The Words of Spirituality
by ENZO BIANCHI
If we find ourselves able to say 'thank you' for the past and 'yes' to the future, we have performed a spiritual operation that is an essential
"I can identify four reasons why old age seems bleak: first, it makes activity difficult; second, it weakens the body; third, it denies us almost every form of pleasure; fourth, it is not very far from death." To this opinion of Cicero (De senectute), we can add another reason why old age is difficult today. The technological age has rendered obsolete the adage that linked old age with wisdom, and that saw the older adult as the guardian of a memory and an experience that made him or her a fundamental member of the social group. The 'wisdom of old age' appears to have become a relic belonging to the distant past, or else to a past that, in cultures not yet touched by computer technology, is still present - but these cultures often seem more remote to us than our own distant past. In the context of a society that exalts productivity, efficiency, and utility, older adults find themselves marginalized and made superfluous and useless, and they themselves often feel that they are a burden to their family members and society. In such a social context, old age becomes a difficult transition from a condition in which one is defined by one's work or social role to a sort of dead zone of pure negativity, 'retirement,' a limbo in which one is defined by who one no longer is and what one no longer does.
Any discussion on the subject of old age is in reality a plural discussion that needs to take into account each person’s experience and his or her condition of physical and mental health; still, old age is always a time when life can be lived fully. It is a distinctive phase of an existential journey, and not merely death's waiting room. "Old age offers itself to men and women as an extraordinary possibility to see life not as a duty, but as grace" (K. Barth). Not everyone is given the chance to experience this stage of life - Jesus himself did not experience old age. One's later years are therefore a gift that can be accepted in freedom and with gratitude. As we grow older we become more attentive to others, we see relationships as increasingly important, and we appreciate each gesture of attention and friendship. Old age is also our great opportunity to look back over our life and find in it a meaning that unifies all that we have experienced. If we find ourselves able to say 'thank you' for the past and 'yes' to the future, we have performed a spiritual operation that is an essential step in preparing ourselves for our meeting with death: the integration of our life, reconciliation with our past. Old age is a time for anamnesis, remembering, and also for storytelling. We feel the need to tell others about our life, so that, when our stories are welcomed and respected by those who listen to us, we can reaffirm our life’s worth. By telling our own story, we can also communicate to others an experience of faith.
Psalm 71, the 'prayer of an old person,' is a moving example of such a personal account of faith in old age. Despite the physical and mental deterioration that are part of the process of aging, the loss of strength, and the fact that we have fewer possibilities, we also find that we have the possibility to face in a more direct way the questions life places before us, without the evasions and illusions our many activities may have allowed us to entertain when we were younger. What is my worth? What meaning does life have? Why should I die? What is the meaning of the suffering and losses life is filled with? We can also address the religious question, the question of faith, with greater awareness and in greater depth. "When he was younger, the individual could still imagine that he was the one who went to meet his Lord. Old age should become his opportunity to discover that it is the Lord who comes to meet him and take in hand his destiny" (K. Barth). Every phase of life has its proprium, its own specific character. Accepting old age fully will allow us to experience these years not as a time of regret or nostalgia, but as an opportunity to interiorize what we have lived and to return to what is essential. This is part of the process of making peace with what we have lost that makes old age resemble a movement of kénosis or self-emptying. "What youth finds outside of itself, those who have reached the midpoint of life must find in their interiority" (C.G. Jung).
Here the fruitfulness that is possible in old age is revealed (cf. Psalm 92:15, "They still bring forth fruit in old age, they are ever full of sap and green"), a fruitfulness that manifests itself in affection and gentleness, graciousness and serenity. Our later years are a time in which we can find our worth in who we are and not in what we do. Clearly, this does not depend on us alone; it depends to a great extent on those who are close to us, and it also depends on society, which can accompany us in our task of experiencing our later years as a fulfillment, and not as an interruption or an end. Old age is a moment of truth that reveals that life is made up of losses and built on our acceptance of our limitations and poverty, our weakness and what is negative in us. By placing us in a situation of extreme poverty, old age makes us capable of perceiving the truth of who we are, that truth which goes beyond every exterior frill. Perhaps it is not by chance that for Luke, the Gospel opens with two elderly figures, Simeon and Anna, who recognize and point to Jesus as the Messiah. Older adults indicate a direction to follow and communicate their wisdom. With their peaceful acceptance of their age, before God and others, they are a sign of hope and an example of responsibility.