The Church has designated today as the First World Day for Grandparents and the Elderly. It is a day to pray for the intention of those who are old, an opportunity to meditate on the great gift of wisdom, and a time to acknowledge the critical role played by elders throughout the world. Earlier this year Pope Francis announced that the fourth Sunday of July, the Sunday closest to the memorial of Sts. Ann and Joachim, which is tomorrow, will be set aside for this annual observance.
Whether Ann and Joachim were in fact elderly at the time of Mary's birth is a matter for pious speculation. There will be more on that tomorrow.
It is not easy being old in the young-worshipping, age-denying, and productivity obsessed U. S. Australian Trappist Michael Casey writes: "Some societies reverence the old, seeing in them the embodiments of ancient wisdom and experience. We, on the contrary, seem to hanker after illusory youthfulness, so quickly and so irretrievably left behind." Can't disagree with his assessment.
Among the most insulting of comments directed to an old person is the ever popular and hackneyed, "You're not 83 years Ollllld. You're 83 years Youuuuuuuuuunnnnng." A waiter said that to my then 85 year-old mom. Can't quote her reply in sacred space but I suspect the young man thought twice before saying that again. Insisting that an octogenarian is Youuuuuuuuung efficiently accomplishes two tasks. It strips the individual of his or her dignity and, more significantly, reveals the speaker's terror of aging, lack of sensitivity, and general unkindness.
Nothing horrifies Americans more than the thought of aging, the idea of having to live within the physical, cognitive, and functional limits imposed upon us by the aging process. But there are few choices.
I envied pediatricians only one thing: they have age-linked charts to track a child's physical, psychological, and cognitive development. One quick checkmark and ya' got that covered. Next patient.
By way of contrast, the physician specializing in geriatrics or old-age medicine has nothing but a blank piece of paper on which to record the uniqueness that defines the old man or woman sitting on the other side of the desk. No checkmark can summarize the patient's history; no average, below average, or above average designation can describe the narrative of his or her life.
We become more different as we age. Department stores group children's clothing by age: birth to six months, six to twelve months, one to two years, and so on. I've yet to see a clothes rack designated 65 to 75 years old standing next to the one for 60 to 65 year-olds.
Some have an easier time with aging than others. But, our task is not to deny the reality of the old by insisting they are really young despite all evidence to the contrary. If we are to truly honor and respect the elderly we must accept each individual for who, what, and how he or she really is, and not for who, what, and how we want them to be.
Stanley Hauerwas points out in his book Growing Old in Christ, "one of the problems of our time is the assumption that we can and should live as if we will never grow old." It is an important observation. In chapter twelve of The Book of Job, Job asks,
“Is not wisdom found among the aged?
Does not long life bring understanding?”
By denying the reality of age we deny that wisdom, the great gift to those of us who are aging--and with my 72nd birthday screaming down the straightaway toward me, (and upon a quick inspection of my daily medications) I can include myself in that designation.
Wisdom is a gift to be shared with the young even those unwilling to accept it.
Wisdom is not innate or genetic. It is acquired through long experience, through success and failure, and most easily by those with a listening heart, and the courage to enter into silence and prayer so as to reflect on one’s life, and that it will indeed end.
Wisdom has little to do with intelligence or educational achievement. Wisdom is a force in the world that is critical to civilization, fundamental to being human, and the most significant factor separating us from every lower animal. Thus, when we insist that an old person is actually young we are denying the individual's existence, disparaging the challenges he or she is facing, and throwing in a complimentary dollop of hostility.
For many years JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association, featured cover art with commentary by M. Therese Southgate, a physician who was a self-taught art historian. Some weeks it was the best article in the journal. The May 3,1995 cover was a painting by Henri Amiel who Southgate quoted. "To know how to grow old is the masterwork of wisdom and one of the most difficult chapters in the great art of living."
Others, too, have reflected on age. The actress Bette Davis was a bit more droll than Amiel: "Old age ain't for sissies"
In his homily on the Feast of the Presentation sometime in the early 1990s Jesuit Father Jim Casciotti observed, "Old age can be a time of bitterness and regret, clinging to the past, and resenting any changes or diminution of independence. But, to those whose faith has deepened with the years there comes wisdom, integrity, and a sense of providence."
As this annual day for the elderly becomes established in our liturgical calendar, I hope the liturgists have the sense to include in the prayers or readings at Mass Habakkuk's great psalm for the elderly. I chose it for the first reading at my mom's funeral, It will be the first reading at mine. It is a magnificent summary of aging and the great gift of faith:
"For though the fig tree blossom not
nor fruit be on the vines,
though the yield of the olive fail
and the terraces produce no nourishment,
though the flocks disappear from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
Yet will I rejoice in the Lord
and exult in my saving God.
God, my Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet swift as those of hinds
and enables me to go upon the heights."
Down at the Abbey in CT. Walked into house to see this reflection of a fireplace in the mirror that has been sitting on the floor for the past two years or so.
+ Fr.Jack, SJ, MD