Back in the month of March, I passed a milestone in my life. The odometer rolled over to the Double Nickel – I am now 55. While I have up to now tried to ignore worldly concerns such as age, I have finally been forced to accept the fact that I am entering the second half of my life, and need to prepare accordingly. From what I’ve heard, things can get a little bumpy from this point on.
I take it on faith that advancing age must be a good thing. After all, the Bible tells us so. The same Holy Scriptures that tell us that children are a gift and a reward also tell us that the faithful will be BLESSED with long life – so living another 55 years must by rights be viewed as a blessing from God. The problem is, as any mother of 9 screaming little wonders can tell you, these things can be a MIXED blessing. I recently received a video of my mother at her skilled care home out in Arizona. A kind volunteer is belting out “Has Anybody Seen My Gal?” on the accordion, and my mom, with the assistance of an aide, is dancing to the music. I can see her lips moving to the words – the woman who can no longer remember my name still knows the words to that dumb song. My mind jumps ahead to my nursing home experience 30 years from now, as the kind accordion player belts out “Jumping Jack Flash” and “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting.” Will I dance along? Will I still know the words? Will I know anything else?
That’s the kind of thing that will keep you awake at night if you let it….
And that is exactly why I believe that old age is a blessing – because old age will speak the truth, and I need to hear the truth, even if it scares me. And the truth is that a large number of professing Christians who believe that they love God actually love the fringe benefits of being associated with God. Being a 21st-century American, I number myself among these confused souls. This state of delusion is dangerous to my spiritual health, and the sooner I can clear the fog from my brain, the better….
So, let’s try a little experiment. For six weeks, do without the comforts of life. I know, I know – Lent’s over! Okay, wait till after the Easter season, but then give this a try. For American Christians, doing without the comforts of life would begin with food (since gluttony is pretty much the only totally acceptable sin in Christian culture). For six weeks, don’t eat anything you actually like. Buy the brands you’ve never cared for. Eat slightly less than you’d like. Overcook what you do eat, or let it set before you eat it so it gets cold. Adjust the temperature in your home so that it is not warm enough or not cool enough, depending on the season. Remember, the point of the experiment is not to kill yourself – it’s to induce constant discomfort. Avoid the pastimes you enjoy. Put music you’ve really never liked on in the background and play it for the six-week period, over and over. Stay inside on Saturdays and scrub the walls. Stop using fabric softener. Set your alarm to awaken you in the middle of the night so that you can pray. Sleep on the floor. Wear clothes that make you look fat. Don’t use make-up. Don’t spend time with people you like. Spend all your free time (when you’re not scrubbing the walls) with people you usually avoid. Keep a pebble in your shoe. Drive to work only on roads which are currently under construction. Snack on Grape Nuts.
And after the six-week experiment, tell me how much you love God.
I think for most of us, one or two weeks of this stuff would be enough to cause us to “lose our religion,” as the saying goes. We are so comfortable, and so used to being comfortable, that we have somehow conflated our love of the good life and our gratitude for it with our love for the Almighty who is the Giver of all good things. Any constant source of irritation for any period of time is enough to cause us to snap (which is why most of us undertake such wimpy Lenten penances – we wouldn’t want to hurt anybody!) The only way for us to know if, and how much, we really love God is to lose these “perks”. If we were Christians in a country where persecution was to be expected, we wouldn’t labor under this delusion, but living in the States I think it just comes with the territory. Some of us are saved from this nonsense by chronic poor health, or by real financial misfortune or family tragedy, but for most of us – our “love of God” may be somewhat hypothetical.
Enter the phenomenon known as “old age.” This, in 21st-century America, is what finally separates the men from the boys, or in my case, the dowagers from the maids. I’ve observed that there’s nothing pretty about getting old. You start to ache, you tire more easily, your friends start dying, you acquire a string of diagnoses, you start bathroom-mapping, you can’t sleep, you become forgetful, you become superfluous, you become dependent, you become boring…. the fun never ends. So what’s our typical 21st-century American Christian response to all that? Let’s bail!! Anything that looks like it might hurt (or even be uncomfortable) can’t possibly be God’s will for my life! After all, I know God wants me to be happy!! And old age doesn’t look like it’s going to make me happy at all!
