Ageing: Let everything go
I am preparing for old age as I enter my eighty sixth year. These days, they tell me, the eighties are equivalent to the sixties in the past. There are always older people in the [Jesuit] community who think one is quite junior. At least, people give up their seats to me sometimes on the London Underground, especially as I need a stick.
Praying for the Church
Something I have tried to do for some time is to develop the habit of praying already for the Church and the Society. That will prepare me (I thought) for the time when that is the work I am missioned to, when they let me retire, or when my health requires it. I have admired elderly Jesuits I have visited in nursing homes, how seriously they took this task. It helps you to grasp the value of the contemplative side of our Jesuit vocation and the significance of our praying, not just our doing. It opens up our prayer to being pastoral, beyond ourselves.
The other person’s shoes
The second suggestion about preparing for old age as a Jesuit is to widen one’s sympathies through what I call imaginative understanding, by analogy with the imaginative contemplation of Ignatian prayer. One tries to understand imaginatively what an elderly companion is going through in diminishment of powers and of health, its effects in making that person grumpy and tetchy at times (like oneself), less secure in himself. It is only by imagination that I try to put myself into the other person’s shoes. That may, of course, be too subjective, slanted from my own sensitivity. But I do think it can help one’s sympathy to grow, one’s patience with and acceptance of the other person. It can also foster one’s patience and acceptance of oneself as one moves into similar problems of old age.
I work therefore I am
There is a danger in active religious life of concentrating too much on our work down the years. The Cartesian Cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am) becomes Laboro, ergo sum (I work, therefore I am). Although we believe in theory in the priority of being over doing, and frequently preach it to others, it is not easy to live it when work is no longer an option. In my retreat work in many convents I have learnt from the older sisters that even at recreation they were taught to bring their knitting and sewing along, never to be idle. I don’t know what the equivalent is for men. Perhaps we find it easier than women to be lazy. But we do have to watch our work orientation. It is vital to have interests and hobbies beyond one’s work, so that when retirement comes there isn’t just an empty void in our lives; these interests and hobbies carry us along.
I have been struck by the way watching sport, football especially, can enliven a 96-year-old. It doesn’t, I’m afraid, appeal to me – there must be a gene missing – but I do recognise its value as a consuming interest for many fellow Jesuits. My own interests have been developed down the years. They include plenty of reading, novels and poetry having an important place to balance the theology and scripture that I try to keep up; devouring newspapers and the regular The Tablet and The Economist, to keep abreast of the world; and music – Radio 3 is a great boon and I turn to Classic FM Full Works when the talking starts. Walking for at least an hour a day keeps me reasonably fit. There are so many fine parks in central London. My Freedom Pass takes me further afield, and my Senior Rail Card even further. Usually my walks are on my own and at my own pace, going into neutral after being a lot with people, so able to become quietly aware of the flowers, trees and birds – and people – around, but at a distance. London is wonderfully rich in museums and art galleries and I try to visit the many exhibitions. My interest in writing is now channelled into preparing homilies and newsletter articles. I realise, of course, that all these interests depend on my present mobility and on reasonable hearing and eyesight, and still having all – or most – of my marbles.
This brings me to my last point in preparing for old age: letting go. My spiritual director has encouraged this – and I realise the important help a spiritual director can give as one moves into old age. I realise this as a listener of others, as well as receiving direction myself. There are anxieties, as one gets older, insecurities. What was once done with ease takes more time and effort, and brings apprehension that was not there before. Let it go. There are anxieties in living in constant senior moments, not remembering names or recalling words. Let it go.
Let everything go, bit by bit, into God’s hands. Not just with stoicism but with thanksgiving. We can be thankful not only for things past, which become more vivid as we grow older, but also for the present. We can learn to be thankful not only for our own lives but for those around us in the Province, the Society, those with whom we live and work. There can be a special sort of gratitude if you were a headmaster, as I was almost 50 years ago, and you go back to the school and really enjoy all the developments that have taken place, that you were unable to realise. There can be a deep contentment when you return to work in a parish where you were parish priest 30 years ago and you appreciate how many things have grown up since your time. That can be a privileged way of entering into the Contemplation for Obtaining Love [from the Spiritual Exercises]. Perhaps one of the gifts and graces of becoming an older Jesuit is to discover oneself as a sort of benevolent grandfather from this habit of letting go.
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This is part of a series for Mental Health Awareness Week. Read the others:
14-20 May 2018 is Mental Health Awareness Week, an initiative to encourage discussion about and reduce stigma around mental health issues. The Jesuits in Britain want to take this opportunity to help our readers and listeners to pray, think, learn and talk about life’s uphill struggles, whether they are associated with diagnosed mental health conditions or other circumstances.
Across our online platforms, there are a number of different resources about situations in which people struggle to find peace of mind and heart. Our written and audio content will explore some of the causes, effects and manifestations of anxiety, and look particularly at the dynamic between faith and mental health.
We will be considering ideas, offering prayerful support and sharing experiences. However, please seek professional help if you are concerned about yourself or somebody else.