Spirituality and Old Age

The spiritual aspects of aging are wrapped up in the search that makes meaning out of life. There comes a time in later years when we have to say "enough" to what we have been doing. We cannot afford to try to hang on to the habits of an active life. If we still try to do things in the old way we will become angry or depressed. Like Prospero, at the end of The Tempest, we have to accept that the time has come to lay down tools and face the choice of either fighting our aging or of accepting it positively as a journey towards new light.

As Helen Luke, the Jungian analyst, wrote when she was in her 80s: "The moment of letting go, of daring to stand alone, stripped of power and prestige . . . is the moment when a man or woman becomes conscious of his absolute need of ‘the other’ both in this world and beyond."

We no longer consider three-score years and ten as the end of life; but as we enter our mid-70s we receive different messages from the body. For some people it is perhaps from the eyes, for others the ears, or it is that our feet no longer always come down quite where we intended. Our luggage gets heavier. We become conscious that we are less efficient or that short-term memory gets worse, or we may find ourselves fumbling as we try to pack up the groceries, or we may lose confidence in ourselves. We wish to avoid being a burden to others and, not wanting to come out with an "organ recital" of aches and pains, we may therefore be in danger of bottling things up.

"Bottling up" may include our deepest feelings. As Graham Keyes, an Anglican priest who is studying the spiritual aspects of aging, has written, "Growing into old age is often more of a battle than a smooth transition. For a variety of reasons, many older people wrestle on in isolating darkness, reluctant to tell others what they are going through. They sense they are far from ‘coming down where they ought to be.’ Only dimly do they make out the unpredictable and distinct face of a God who will hopefully bless."

It may also be a time when we find adapting to change difficult, especially if we move into a new environment where nothing is familiar. The loss of contact with our friends may be most destructive and cause us to live in the past ("I am who I was") rather than in the present, where new things await discovery.

As we age, moments go slower, months and years go fast, and the storehouse of memory is unlocked. Hidden things come back but memories may get mixed up and, although one remembers the event, the setting may not be quite as it was. We take off the hidden armor that has shielded the memory, and the revisiting of our sins, rejections, and blind-nesses makes the skin sore. Aging becomes a time for integrating our life, and we need to treat ourselves with compassion, for often those things for which we blame ourselves have been a cause of subsequent growth. We must be slow to judge the past from the viewpoint of today and need to accept that we are no longer the person we were. Often regret is misplaced, coming from imagining the past to be something other than it was, and we must not forget to celebrate the moments that brought us great happiness.

So old age can be a time of dropping burdens, sometimes burdens of belief, that for all our lives we have thought that we ought to carry. We may just be filled with doubt and cling to where we are; we may regress in the hope of rediscovering certainties, although that is unlikely to succeed; or it may be a time of clearness when we are open to new understanding and peace of mind.

If one loses touch with outsiders, advanced age may bring a sense of loneliness. One of the most important lessons we can learn is to turn loneliness into solitude and solitude into contemplation. Silence and solitude call us to discover what remains after the traditional supports have fallen away. Contemplative prayer is something we can still do when our other capabilities have gone. It can continue to be a source of strength.

Acquired contemplation is a practice of letting go that can be done for 15 or 20 minutes each morning and evening. One way to begin is to practice contemplative meditation. Choose a passage of Scripture or other inspirational words and use the mind to consider every aspect of the passage. With practice, the mind, having exhausted the train of thought, will become still. It is then a matter of staying in the stillness and being open to the possibility of hearing an inner voice.

There are also other aids that may help one to start on the way, such as focusing attention on breathing or on a candle, rubbing a stone between one’s fingers, or repeating a mantra. But nothing will guarantee coming into a state of being in the Spirit, the place where we find the pearl of great price.

When at first one attempts contemplation, fear may come of what may arise in the silent depths, and resistance or exhaustion may be shown by dropping off to sleep; so it is desirable, when one is learning contemplation, to have someone available to monitor the experience.

But it is a mistake to think that it always requires quietly sitting down. One may well find the contemplative state suddenly comes upon one. I recall a summer morning in 1985 walking in the garden at Woodbrooke, the Quaker college in England, when, for no apparent reason, I was filled with a feeling of incredible joy that stayed with me for 15 or 20 minutes. I wondered whether something fine had happened to a member of my family in Australia and whether in some way this was being communicated to me, but there turned out to be no reason for this gift. Infused contemplation, as this is called, is an altered form of consciousness that comes only by grace.

