Christian Aging

(Adapted from a talk given by Father Daniel Callam, C.S.B., to the seniors’ group at Holy Rosary Parish, Toronto, on 20 June 2018)

 Introduction

Our Lord commanded us “to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect.”[1] That’s a tall order; and yet we find it echoed in other parts of the New Testament. Saint Peter expresses it thus: “We have become partakers of the divine nature,”[2] surely an equally surprising description of us ordinary Christians! Similarly, Saint Paul tells us that we have become are co-heirs with Christ because, like him we can call God “Abba, Father.”[3] And the result is—Saint Paul again—that we are to “lead a life worthy of the Gospel of Christ.”[4] These challenging texts raise two questions. First, what in the concrete would this perfect life look like? And then we must ask how it can possible be attained by poor old sinners such as ourselves.

When we consult the Bible about the first of these—the nature of perfection—we find a daunting series of texts, such as “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor . . . ; and come, follow me.”[5] The absolute quality of this and other such texts makes the second of our questions all the more vivid. How can I, how can anyone be expected to put them into practice? My response will perhaps be surprising—I hope so—in that I claim that even the most outrageous of these requirements turn out to be ordinary, in the sense that they are honoured and achieved in one way or another in everyday life. Then, in second part of this response, I shall demonstrate that the perfection they describe is exhibited, willy-nilly, in those of us who euphemistically are called senior citizens or, to be blunt, are “old.” Let us then examine these challenging texts from a double point of view, viz., how they apply to everyone and then how they are unavoidably realized in the aged.

Handling Possessions

Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. (Matthew 6.2-3)

When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your kinsmen or rich neighbours, lest they also invite you in return, and you be repaid. (Luke 14.1)                                                                                              

 

In General:

Our Lord, in these statements, is indulging his taste for hyperbole; we know that he likes to exaggerate a point to drive it home. But we should note that we find here an instance in which the behaviour of Our Lord was different from his command. I don’t mean the almsgiving, for that was done quietly; but he did dine with Martha and Mary, and we know that he ate the Last Supper in the company of his disciples whom he honoured by calling them his friends. It’s a question of motive: Is your meal an act of affection or are you counting on a return invitation from your guests? Thus, both of the texts are about the reward that a virtuous deed can receive. One type of reward comes to the ostentatious giver, who acts so as to be recognized as generous or perhaps to advance his image. Well, almsgiving, like hosting a banquet, is in itself a good action, and as such it receives a reward: the person receives public acknowledgement, and that’s that. The truly charitable person acts independently of attention and generally seeks to avoid it altogether or to downplay it, should it come to him. The apparently contradictory command of Jesus, “Let your light shine before men,” is similar in its import, viz., that our behaviour should always be virtuous—we must be scrupulous always to do the right thing—and let others react as they wish, whether with derision or appreciation.

In the Aged

As old people, we have a twofold advantage in this regard. First, for the most part we don’t have much to give in the way of alms. Nevertheless, the little we can do is still important in God’s eyes: the widow’s mite was more honoured by Jesus that the large donations being put in the temple treasury. And secondly, no one pays much attention to old people, so that our generosity, even should it be on a large scale, is not newsworthy. You could donate a million dollars to some worthy cause without exciting a single tweet or blog. And, by and large, our hosting days are over. It’s too much work to mount a big meal. We are thus called upon to achieve our perfection, paradoxically, by being banquet guests who cannot repay the compliment, and thus, you see, we contribute to the virtue and so to the heavenly reward of our hosts.

If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.

Matthew 19.21

In General

Despite the draconian sound of this statement, we find it regularly realized in various ways. I’m thinking of parents who sacrifice all sorts of things—holidays, travel, a large house, and so on—to provide for their children. We’re continually told how expensive it is to raise children; most parents would say, “Good! I wish it were more.” Once, on a trans-Atlantic flight I sat beside a man who became more and more confiding as the number of drinks he had consumed mounted. Towards the end of the trip he showed me a picture of his young son, a boy of five or six. “I would die for him,” he said; “I would never have believed that so much love could be possible.” That’s one way in this strong statement has been and continues to be put into effect. Think, too, of The Society of Saint Vincent de Paul or Out of the Cold, where we give to the poor something more valuable than money, viz., time and effort. And there’s always that example of Saint Francis of Assisi, if we want a literal fulfilment of the command.

