As Some Lights Dim, Others Brighten

I’m three score and ten, and hope that fact, plus a half century of seeking, equips me for answering the query: "How has being older had an impact on your spiritual life and how has your spiritual life, had an impact on how you deal with being older?" The question demands a very personal answer, but that’s all right. I’m among Friends.

The short answer is above, in the title. Unquestionably, some figurative lights have dimmed, physical and mental. But, just as surely, Light has increased for me. (I’m tempted to talk about rheostats or wiping dirt from lenses; instead, I’ll get out from under this metaphor before it collapses on top of me.) Whatever the length of my life will be, I’m far nearer its end than its beginning. In fact, given family history, I’m already on thin ice. Most male ancestors have dropped in their early ’70s, pole-axed by a coronary or by a massive stroke. Of course I’m being dosed with far better medicine than my forebears; my blood pressure and cholesterol are well in check. But I’ve been put back on a par with my kin by last year’s diagnosis: Parkinsonism. And what’s that? Well, mine’s an old brain, long out of warranty. One part of my original equipment has been slacking off in making dopamine. That’s a brain secretion to stimulate and control bodily movement. Dopamine loss first causes tremors, unsteadiness, and reduced motor skills. What follows is grimmer yet: spasms throughout the body, speech impairment, and reduced cognition. As one who’s lived his private and public life through communication, those last two points really haunt me.

After much close probing, a Johns Hopkins neurologist confirmed everything about our local man’s diagnosis, including his hesitancy to call the illness "Parkinson’s Disease." That’s because I’m showing some symptoms beyond those in the classic PD package (tremors, unbalance, stumblefootedness, etc.) The added symptoms (memory loss, for instance, and occasional confusion) make them both say that final diagnosis may fall elsewhere in the Parkinsonism family, a group that includes ALS, some kinds of dementia, and one chillingly named "Multiple System Failure." (The last one makes me want to grab a cockpit mike and shout, "Mayday! Mayday!") The droll Hopkins doc said they could pinpoint the disease at once with an autopsy, but that struck him as extreme. Rather, he said, we must wait and let the symptoms "mature," a word that, in context, somehow loses all its sunny meanings. So: I have some progressive, degenerative, and incurable disease. How does that affect my aging and my spiritual life? It becomes the focal point for both. I can’t presume good health ever again. Rather, what’s heading my way is steady decline, including a time when my mind may be too clouded to hold the world and myself in the Light. But I’m past thinking that a predator has pounced on my being, and also on my active ministry of many years. The ministry has included teaching, preaching in many denominations’ pulpits, writing on matters spiritual, and prison counseling. More recently, I’ve also been a traveling Friend, visiting our programmed Friends’ meetings and sharing in their rich spiritual lives.

That’s all mostly over now. But never mind. It’s obvious that my ministry is to be a different one, and I must now discern it. For just as life and capacities for service came to me from God’s hands, so has Parkinsonism. It is a gift, just as surely; a redirection that will lead me to different prayer, different service. It is a different path but still leads home. Not much study and reading now in my spiritual quest, which is reduced to what the earlier mystics call "prayer of simple attention." I can’t do extensive reading, and trying to piece together subtle ideas often eludes me. And so I sit quiet and attentive, sometimes bolstering my attention with psalm verses. My day’s first spoken words are, "Lord, open my lips; let my voice proclaim Thy praise." (That against the time when my voice will no longer work.) And randomly, during the day: "So I will bless Thee as long as I am. In Thy name I will lift up my hands." (That against the time when hands won’t answer my control.)

I am a Christian Quaker. With that said, I deeply believe that the infinite Reality in Whose presence I sit towers beyond every human thought and verbal formula. The Reality is literally inconceivable and unspeakable. It won’t fit in the dimensions of a human brain, even one in good working order. And so I sit in my inner darkness and quiet, listening. I guess my model for this is Mother Teresa. In an interview, Mike Wallace once asked her what she said to God when she prayed. "I don’t say anything," she answered. "I listen.""And what does God say to you?" asked Wallace. "Nothing," said the old nun. "He listens to me." Wordless communion, like the tiny, towering old woman’s. That’s what I aim for these days.
This article appeared originally in the March 2009 issue of Spark, published by New York Yearly Meeting, and is reprinted with permission.


Jim Atwell is a member of Butternuts Meeting in Oneonta, N.Y.