, receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, my entire will…You have given it all to me, and I return it to You.” It is a prayer of peaceful abandonment into the arms of our God.
Saint Paul says, “We hold this treasure in earthen vessels” (2 Corinthians 4:7). It’s good to reflect on both sides of that analogy. We are indeed earthen vessels that won’t last forever. But within us is also the treasure that will last forever—our Lord Jesus Christ and life with Him.
A beautiful prayer to Saint Peter: “O glorious Apostle, pray for us, that being free from all sin we may live and die in the grace of God…as we draw nearer to the close of life, may we daily grow in the knowledge and love of Jesus Christ…pray for us now and at the hour of our death. Then come blessed Apostle and take us to Jesus, that we too may love eternally. Amen.”
On a September 15, 2008, visit to Lourdes, Pope Benedict XVI gave us this beautiful prayer: “To those who suffer and to those who struggle and are tempted to turn their backs on life: turn towards Mary!…With her, equally, is found the grace to accept without fear or bitterness to leave this world at the hour chosen by God.”
Pope Francis on aging: “I’m happy! And it’s a tranquil happiness because at this age one no longer has the same happiness as a young person, there’s a difference. There’s a certain interior peace, a strong sense of peace, of happiness, that comes with age…It’s truly a grace from God, for me” (Inside the Vatican, April 2014).
In his 1999 Letter to the Elderly (#13), Saint John Paul II has these encouraging words: “When God permits us to suffer because of illness, loneliness or other reasons associated with old age, he always gives us the grace and strength to unite ourselves with greater love to the sacrifice of his Son…Let us be convinced of this: he is our Father, a Father rich in love and mercy!”
Life in Heaven is life at its greatest intensity and blessedness—a kind of blessedness we don’t find on Earth.
Heaven is the endless moment of love. Nothing separates us from God, Whom our souls have sought our whole life long. To see God face to face is one never-ending moment of love.
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