One of my personal heroes is John Paul II. Although he is lauded by many for his insight, spirituality, intelligence, kindness, ability as a writer and artist, and so many other things, my reasons for admiration are much more personal. He is my shining and tangible example of what it is like to age as a witness to the world who is filled with grace no matter what the toll of aging became for him. Like many I have witnessed those close to me age. I have seen the extremes: one who ages with bitterness and regret and only becomes sicker and sicker and those who age with no complaint and constant thoughts of what’s best for those around them, rather than self. And now, it’s me, I have arrived at that same gateway. Five years into retirement the task of coping with aging is “in my face” daily, no hourly! Every emotion and fear runs by you, terror, depression, denial, hope. In my mind I refer back to JPII a lot. He became so ill and did it so publically. When he couldn’t walk he rode when he couldn’t stand, he sat. He even had a “cool” moving platform made that was motorized so he could “walk” around inside the Basilica to impart his blessing to the crowds. Never say die, always serve! The most inspiring thing to me, though, was that he had at his disposal every ability to keep his infirmities hidden from the people. No one ever needed to see his progressive lack of mobility and increasing tremors, but he never chose to hide, not for one instant. He “knew” that the world needed to see aging “up close and personal” and that he could be an example and hope for so many as he continued his work of shepherding no matter what new obstacle showed up. His perspective on aging was very public and his wisdom about the experience was summed up in this quote: “Elderly people help us to see human affairs with greater wisdom...they are the guardians of our collective memory, and thus the privileged interpreters of that body of ideals and common values which support and guide life in society.”
Today, I heard from a much admired friend who is around my age. She is a well touted and respected professional woman. It surprised me a little when she expressed some ire at “aging”. She is in a profession where she has been lovingly dealing with aging people for years, so it was a “shocker” for me to hear her say that. It made me realize that we all go through the same “thought process” when we think about the fact that we are not twenty any more. I must say it gave me some encouragement. As I contemplated this, thought, I realized that if we look closely at the scriptures, God has left us a clear and unquestioned commentary on aging.
Where does “aging” show up in the scriptures? In the most critical situations, of course! Think about it. Moses aged as he led the Israelites and was at his eldest when he finally brought them to the Promised Land. Abraham and Sarah were well beyond child bearing years when they had Isaac. Abraham was 100 when Isaac was born and beyond elderly when he took the young man to be a sacrifice by God’s order. It was there that God promised him that he would be the “Father of many nations”. Elizabeth and Zechariah were also well beyond child bearing when they had John the Baptist. In an oddly similar scenario, at Jesus’ presentation in the Temple the two figures of Simeon and Anna enter the story. Simeon had been “waiting for death” and was clearly instructed by the Lord that he would not die until he had laid eyes on the savior. Anna had dedicated her life to service in the temple and scripture clearly tells us that she was eighty-four. Both of these “seniors” deliver a clear message to the young couple who were obediently bringing their new baby to the Temple. Both Anna and Simeon “happened by” the Temple at the moment Mary and Joseph are dedicating Jesus. She delivers the message that this is “the” child that everyone has been looking forward to and he delivers the message that blesses the young couple and words that fortify Mary for the tough times ahead. The scriptures even tell us that Mary “kept all these things in her heart”. One can’t help but wonder if these “wisdoms” from Simeon and Anna would have been received the same way if they were both young, beautiful people. To the contrary, both Simeon and Anna were people who had spent, literally, their whole lives waiting for this moment and to speak those words. After laying his eyes on Jesus Simeon replies with joy “now lettest your servant depart in peace.”
So what is it about age that changes the way that people perceive you? It is clear from John Paul’s perspective, as well as scripture, that aging provides a “view” that you just don’t have when you are younger. You have seen history and how it works or does not work. While you have been pursuing a life of faith you have real world experience about how life and faith collide and how one informs the other. “Hear this you elders; listen, all you inhabitants of the country, attend. Has anything like this ever happened in your day, or in your fathers’ days? Tell it to your sons; let your sons tell it to their sons, and their sons to a generation after them” (Joel 1:2-3 Jerusalem Bible). So the elderly hold a position of responsibility in society. They are the ones charged to “pass on” the collective wisdom and history. It is not supposed to be a position that centers on helplessness and illness. Even though these might accompany aging, the importance of the aged is far beyond that initial impression. John Paul II taught: "Physical condition or advancing of age are not obstacles to a perfect life. God does not look at external things but at the soul.” So, like many things in our “appearance focused” society we are to look beyond what we see and dig a little deeper whenever we encounter someone who is aging. There is great resource there, planted and ripened by God himself. We are all in the position of “aging”. If you have reached the place where you consistently fit the definition of “senior” be joyful. What job does the Lord have for you, that your whole life has been a prelude to? Even you might be surprised!
Copyright ©2010, Kathryn M. Cunningham, All Rights Reserved.
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Follow Kathryn’s thoughts on aging and other subjects at: www.atrvelersview.org
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