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    painting of snow covered mountains against a lavender sky

    How Should Christians Approach Old Age?

    Seen in the right light, getting older can be something we look forward to, rather than fear.

    By A Religious of the CSMV

    September 10, 2023

    The Community of Saint Mary the Virgin (CSMV), an Anglican religious order in Oxfordshire, England, published Meditations of a Caterpillar, from which this excerpt is taken.

    God the Good Shepherd led me through the Red Sea when I was baptized, and he will lead me through the Jordan when I die.

    Old age, the last lap of the Christian’s earthly pilgrimage, is the descent into the valley in which Jordan lies.

    Old age is something to be faced.… But is that right? We speak of “facing” future happenings, the thought of which fills us with trepidation. If such in the event can be avoided, we are glad. To things we want to happen we say that we “look forward,” and make the word convey a sense of keen anticipation. Thus you “face” an operation, and a student “faces” an examination; but you “look forward” to recovery, and he – if after all the papers weren’t too bad – to good success. In the same way, as children, we all “looked forward” to the time when we should be grown up. Which attitude is Christianly correct towards old age? A bit of both.

    Once, when I was young, I went up Snowdon. It was stiff going and, when we got to the top, we rejoiced to think the hardest part was over, and that it would be easier going down. But it was not. Going down was worse than going up, much worse. It got one in the shins, a knife-thrust for each step. When at last we regained the road and sat on a wall to wait for the bus to Beddgelert, we felt we never wanted to put foot to ground again.

    In one sense, old age is certainly the hardest part of life. The slope is easier for some than others, but stiffening joints and lessening strength and tricky memory and sometimes failure in his faculties tell every septuagenarian that he is going downhill. All this is something to be faced. But how?

    painting of snow covered mountains against a lavender sky

    Nicholas Roerich, Himalayas, 1933

    I help myself to face it by thinking on these lines. First, as the Isaiah text reminds me, as I go stumbling down into the valley, I am still being led. It may be that the hardest thing I have to bear is that I have no sense of the Good Shepherd’s presence. But he is there. I look back on a lifetime of his leading, and I know. Blind affirmations of the faith I do not feel will keep me going.

    Further, he has been before me through the river that he will shortly lead me through. And that tremendous fact calls up another thought. In his incarnate life and death and resurrection on this earth, he shouldered the entire burden of man’s sin and suffering. Even apparent utter dereliction formed part of his experience. His is the “one, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice,” and it was offered once for all. Yet that is only one side of the paradox of our redemption. Complete in one sense, in another His saving, recreative work is still in process of completion. The head has done it, who alone could do it; and He has done it perfectly. But the whole Christ in God’s intent consists of head and body, for the whole point and purpose of the Incarnation is that the human race, the seed of the first Adam, should be brought through at last to the perfection for which He created it. So, since the human race consists of individuals, our Savior, having made New Man two thousand years ago, is still engaged in making all men new.…

    Old age is something that Christ did not experience on Earth, for he died in his prime, the strength of his young manhood brought to nothing in a single day. Old age, no less than childhood, youth and middle age, has its peculiar trials and its peculiar delights. My business as a Christian, then, is to let Christ grow old in me, to let him sanctify and use whatever my last years involve alike of joy and pain.

    This covers everything in life, and is a full-time job. If I do it properly – if I even try to do it properly – I shall never lack for occupation, however many outward activities I may have to give up. Putting my will into taking what comes will sublimate my natural desire to be up and doing.

    It is easy to say that, but it is not easy to do it. The thing that negates it, that defeats our Lord and thwarts his purpose and retards his work is self-pity.

    Self-pity for the Christian is the deadliest and most deadening of sins. I must avoid it like the plague.

    I must not encourage it in other people either. One can easily slip into doing this, and think that one is merely being kind.

    Another thing that helps me face old age is looking at it in relation to the whole of life.

    There is a close analogy between human life and light. The visible part of the spectrum of light is in the middle, and consists of seven colors, red the first and violet the last. If you think of these as answering to Shakespeare’s seven ages all over-seventies at any rate are “in the violet.”

    But there is vastly more to light – and life – than just this middle bit. There are the infinitely greater infrared and ultraviolet parts, both known – as far as they are known at all – by their effects alone, since they cannot be seen.

    As far as human knowledge goes, my life began with my conception in my mother’s womb. But the person that I am, and am to be, existed in the mind of God from all eternity; and behind that small beginning of my body lies the whole agelong history of life and of pre-life from the beginning of creation, if indeed creation ultimately ever did begin. That is the infra-red of every life, all life; and our faith is that all life has and is to have its ultra-violet too, first in the intermediate state and then in that which is to come when our Lord comes again.

    I can look forward to old age, for every moment of it brings me nearer to my goal.

    Old age becomes exciting, seen thus in its place. However drawn out it may be, however difficult, because I can look forward from it with such immediacy of joyful expectation, I can also look forward to it, and to each next bit of it, for every moment of it brings me nearer to my goal. While I was seeing it in isolation and as something to be faced, it did seem a descent. But seen in its relation to the whole of life, and so as something to look forward to, it seems a climb. A stiff climb too.

    There is a little picture in my room, given me by a member of the Everest expedition of 1953. It was taken from the South Col and shows, against a dark blue sky, the summit ridge and the banner of cloud that waves from the top of the world, but not the summit itself. This is how Sir Edmund Hillary describes his famous climb.

    The ridge curved away to the right, and we had no idea where the top was. As I cut around the back of one hump, another higher one would swing into view. Time was passing and the ridge seemed never ending.… I went on step-cutting. I was beginning to tire.… As I chipped steps around still another corner, I wondered rather dully just how long we could keep it up. Our original zest had now quite gone, and it was turning more into a grim struggle. I then realized that the ridge ahead, instead of still monotonously rising, now dropped sharply away.… I looked upwards to see a narrow snow ridge running upwards to a snowy summit. A few more whacks of the ice-axe in the firm snow and we stood on top.

    I keep that picture always within sight, because it seems to me old age is like that climb. Seen as an element in the descent to death, the pains and limitations of this last lap of life on earth appear as opportunities for fellowship with God. They are his precious gifts, the best his love can give, because they are material for penance for my sins and those of all the world, in union with our Lord’s vicarious penitence. To make a success of old age, I have only to say, “Glory be to God for all things,” with Saint Chrysostom, and live accordingly. To do that is extremely simple, and extremely difficult.

    Seen as an element in the ascent towards the unseen, unimaginable goal of life, those same distresses appear as harbingers of my approaching metamorphosis. A caterpillar, having been busy eating all its life, stops eating some time before it actually pupates, and all the days of its appointed time, till its change comes, like Job, it simply waits. When my activities drop off, I too must wait.

    Lastly, when I see myself as I should always do as a member of the human race and of the church, a child of both Adams, whatever pains of body, mind or soul old age may bring to me appear, like those of the whole world, and as a part of them, as ōdinai, the pains of birth.

    I am a larval creature, belonging to a larval race, inhabiting a larval earth, which is itself part of a larval universe.

    I am preparing now for my sub-final change of form.

    Source: A Religious of C.S.M.V., Meditations of a Caterpillar (The Faith Press, 1962), 76–81.

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