In the Aged

As we grow older, possessions mean less and less to us. Sometimes we are required to sacrifice them by moving into smaller quarters, for instance. But there are other ways in which an indifference to the things we own can show itself as we draw near to the end of our lives. I recall an incident when my brother and his wife were visiting my mother when she was almost as old as I am now. My sister-in-law admired a cut-glass pitcher that my mother was very fond of. “Take it,” she said. “You may as well have it now as later.” But we must remember the final phrase of the text: “Come, follow me.” An increased detachment from material possessions must lead us to be more concerned with the spiritual goods that come to the faithful followers of Christ.

It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “With men it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God.” (Matthew 19.24-26)

In General

More hyperbole! The context of this statement is a conviction, prominent in the Old Testament, that prosperity would inevitably come to anyone who had been faithful to the demands of the law. That’s why the disciples were astonished at what Jesus said, for to be rich was considered evidence of God’s favour. Our Lord’s point is different, in that material prosperity is dangerous, for money can be intoxicating. It represents power, prestige, luxury, independence, all of which are in stark contrast to the characteristics of the Gospel ideal of Jesus, who was meek and humble of heart, who had nowhere to lay his head, and who was completely dependent on his Father. Our Lord is saying that only a miracle of grace can allow the rich to put aside the accoutrements of wealth. It may be possible for him thus to be saved, but salvation comes much more easily to the poor, identified in Scripture as the anawim, the poor of the Lord, especially widows and orphans. And what makes their case special, paradigmatic for all Christians? It is this: that they have learned to depend only on God as, in the Jewish society of the time of Our Lord, to be without membership in a family, as were widows and orphans, was to be without means of support.

In the Aged

When one grows old, riches mean less and less, for there are fewer things that one can enjoy. Food becomes insipid, travel is hard work, entertaining or being entertained often the tedious rather than exhilarating.

When thou art old and rich,

Thou hast neither heat, affection, limb, nor beauty,

To make thy riches pleasant.[6]

Furthermore, most of us old people do not have great wealth; we do not have to spend our time searching for a very small camel and a very large needle! But the peculiar form of poverty we know in our old age must bear fruit in a realization that God alone, as we encounter him in prayer and sacrament, can compensate for the distracting pleasures that we have had, perforce, to surrender.

Summary

The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully; and he thought to himself, “What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?” And he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones; and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry”’ But God said to him, “Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” (Luke 12.16-21)

In General

Everyone dies, but most people put the thought aside. But after death comes judgement, and that is something to fear: “But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has power to cast into hell; yes, I tell you, fear him!”[7] Similarly in the Letter of James we read, “For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy.”[8]

In the Aged

It is, or should be, daily in our thoughts. Mozart, who died at the age of thirty-five, once wrote to his father, “I never go to bed without thinking that perhaps I shall not rise from it in the morning.” “Therefore, you also must be ready; for the Son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect.”[9]

Health and Well-being

And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire. (Matthew 18.8-9)

In General

Here’s an easy one, for you all know that there are situations in which you would willingly chop off a hand or pluck out an eye. I’m thinking of an illness—diabetes say—in which people gladly sacrifice a limb in order to survive. What Jesus is telling us is that we must be a serious about our moral health as we are about our physical.

 In the Aged

Not infrequently, our declining health makes the literal fulfilment of this passage inevitable. What is required, then, is to profit from our reduced capabilities spiritually, by accepting without rancour the limitations that are a necessary part of growing old. We should learn to become more and more men and women of prayer, which becomes easier for us from the very weaknesses of our situation: time flies by so that an hour of quiet prayer, of musing in a religious way, passes by in what seems not much longer than a few minutes. As Catholics, we also have the consolation of what used to be called “offering up” our sufferings. That phrase calls attention to our conviction that suffering, patiently borne and joined to that of Christ, has its role to play in the salvation of the world.

If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. (Luke 9.23)

In General

Each life has its difficulties. A Christian sees them as a call to heroism, for that is what we are made for. Physical martyrdom is unlikely in Canada—at present—but there are many other situations in which we are called to be faithful in distressing circumstances. What I am referring to is a trust in divine providence, viz., that God’s will for us is found in the particular situations in which I find myself.

