But when you grow old...
The Rectory, September 1997
The great screen goddess of the 40s and 50s Bette Davis, who had a reputation for straight talking, said of her own later years "old age aint no place for sissies!" She meant that getting older requires a certain sort of courage. Its not the place for those who give up easily or who expect life to be handed to you on a plate. Its no place for those who think that life is over just because they are discovering the limitations of their physical and mental capacities, or because everything seems to have changed and life is not what it used to be. Old age is not the end of life but a new stage of life that calls for new learning, new discoveries and new responses. As someone has written,
The title of this piece is from St Johns Gospel, chapter 21:18. They are the words of Jesus to Peter telling him that he will go on to glorify God not only through the activity of his mature years but through the circumstances and the constraints of old age and by the manner of his dying. For those who follow Jesus there is no retirement age. The way in which our lives, and our bodies, glorify God may change and our circumstances may alter but we remain called and beloved disciples to the end. Christian faith points us always beyond ourselves, beyond life itself, to a point never completely arrived at. With God you are never redundant, never a just a memory, never someone who belongs to a past age. With God life is always new. There are new challenges to be faced, new things to be learnt about life, about yourself and about God. There are new ways in which God is revealed, and so glorified, in and through you because you go on trying to love, to worship and be true to God. God is revealed in the honesty of faults acknowledged, in patience and steadfastness, in the joy and hope that endures to the end and in an unfailing longing for the Kingdom of justice and peace.
Old age brings lessons for living that ought not to be confined to those who are growing older. If old age brings with it the experience of limitations and constraints it can also bring the richness of letting go, of accepting that we are not always in control. Accepting that there are some things now that you cannot do can be, if at first painful, also liberating. Maybe these things do not matter quite as much as we thought. Maybe we are on a journey of discovery about what is really necessary and important in life. There are lessons about dependency. Dependency is not a bad word but the discovery that we belong together and cannot do without each other. We are not self-sufficient after all. This is also the experience of grace. Dignity too is seen to be less to do with outward appearances and self-protective pride and more to do with honesty and self-acceptance. Dignity is not undermined by having others do difficult things for you but by undue embarrassment. Hope now can realise its true end, not in our own plans or desires for the future but, in that which lies outside of ourselves, a hope that we do not fully understand but that the message of the gospel proclaims to us as the saving love and justice of God.
T S Eliot wrote:
Indeed, there are no redundancies in the spiritual life.