The latest U.S. census shows that the population of this country is aging. In fact, each one of us are older today then we were yesterday…and each of us is younger today then we will be tomorrow. For a Christian what does it mean to age well? If illness, loss and diminishment are inescapable parts of the human experience, how can we weave these things into the pattern of our lives? How can we be realistic about the facts of death and still be people of hope?
I believe that God is present in the experiences not only of joy, growth and becoming, but also in the experiences of loss, adversity, diminishment and death. Some persons are inwardly defeated by aging and adversity. Others respond in more positive ways. Instead of saying “why me?” they ask “why not me?” Mature religious faith does not guarantee happy outcomes or exemption from all the challenges of aging. The teaching of Jesus is that we are to take up pain, calamity, and injustice, admit them into the purpose of our lives, and make them contribute to higher ends—the ends for which we really live. Paul wrote, “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” Good aging manifests itself a spirit which rises above external circumstances, praying for the grace not simply to endure what must be endured, but for the grace to move through adversity to a deepening of spirit and the will to reach out to others in need.
In the Book of Psalms we read, “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom,” and, “This is the day the Lord has made let us rejoice and be glad in it.” Each day is a life in miniature. There are days in which we have heavy burdens to bear. There are “ordinary” days in which we have the usual duties to perform. There are “memorable” days. Each day is what it is—a day to be lived, a day for good aging. In his essay “Experience” Emerson expressed his belief that part of the art of aging well is living each day with integrity and with the will and intention to keep each day holy because today is all a pure gift from God.
Aging well as a Christian means knowing that, even in the midst of new limitations, there is the possibility of a quality of life well worth experiencing. Many of you know persons in their 80s and 90s who wake up in the morning anticipating what a new day may bring. They dignify their latter days by reaching out to other persons through notes and calls, taking part in volunteer work, engaging in learning opportunities. Norman Cousins said that death is not the greatest tragedy which can befall a person, rather, the tragedy is in what dies in a person while he or she is alive. Christianity offers a vision of life as ordained by God, inviting persons to a sense of sanctity in existence and reverence for life. Through all the chapters of life, human beings are linked with God. The fact that life has a time limit allows it to have a shape and character. Not until we realize that our life span is limited do we appreciate its worth.
Human life is a matter of aging, from beginning to end. Good aging is a quest for greater and deeper relationship with God in the midst of the natural cycles of life and death, growth and diminishment, love and loss, joy and grief. Good Christian aging is a matter of maturing in our understanding of the sanctity of existence and the continuing love of God at every stage of life’s journey.
– Fr. Barnabas