If today we do not have a strong spirituality of aging, if we idealize youth more than old age, if we do not age gracefully, I wonder how much we have lost?
Time is no longer filled with presence and possibility, but has become merely a place for problem-solving, critique, and a necessary self-assertion. I have a tile on my hearth that says “No wise man ever wished to be younger.” (No wise woman either!) That is what you know by the second half of life and what you cannot know in any other way—although it’s possible to get to the second half of life and still not know it, as cosmetic surgeons can tell us.
It all depends on whether you actually “experience your experiences” and allow them to expand you. This is what I call natural contemplation or true presence. Without it, we just become elderly but do not become elders.
Maybe that is our problem. In Albuquerque where I serve, we have named our men’s ministry M.A.L.Es, which is an acronym for “men as learners and elders.” We saw that there were two things that most men are not naturally drawn toward: ongoing spiritual growth and their needed vocation as elders in family and society. Borrowing the phrase from Erik Erikson, we hope to create “generative” men who can actively care about the next generation.
For more than 14 years, I was a jail chaplain in Albuquerque. During that time I met many men and women who had been ravaged by life and had closed down, but I also met some who were actually wise elders (yes, even in jail!). I remember one older Latino man who served as a father figure for many of the younger men on his cell block, most of whom had huge father wounds. He told me that he has practiced different virtues during various periods of his life. For six months to a year at a time, he would focus on one, such as patience, mercy, positive thinking, or hopeful conversation. I recognized the “old” spirituality in the Christian tradition of “the cardinal virtues.”
I never asked any of the incarcerated men what they were in for, but I often wondered if God was not using this particular man for the good of these many young men in jail. He seemed to see it that way himself. Somehow he was “supposed” to be there, and he actually rearranged our “society without fathers” inside the walls into one that was—at least temporarily—coherent and hopeful. It often seemed better than the world outside, where we do not even realize that we have a problem. He restored eldership and earned respect naturally, and the young men were, in part at least, healed.
How did we lose such awareness? At least one reason is theological. Most of pre-Christian myth and history saw the past as “golden,” the present as decadent, and the future in certain and utter decline. Then, presumably, it would start all over again. History was largely circular and fatalistic, and people invariably looked backward to the good old days.
Most believers do not realize how this utterly changed after the Judeo-Christian revelation. Henceforward, we tended to see the past as the place of the “fall,” the present as pregnant with Presence, and the future, therefore, as exodus, possibility, and resurrection. This changed history and the psyche more than we can easily realize. It produced cultures of progress, hope, renaissance, reformation, and intellectual curiosity. It also contributed to the scientific and industrial revolutions that emerged in the Christian West. To be fair, it also produced domination, arrogance, and empire. But still, we had a future to hope in, things could always be renewed, and therefore even aging was an adventure.
My point, of course, is that most believers have become extremely “pagan” and often quite regressive in their worldview. Sin and sickness become a guilt-ridden dead end, instead of a necessary transitioning. We are no longer in touch with the inherently self-renewing and patient nature of time and aging. Thus we are swimming against the spiritual tide of life—where the now is always full and free, and where time itself renews all things. This could almost be the description of authentic spirituality that took the form of the “paschal mystery” inside of Christianity.
More than anything else, the biblical images of heaven and hell were images about the cumulative and educative nature of time, the full significance of time, and the wonderful importance of living in time as continuance—both now and forever. The incarnation rearranged the universe from its primary concern with sacred place to sacred time. We moved from circular history to linear history that had no limits—and the idea of eternity and eternal life was born in the soul. Everything was now available to resurrection, even our bodies and even our death. Theology also became a total cosmology, a “new heaven and a new earth” (Revelation 21:1) instead of just a heavenly prize for winners later. We even professed creedal belief in “the resurrection of the body,” although it has not tended to take hold among most Christians.
Once the Word had become flesh (John 1:14), the entire material world, birthing and dying in time, was the privileged place for divine revelation. Our only concern was to learn how to be present to it in this stretched out, but limited, time frame called our life. Henceforward, as Paula D’Arcy says, “God comes to us disguised as our life.” Salvation had come out of the world of heavenly transactions into here, now, this, body, us, world, and even me! That is indeed good news.
But instead, in Christianity heaven and hell became carrot-at-the-end-of-a-stick metaphors for reward and punishment. They became threats and promises for later, largely disconnected from any meaningful Presence now, and thus anesthetized the inherently transformative power of the gospel. We settled for moral mandates instead of mystical awareness. Reductionism at its worst.
