Friday, December 14, 2012

Advent Retreat

I'm not celebrating many Masses over the coming weeks unless a priest in a local parish calls and needs some help at Christmas.  Rather than posting a few homilies I am going to put up four posts over the next week or ten days with the talks from the Advent recollection triduum at the Colombiere Community in Baltimore.

The title of the triduum was: Aging and Advent: The Confluence of  Hope, Despair and Generous Gratitude.  The talks are a bit longer than an average homily.  In addition I will include the prayers to which I refer with the exception of the Biblical references that will have verse number included.  And of course a few photos.  Note, for today's references see Luke chapters 2 and 3.  I gave out a copy of the "O" Antiphons that will begin on 17 December.  They are very easy to find on the internet.

Aging is Grace

“All our days pass away in your anger,
Our life is over like a sigh.
Our span is seventy years
or eighty for those who are strong.”

Psalm 90 is the most epidemiologically correct psalm in the entire psalter. It is astonishing how it reflects the reality of life in the United States in the early 21st century.  Yes, people did live to what we consider old age in the Ancient Near East (I am ignoring Methusala and his ultra-long lived buddies).  There have always been those who lived to grand old age.  But expecting to live to old age, assuming eighty years as one’s birthright, is a distinctly modern concept.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, life expectancy in the U.S. was forty-eight years of age.  By 1960 it had increased to sixty-nine.  Average life expectancy is now hovering around seventy-nine.  The cohort over eighty is the fastest growing age cohort throughout the world, developed and undeveloped.  Sociologists more or less arbitrarily defined sixty-five as the beginning of being elderly during the 1900’s, using it as a benchmark to begin Social Security and retirement.  Retirement is a twentieth century concept.  However, given the increasing life expectancy in the U.S. it is entirely possible for an individual to spend one-third of his or her total life retired.

I recently came across a startling comment in the geriatrics section of Harrison’s Textbook of Internal Medicine that puts the novelty of our situation into context.  “Of all the people who have ever lived to age sixty-five, in the history of mankind, most of them are alive today.” 

We begin to age at the moment of birth.  The changes that occur in our bodies during the first few minutes and hours of life are mind-boggling. The changes that occur in our bodies, brains, minds, psyches, and spirits in the following years are even more mind-boggling.  All of these changes, all of this growth, come under the rubric of aging though we seem to reserve the use of the word aging for a period beyond forty.  We age in multiple ways. Three important modes of aging are: biological, sociological and existential.

Biological aging is easy enough to understand. We are all experiencing it.  We look into the mirror and we see it.  Leon Kass, an MD, PhD philosopher at the University of Chicago defined biological aging as:  “Processes, distinct from disease, that make the body progressively less able to maintain itself and perform its various functions.  There is a gradual decline in vigor, degeneration of bodily parts and functions, increasing susceptibility to disease, (and) an increasing likelihood of death. . . .” Little has to be added to this definition.  Aging, despite the way it is perceived by the Botox crowd and Hollywood gliterrati, is not a disease. 

Sociological aging, defined by Michel Philbert, is a bit more of challenge to appreciate intuitively. But, we cannot separate our aging from the social and cultural contexts in which we age.   One cannot understand aging if it is divorced from the images, naïve or sophisticated, in which it is expressed.  The images of aging common in the U.S. are very different from those in Taiwan or Viet Nam. 

Existential aging was defined best by the ethicist Daniel Callahan: “We start growing old in other people’s eyes.  Then slowly we come to share their judgment . . . . Age encompasses a relationship to time . .  a relationship to self-consciousness . . . and to the passing of the generation.  Age is not an incidental trait of a person.”

Early in life aging is not considered a bad thing.  Aging or maturing  represents increase, accretion, gain, and accumulation.  All sorts of skills are pegged to our age.  We know at what age a child should begin to walk, to speak in complete sentences, to reach puberty, and so on.  Certain benefits and privileges are part of aging: a driver’s license, the right to vote, the ability to make financial decisions or sign a contract, the dreaded elder discount, and so on. 

We pay particular attention to certain birthdays:  Sixteen, twenty-one, thirty, forty and sixty-five to name a few.  In the Society of Jesus living to one-hundred means that you get your own birthday party instead of being lumped in with the rest of the guys in the house at the monthly "birthday celebration."  Jimmy Martin got five individual birthday parties in the Georgetown Jesuit Community before he died at age one hundred five years, one month and one day.  I will come back to Jimmy tomorrow. 

There is very little about aging in the New Testament.  But, the aged do receive some notice during the Christmas season.  Elizabeth and Zechariah were both elderly when John was conceived.   At the point of giving up hope, a son was conceived.  Simeon was old and nearing death when he recognized the infant Jesus in the Temple. We commemorate that moment nightly when we pray, “Lord, now you let your servant go in peace Your word has been fulfilled . .  ."  Anna, who proclaimed the birth of Jesus to one and all, was eighty-four years old when she too recognized Him in the Temple. 

These elders were able to recognize Jesus’ coming into the world, they were able to appreciate this presence, they were able to know who this child was because of the grace of age and the wisdom that accompanies it, rather than despite their age. They had waited in hope for many years.  Those hopes were now fulfilled.  Aging brings unique graces into our lives.  Despite the limitations, the aches and pains, the illnesses and the approach of death, aging is a great grace, a grace that only humans can experience and appreciate in its fullness. 

Aging is an advent for all of us, a time of Christ coming to us and coming into our lives in a unique way, if we let Him.  Old age is a time of mature hope.  Old age is a time during which we may struggle with despair.  Old age is a time in which we can choose to be grateful and generous.

In a little less than two weeks we will begin the O Antiphons at evening prayer.  The first one is: “O Wisdom, O holy Word of God, you govern all creation with your strong yet tender care.  Come and show your people the way to salvation.”
These are antiphons with which to explore age.
A group of archdiocesan priests were at Campion today for a day of prayer.  My job was to prepare the chapel for Eucharistic Adoration and Benediction at the end of the day.  Decided to take the camera over earlier in the day.  The light was doing its usual wonderful thing in the chapel, more so in the winter than in the summer because of the angle of light and the lack of leaves.  Fortunately the tripod was in the trunk just outside the chapel.  

The first is the setting sun coming through one of the windows on the west wall.  

The next is two of the side altars.  Note the silver crucifixes and candle holders.  I just learned two weeks ago that Genevieve Brady, who gave much support to both this house and Wernersville, stipulated there was to be no gold in the chapel, only silver.  Brilliant. 
The next is a cloud of incense from the Eucharistic Adoration.  One view is from ground level and the other from the first of the two choir lofts. 

The Christmas tree in the rotunda taken from in front of the altar was impressive.  This was a 15 second exposure at f22.  Love that tripod and cable release.
Finally, the tree through the closed doors at the back of the chapel.  The glass in the doors must be original as it is quite irregular and wavy, giving an interesting distortion. 
There will be more photos of Campion in the coming days.  The director of the retreat house asked me to take a lot of them for the soon-to-be-revised web site for Campion Renewal Center.   Accepting was a no-brainer

+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

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