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A Season for Everything

Old age is often feared and despised rather than honoured in Western culture.

Sixty might be the new 40 for those with good genes, energy and money, but we can’t forever stave off the process of ageing - whether it is the diminishment of our health, our memory or our energy.

In a society where you are defined by your job, your looks, your status or your money, it can be difficult to hold on to your sense of self worth and self esteem when these seem to be dwindling.

Hopefully as Christians we have a different perspective.

If not God can often use the ageing process to teach us valuable spiritual lessons.

Old age then becomes part of God’s process of preparing us to leave this world and to be ready for the next rather than something to run away from or fear.

Part of this preparation is simply that life here often becomes less agreeable.

If you are in constant pain or bedridden, if most of your friends have died, if you can’t eat the food you like, and your hearing or eyesight has gone and you can’t do the things you have always enjoyed doing, the desire to stay becomes less strong and heaven becomes more appealing.

He witnessed that death was something to embrace without fear

In Goodnews last year, we had a wonderful article from Pat Brown about journeying with her husband in the last year of his life, as his health got worse and worse, and she wrote about the many graces they experienced together during this difficult time.

More recently I spoke to another friend, Frances, whose husband Bernard died recently.

Frances was full of joy about the last three months of his life and the beautiful way her husband had died.

Surrounded by his children and grandchildren, he had witnessed to them that death was something to embrace without fear.

In the way he died, he reaped the reward for a lifetime of service to his family and others.

We can be sure that it will be the same for all those who have served the Lord. They will not be abandoned at the end either.

Jesus himself promises us this when he says, “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.”(John 14:3)

Before we get to that final moment of death, however, the ageing process helps to remind us that this world is not our permanent home and it helps prepare us for the new life awaiting us.

It also helps us to grow in humility and poverty.

Our society encourages us to be self-sufficient. When you get old, however strong you might have once been, you start to need others more.

This can make one feel vulnerable but it is also an opportunity to grow in dependence on God and for charity to be stirred in others and for community to grow.

To be dependent on others can be hard as it can make one feel worthless or a burden.

Yet this is all part of God’s providence too, as God is not only working in our lives, but using our situation to work in the lives of those around us and bringing His Kingdom.

He is teaching us that whether we are receiving or giving, everything is God’s grace, and we shouldn’t feel superior if we give and inferior if we receive!

Where once you were at the hub... now you are on the periphery

Those who have been powerful or influential can find it particularly difficult to cope with old age and the changes that this can bring.

Where once you were the hub around which everything and everyone revolved, now you are on the periphery.

It doesn’t matter if you have been a busy mother or the MD of a multi-national, old age, often sees a move away from the centre of power which can be difficult to cope with.

The challenge is accepting this and not trying to maintain your position, which is no longer appropriate.

Grandparents often have to learn this when they see things going on in the homes of their children that they would never have allowed or permitted.

There is a big difference between the old granny who makes her family’s life a misery because of her views and demands, and insists on things being her way, the “right way” compared to the older person, to whom everyone naturally turns for compassion and sympathy because of her life experience and wisdom.

Why is it that we are attracted to some old people and not to others?

I realise it is often because they are always so interested in you and want to know what you have been doing, rather than insisting on telling you a catalogue of their doings – often at this stage a list of hospital appointments or aches and pains!

We all like being listened to, as it makes us feel loved and affirmed but whereas in charity we might listen to the woes of an elderly person, it’s the one who listens and who is interested in us to whom we are naturally attracted.

Be part of the appreciative audience in someone else’s life

When I give talks I often tell what I hope are insightful or entertaining stories which are usually well received.

I realise in this lies a danger for me, however, as I can seek to transfer this privileged position to my private life too.

I can presume that those around me will be equally interested in what I have to say, rather than me wanting to know more about what they have been up to.

Instead of insisting on remaining centre stage how much better to be part of the appreciative audience in someone else’s life, rejoicing in their achievements rather than keeping them abreast of my own.

Yet I know I often feel the need to entertain, rather than listen, to impress rather than be impressed.

The good news is that if we don’t voluntarily learn to take a back seat, God ensures that biology helps us to embrace this whether we like it or not.

Yet old age because of life experience brings wisdom that can be very useful for others.

Wisdom takes a lifetime to acquire and it is interesting that when one looks in the bible, how often characters didn’t begin their major work for God, until they were quite old, and seasoned in the ways of the Lord.

One only has to think about Moses, who had to spend 40 years at Pharoah’s court followed by 40 years as a herdsman in the wilderness of Midian, before he was ready to lead the people of Israel out of Eygpt to the Promised Land.

Sometimes we can dismiss old people and not think about asking their opinion, but I know I have been amazed at times at the wisdom of my 84 year old mother, when I think to ask her advice.

God had other plans

One of the most difficult things to cope with as an older person is losing one’s health and energy.

But there can be a blessing too in this.

I remember Fr Tom Kenny, from Wakefield, who died in May this year.

He was a very dynamic and active parish priest with a passion for evangelisation.

When he retired from parish work, his intention was to spend the rest of his life developing and promoting evangelisation, particularly the Alpha course.

However, God had other plans, and instead of being on the road evangelising, he spent the last ten years of his life in and out of hospital, struggling with ill health following a knee operation that went wrong.

I wondered how he would cope.

But he took it like the warrior he was and instead of turning in on himself and becoming frustrated and resentful he became mellow and gentle even mastering his famous temper!

He died a happy man, still serving the Lord, even if this meant celebrating Mass in his bedroom for a few people rather than preaching in front of thousands.

In old age when we are stripped of our positions and status, it is often then that our true wisdom and character is revealed.

One of the most encouraging people I have ever met is Dom Benedict Heron OSB, who is now in his 90s and lives in a care home in North London.

Once very active, he was like a bee buzzing around, finding delight everywhere.

His achievements have been many.

He has written best selling books, worked for ecumenism and been one of the great pioneers of the Charismatic Renewal in this country.

Because of his limited health these days, however, he doesn’t go anywhere much now.

But it is not his achievements that still draw people to seek him out and visit him, but the love and encouragement that he has sown over the years.

Despite his infirmity, he radiates joy and enthusiasm and continues to minister from his sick bed, still praying for healing and encouraging others.

I did not know how to live without all my achievements

I remember some years ago being very struck by a sharing by Dominique Ferry, who had had a very successful career in business before he joined the Chemin Neuf Community where he ended up with an equally high profile.

He told us about a powerful image he received about himself whilst on a retreat.

In his mind’s eye he saw himself confidently arriving at the border of the Kingdom of God, driving a huge container lorry filled with all his considerable achievements.

To his horror it was explained that he couldn’t bring the truck in with him.

He had to just walk in himself.

He was terrified and realised that “Every single grace that I had received from the Lord, I had stolen some of the glory to build up my own ego. Every gift of God to me had become an occasion of sin and pride. I realised I could not enter the Kingdom of God with it all, yet I did not know how to live without all my achievements. I was frightened to be vulnerable.”

Over the years I have come to realise that all my projects and the work that God has asked me to undertake, however laudable, are actually there for my personal spiritual growth rather than as things to “succeed” in or achieve.

God is more interested in whether I have grown in love and faith than how many people showed up for a talk or enjoyed an article I wrote.

And ageing for all its pains, if it is properly embraced is one of the natural and most speedy ways for God to complete our spiritual growth.

This is to make us ready for heaven, where we certainly won’t be the centre but will be worshipping Him for eternity.


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