In the Aged

The physical and mental disabilities of old age bring us, whether we want it or not, into contact with suffering. And, aside from physical ailments, think of how many old people are lonely, even abandoned. And religion itself can become distasteful, seemingly little more than a dream. These sources of anguish can more or less easily be put aside by the young, but they are unavoidable and totally daunting in the old. Saint Augustine noted that someone on his sick bed, without the strength to lift a finger, can be warring spiritual warfare of an intense nature. And that is what we are called upon to do, and can do if we draw upon the power that comes to us from the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Or, to quote Cardinal Newman, “Give me old saints,” i.e., men and women who have been faithful to the Gospel in the long haul.

Relationships

If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14.26)

In General

More hyperbole! We know that Jesus elsewhere instructed the people to honour parents and to value friendship. But I must “hate my own life” if it stands between me and the love of God. For there are situations in which family ties must be put in second place. When a child grows up, his relationship with his parents must alter and alter radically, for there is nothing more pitiful than to see an adult still “tied to his mother’s apron strings.” The parents, too, desire the radical change in relationship that necessarily occurs when someone gets married, for instance, or embarks on a demanding career—in the military during wartime, to take an extreme instance.

 In the Aged

Which one of us has not lost familial ties because of the death of our parents, family members, friends? The acceptance of this rupture is more than an acceptance, with a shrug of the shoulders, much less a turning away from God for what seems his cruelty. What we learn is that the good things that have come to us through the love of others is a reminder the God is the ultimate source of such a good.

If any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. (Matthew 5.39-41)

Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go. (John 21:18)

 

In General

This text is all the more interesting, in that when, at his trial, Jesus was struck in the face he rebuked the solider who did it. Here, however, our attention is called to the fact that violence creates violence, whereas kindness can deflate it. Think of how many family quarrels would end if one or other of the participants would surrender something, a legal right, say, or a bit of property. Many things are more important than our own sense of entitlement. Besides, it may be that you deserve a blow or to surrender a coat, to go beyond the limits of what is strictly or legally required of us. One of the seminarians I knew as a student was liked by everyone. I wondered why, as he was not particularly clever or athletic. Examining his behaviour, I noticed that he had a way of putting this text into practice. For, whenever anyone asked him for something, instead of saying—as I did—“Well, what is it?”, he immediately replied “Yes, certainly. What can I do for you?”

In the Aged

It is all too likely that we shall be submitted to indignities as we become more and more dependent on the good will of others. Sometimes what seems to be harsh treatment we receive will be cruel, but at other times, although we may not want to acknowledge the fact, it may be for our own good. The loss of control of ourselves—physically, emotionally, even spiritually—is a great hardship of growing old, but if we can embrace such limitations, we may find ourselves fulfilling this very command of Jesus. What we could never have accomplished on our own, he does for us.

Summary

Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. [i.e. greater than riches] Blessed are you that hunger now, for you shall be satisfied. [i.e., great than comfort] Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh. [i.e., you have loved] Blessed are you when men hate you, and when they exclude you and revile you, and cast out your name as evil, on account of the Son of man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets. [and more and more to us Christians] But woe to you that are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you that are full now, for you shall hunger. Woe to you that laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep. Woe to you, when all men speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets. [i.e. put your priorities in order] (Luke 6:20-26)

I leave this text for further reflection on your own.

Conclusion

We should remind ourselves how fortunate we are even to consider the topic of Christian aging. It’s a luxury, comparable to a need to lose weight in a world where millions are starving or insufficiently fed. How trivial our difficulties seem when we call to mind the condition of ordinary people in Syria for example. The mere fact that we are old is already a privilege denied to many. Furthermore, we have available a host of aids in our difficulties, whether they are physical, emotional or spiritual. But there is one factor that can make even the vicissitudes of war and want (more or less) bearable, and that is companionship, the love of another person. The greatest consolation that we can receive—and give—at the end of our lives is friendship. Without it, nothing else will bring serenity, while with it even suffering can be borne. As Christians, then, we have the words of Jesus to meditate on, as they apply to his relationship to us, ours to him, and ours to those around us: “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”[10] For there is more than one way to give one’s life for one’s friends.

[1] Matt 5.48.

[2] 2 Pet 1.4.

[3] Gal 4.6.

[4] Phil 1.27.

[5] Matt 19.21.

[6] Measure for Measure, 3.1.

[7] Luke 12.5.

[8] Jas 2.13.

[9] Matt 24.44.

[10] Jn 15.13.

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