The onset of age may be frightening because it seems that our autonomy and independence are forsaking us against our will. We have no choice but to move from action to passivity, from being in control to being dependent, from taking initiative to having to wait, from living to dying. We may find that the "dark night journey" has come upon us with no apparent cause, sometimes without warning, but sometimes following bereavement or illness. As Friend Sandra Cronk has written in Dark Night Journey, the old ways in prayer no longer seem to work and there is a sense of absence and loneliness. We search for meaning but nothing works; our sense of security has gone. The Catholic mystics called this condition "the dark night of the soul." Those who suffer from the dark night are not people who have tended to ignore God in their lives, but those who have had a relationship with God and find their former understanding of God stripped away. They are shifting into a contemplative mode of knowing God. Although it is then helpful to be heard, attempts at rescue are not appropriate, for it is a matter of staying in the darkness and being found by God in it.

As we age, some of us may have to discard the spiritual baggage loaded onto us when we were young and which we have carried over the years, baggage such as teaching that real prayer requires a specific physical posture or set words. All that is needed is to come as you are before God, either dialoguing in your present situation or just being still.

Metropolitan Anthony tells the story of how when he was a young priest a woman came to him for advice on prayer. She said she had asked experienced clergy in vain and since he probably knew nothing he might by chance blunder out the answer. She had been using the Jesus prayer. He said since she was talking all the time she probably didn’t give God the chance to answer. He advised the woman to go to her room after breakfast each day and to take her knitting and knit before God, not saying a word. Later she came to him and said, "All of sudden I perceived that the silence was a presence. At the heart of the silence there was Him who is all stillness, all peace, all poise."

As we approach the end of life, we may have wisdom that calls out to be shared but find only the wind to hear it, or we may have matters that lie heavy on our hearts. Our need then is for a ministry of listening.

When a Friend is unable to attend meeting, it is important that the person who is incapacitated continues to know that she or he is part of a worshipping community. This can be covered by a small group coming to the residence to hold a meeting for worship. Perhaps the best number of visitors is three or four, not so many that they cannot be conveniently seated, and not so few as to inhibit the possibility of spoken ministry. The person visited, particularly if he or she has been practicing contemplation, may well provide ministry for the group; this is a two-way process.

Visitors and caregivers should also offer a ministry of listening one-to-one to the incapacitated person. Visitors can feel very alone, they may think God very distant, and have little sense that they are achieving anything for the one they are sitting with. Visitors and caregivers then need to be willing to be open and present for the other, to avoid haste in communication, and to seek for guidance in the words they speak. Help comes through them, not of them. (I always remember that the space around the bed is the only space over which the person who is bedridden has control; so I always ask permission to sit.)

The modern idea is that the one in need becomes the buyer of care and the professional is now a merchant of care, but there is no need for a professional qualification to give care in a spiritual context. However, there is need for preparation, prayer, and supervision. By going into each encounter with the assumption that there are three parties present, the third being the spirit of God, the caregiver can, as the Catholic theologian Thomas Hart wrote in his book The Art of Christian Listening, "properly regard him or herself as making God present to the other person, in God’s concern, compassion, acceptance, and support."

The caregiver does not always solve a problem or take away pain, does not persuade, judge, or take responsibility for the other person’s life, but reflects back what one hears and helps the person to find the approach that best suits her or him. Douglas Steere wrote, "To ‘listen’ another’s soul into a condition of disclosure and discovery may be the greatest service that any human being performs for another." But as caregivers, in our giving we also are the gainers.

A quotation from Fulton Oursler is particularly applicable to those who offer care:

I look back and realize how many people gave me help, understanding, courage, and they never knew it. They entered my life and became powers within me. All of us live spiritually by what others have given us, often unwittingly. We all owe to others much of the gentleness and wisdom that we have made our own and may well ask, "What will others owe to us?"

Edward Hoare

Edward Hoare is a member of Mid-Somerset Monthly Meeting in England. He is co-leader of a Quaker group now compiling a handbook entitled Spirituality in Later Life: Towards a Listening Ministry.