Poor vaunt of life indeed,
Were man but formed to feed
On joy, to solely seek and find and feast…
This is the fruit of having preached verses like “All things work together for good…” and “I know the plans I have for you…” all these years without asking folks to read the Biblical fine print. “God loves you” to us means that we’re going to get what we want. We are so afraid of suffering that for most of us the avoidance of suffering has become the main goal of our existence. Just like unbelievers, our hope, our REAL hope, is in our 401K, our facelift, our favorite TV programs, our eventual retirement, and in the continued existence of the Starbucks franchise. This obsession with “having nice things” bodes ill. We would do well to spend a little more time pondering the life of Christ. The difference between the conditions that He chose to live in and the conditions we live in is vast. I suspect He was trying to tell us something. If we are such modern-day wusses that we can’t even “do without” without becoming uncharitable, how do we ever propose to do what we have been commanded to do, to take up our cross and follow Him?
So again, the only way for us to know if, and how much, we really love God is to lose the “perks” that we believe come with His employ. Old age pretty much sets the stage for that, doesn’t it? Do we believe that we somehow don’t need to have this supposed “love of God” of ours tested? Do we believe that we’re doing just fine spiritually the way we are now? Have we swallowed the modern-day nonsense that “Jesus suffered, so I don’t have to?” Is the servant greater than his Master? Jesus had no place to lay His head – I have Sealy Posturepedic. Lucky me….
Not once beat “Praise be Thine!
I see the whole design,
I, who saw power, see now love perfect too:
Perfect I call Thy plan:
Thanks that I was a man!
Maker, remake, complete,—I trust what Thou shalt do!
But I want to be healthy and vigorous and sound of mind so that I can serve the Lord! The source of much of our objection to old age is that perversion of doctrine that insists that only certain activities are “God’s work.” As Catholics we believe that when we become God’s children through baptism, everything we do according to the will of God becomes God’s work, our rising and our lying down, our eating, drinking, reading, driving, changing diapers, because it is Christ in us who works to do the will of God. Buying into the nonsense that only Bible reading, church attendance, prayer and evangelization are “God’s work” necessarily leads us to question the actions of God when He allows an old lady to dodder on for 20 years after what we consider to be her expiration date, i.e., the moment she “outlives her usefulness to the Lord!” How profoundly unchristian! We are all called to do God’s work in this world, and His work is whatever lies before us in the place He has put us. This extends as well to our “work” of aging. If it is God’s will that I become feeble, then I am doing God’s work as I push my walker up to the altar at Mass and receive my Lord in Holy Communion. If it is God’s will that I lose my memory, then I am doing God’s work as I struggle hopefully to remember your name. If it is God’s will that I become incapacitated, then I am doing God’s work as I lie in bed receiving I.V. fluids – if I with a heart full of gratitude offer this up to His glory! Every circumstance for the Christian is a GIFT
from our loving Father, and infirmity is the real setting in which this gem is showcased. When we can accept our “crown of thorns” from Jesus’ hands, we will be on the way to understanding how much He loves us. Old age truly separates the believers from the wannabe’s – if all our comforts can be taken away from us, comforts like our sight, our hearing, our digestion, our sense of balance, our independence, our control of bodily functions – and we can still breathe out a determined “Blessed be the name of the Lord,” then, like Job, we are no longer spiritual dilettantes. We won’t love Him for what He has given us, because when it’s all been taken away from us, there will only be one thing left for us to love: Him.
So, take and use Thy work:
Amend what flaws may lurk,
What strain o’ the stuff, what warpings past the aim!
My times be in Thy hand!
Perfect the cup as planned!
Let age approve of youth, and death complete the same!
When I can embrace the circumstances of the last years of my life with the enthusiasm of childlike faith, I can claim to see the beginning of wisdom in my heart. God helping me, I will hear His loving voice whispering in my dark night:
Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made:
Our times are in His hand
Who saith “A whole I planned,
Youth shows but half; trust God: see all, nor be afraid!”
Old age? With the assurance that God will supply His grace commensurate to my necessity, I pray with confidence:
Bring it on, Lord! Bring it on!
On the memorial of St. Catherine of Siena
Deo omnis gloria!
Photo credits: Elderly people of the town in a social event by Enramada
Poetry excerpts from Robert Browning’s “Rabbi ben Ezra”