Most of the world’s religions have become “belonging systems” and moral systems, but we lost the very transformative and revelatory gift of time and grace itself. Probably they are the same thing. Time is grace—always. Despite Paul’s strong warnings to Christians, most moral systems became prisons and obstacle courses, instead of entranceways (Galatians 2-3) and necessary stumbling stones (Romans 7).
SOMETIME, WE ALL NEED to ask, “Is my life passing by without me?” Am I so caught up in my life dramas and daily situations, that I miss the Big Life, the One Life, the Shared Life that is floating and immense underneath it all? Once we contact The Life, which is consciousness itself, Being itself, God, then we are not so afraid of aging. In fact, old age almost seems like a misnomer. Then we have tapped into the Stream that only grows deeper, stronger, and ever more “living” (John 4:10) because it is infinite. It is indeed a spring that wells up into eternal time (4:14). This is the true fountain of youth, and is healthy religion’s perennial and best-selling product.
One largely cannot access this eternal time, these kairos moments that reshape all of our chronologies, unless you find a stable Life to abide in—that looks back at your small life as it passes away in time—with new and spacious eyes of compassion and without negativity or fear. I would call this new abiding place the “Indwelling Spirit” (1 Corinthians 3:16-17); some would call it the Witness (Romans 8:16), or the Knower and Reminder (John 14), or merely Objective Love. No surprise that many have spoken of the Holy Spirit as the still-lost person of the Blessed Trinity. The Holy Spirit is far too close to home to recognize as God, for some reason. When you discover that the two lives are really one and the same Life, you are home free!
Strangely, many non-Christians seem to recognize this gift more than those in the household of faith. In his book Time and the Soul, Jacob Needleman says it well: “There is a face within us, a source of attention and consciousness, that is eternal. It is a literal fact. A material fact. To treat it as a metaphor for something we readily understand is to commit spiritual suicide. ... If we are not astonished by the idea of this kind of remembering, then we have not begun to understand it.” I wonder if such acceptance and astonishment is not the very heart of what we mean by faith? It often feels like an inner remembering of something we once dared to believe, and still want to believe, but have also deeply forgotten.
There is an “Inner Rememberer,” thank God, who holds together all the disparate and fragmented parts of our lives, who fills in all the gaps, who owns all the mistakes, forgives all the failures—and loves them into life. This is the job description of the Holy Spirit. S/he is the spring that wells up into eternal time. This is the breath that warms and renews everything (John 20:22). These are the eyes that see beyond the momentary shadow and disguise of things (John 9); these are the tears that wash and cleanse the past (Matthew 5:4). And better, they are not just our tears but actually the very presence and consolation of God within us (2 Corinthians 1:3-5).
You must contact this Immensity! You must look back at what seems like your life from the place of this Immensity. You must know that this Immensity is already in place within you. The only thing separating you from such Immensity is your unwillingness to trust such an utterly unmerited gift. It is always a humiliation to the ego to know that we cannot earn it, achieve it, or get there in any way ourselves. As Eckhart Tolle so wisely says, repeating in modern form the wisdom of Eastern Orthodox spirituality, “You cannot get there, you can only be there.”
So my approach is not psychological or moral as such, although the psyche and the moral life will draw great strength from it. My approach is about as traditional, perennial, essentialist, objective, and theological as you can get. It is so old-fashioned that it has largely been forgotten by recent Western churches, both conservative and liberal, Catholic and Protestant. These are the absolutely essential and central things we have no time for, when we waste time arguing about non-gospel issues, as we so often do today.
But there is no liberal or conservative way to grow old. There is no Catholic or Protestant way to grow old. There is no Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or Jewish way to grow old. All of us have to throw out the same dragnet in the later years of our lives and draw in things both old and new, both good and bad, both familiar and foreign, leaving all final judgment to the angels (Matthew 13:47-52). Yet we cannot even throw out this dragnet by ourselves. It is done for us, with us, through us, in us, and usually in spite of our best attempts to avoid it. All we can do is the allowing. Then we find plenty of space for what before we had to eliminate, deny, reject, hate, or project elsewhere. Then there is no old age at all, but only “constantly renewed immediacy” that feels much better than youth ever did.
Such a life already holds the whole and is a fountain of youth that Christians would call eternal life. But even better, it begins now, for “it is even in this world that we become what he is” (1 John 4:17). Then there is nothing to regret, reject, fear, or deny. All is re-membered, re-gathered, and re-loved. Such elders are already home and forever young. So strange, however, that you have to be old to be young.
Richard Rohr, OFM, founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation (www.cacaradicalgrace.org) in Albuquerque, New Mexico, was a Sojourners contributing editor when this article appeared.