Old Friends

A young man imagines that the mistakes he is making are, with more effort, things that he will correct. An older man knows better. It can be a source of humility, or a source of painful regret. Humility is to be preferred. I wonder if this by itself is the reason why the spiritual life is not populated with wise young people. If you are young and holy, you are likely a martyr. The tradition values elders and not just spirit-bearing elders who populate the gasping admiration of the would-be holy. The tradition values old people.

Last week I sat at table in a nursing home, surrounded by wheel-chair bound elders. The parishioner I had come to visit was just settling into a Bingo game. I decided to join her. What was the highlight of the day, the special activity for the residents in the home, seemed a bit tedious to me. The numbers were called, and frequently had to be repeated any number of times. I worked at just being one of them, to let the Bingo game be the height of my afternoon. I lost and was slightly disappointed.

A question was posed in recent comments about Alzheimer’s patients. It is, of course, a frightening thought, to become the victim of dementia. But I suspect that many of the young have yet to consider just the simple reality of getting old.

My parishioner at the home is an interesting woman. I take her communion every week. She’s always cheerful. Several years back, she befriended a Jewish gentleman at the facility and through their friendship led him to Christ. I baptized him at the nursing home and for a couple of years took him communion together with her. He fell asleep last year and I miss him.

There are very few great moral issues in the routine of a nursing home. Being kind and patient with the people around you would seem to be the largest. I have noted in my visits some people who are not only unhappy, but share it with others. It’s a very difficult situation.

There is a Paul Simon song on his Bookends album:

Old Friends. Old Friends.
Sat on their park bench like bookends…
…How terribly strange to be 70.

I laugh now. When I heard this song in my early 20’s, 70 seemed so far away and poignant. It’s only 7 years away now and feels little more than tomorrow. What will I do on my park bench?

Such questions easily sound distant to the young, but only because they are not old. Of what does the spiritual life consist? Several years ago I wrote a series of articles challenging the notion of “moral progress.” They were intended as the reflections of an older man (myself), as well as a theological critique of certain modernisms that have found a strange home in our thoughts. Our culture is a cult of youth. Everything that is young is celebrated as good and normal. Words like “fresh,” “new,” “exciting,” “energetic,” are laden with positive values. I see old people looking like fools as they adopt the fashions and notions of their grandchildren.

Our culture imagines that progress is the panacea for all things. The past is to be forgotten, cleansed and replaced. This same image has found a way to lodge itself in our theological mindset as well. I have written that there is “no such thing as moral progress.” I did not mean to deny that we aim towards God, and strive towards theosis. St. Paul himself spoke of “forgetting those things that are behind…” My intention has been to rid our spiritual progress from the assumptions of secular progress. We do not build anything in our spiritual life, for nothing is static. We do not establish one thing and then move on to the next. In that manner, nothing in the spiritual life is “past”; everything becomes present.

If you visit a place such as Mount Athos, you notice not just the presence of old men, but a way of life that looks old, even when the roles are being filled by the young. Young men are learning to live as though they were old. Young monks spend time in the “bone house,” the place where the bones of his predecessors are stacked. Thinking about death is an old man’s daily occupation.

The old begin to see the ever-present image of death less as a threat and more as a sharpening lens. With the shortening of time comes a more accurate measure of what is valuable. The latest fashions seem irrelevant. Relationships become ever more important. The question of God looms over everything.

True moral/spiritual progress should be measured more by the ladies in the nursing home. It is in just such a situation that very average citizens, regardless of religious background, are forced into a rather monastic setting. Life is not your own. The routine is as set as the hours of prayer. Everything is focused into the present, or, at most, turned toward an eternal present.

In my weekly visits, I ask the usual questions. “How was your week? Has anything changed?” Most of the time there is nothing to report. I share a bit of whatever news I know from the parish. I show pictures from my phone. But we enter the sublime when we begin our prayers and share together in the Body and Blood of Christ.

St. Seraphim said, “Acquire the Spirit of Peace, and a thousand souls around you will be saved.” I think of this in the nursing home. I think of my friend who had enough of that Spirit of peace to plunge an old man into the waters of Baptism. The virtues in that place are primarily matters of kindness and patience.

It is worth remembering that as we make “progress” in our spiritual lives, the end of that business looks like an old man or an old woman. A year or so ago, I bought a couple of park benches for my Church. My favorite one sits outside the entrance and looks into a parking lot of the neighboring businesses. It has become a place where I like to sit and “do my rope.” There I can acquire the Spirit of peace and save thousands. I’m not yet 70, but I pray that I will be, and that I will occupy my bench with kindness and patience until the game is done. Bingo.

 

36 comments:

  1. This is wonderful, Father. My mother, who died one year ago this coming Monday) lived in a nursing home the last eight years of her life. She suffered from Dementia. As did her mother. So of course I picture myself being there one day, and I have wondered how I will endure it… the monotony, the sameness. I love your image of it being like a monastic existence. I recently published a book about my caregiving for my mother, “Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s.” I will send you a copy (I can get your address from Katherine). I hope you will find it uplifting. Thanks for sharing this story.

  2. Father Bless,
    As I am a bit ahead of you in the journey to 70 I find my thought process is indeed changing. I measure all things today by their relative importance to me in view of whether or not they will matter when I step into eternity. My children laugh at me because I cannot use my phone as a mini computer. They tell me to get with the times. My response is that the skill of phone manipulation is not something I will be using soon and therefore, it does not matter.

  3. Fr. Stephen,
    I’m 70, in a few days 71. The Spanish is more correct. In Spanish, one completes years. I am about to complete 71 years and begin my 72nd. My wife says, “Don’t apply that reckoning to me!” How your article resonated with me, Father. It seems I went from middle age to elderly in a second. There are benefits between creaking of the bones and joints. I can go up to little children in Costco and speak with them much more freely without mom thinking I’m some kind of weirdo. Young women, about 20, smile at me frequently…I must remind them of their grandpa. (Several years ago when passing they would demurely avert their eyes). I do think of my own death daily. There is a sharpening of focus as you note. Relationships loom larger. Doing something “important” is now a distant memory. I rise early, pray, read scripture, walk, visit neighbors, spend time with a brother in law dying of cancer, pray some more, hold my wife’s hand, listen to podcasts, Really my life is fairly tranquil. I realize that I have Life (abundantly) only because of Christ’s grace/energies beckoning me to pray, pulling me to the Cup every Sunday, sharing Life with brothers and sisters…. Yes, I’m old, but I would not change it for being 20 again. Glory to God for all, even the greying of hair!

  4. Father,
    I’m growing more sentimental, too. I mentioned my wife. We met in high school, she 16, and I 17. We married a couple years later. This summer will complete 52 years together. Growing old with a life long companion is another most wondrous gift from our Lord! I love our memories together. I still love gazing into her eyes…a long life shared. Thank God for gracing my life with such a jewel.

  5. So beautiful, Father, thank you. I am daily watching my 80-year-old father physically wither into a fraction of the man he used to be, but how much sweeter and more significant are our conversations now regarding life and regrets, and the God who redeems all. I prayed with him during his last hospital stay, and watched his eyes well with tears of unbelief that forgiveness has overtaken our relationship so. Thank you for keeping me oriented toward what is important.

  6. Hello Susan (by way of Father Freeman!), my dear mother is in a rest home, very frail and at the end of this earthly life, due to dementia. I wonder if dementia (best-case scenario) could be seen as a blessing, that one is less and less able to sin as one slips further into a quiet mind?
    Meg (Theodora)

  7. Thank you, Father, for this. I’ve just completed my 66th year. I need to hear more from my peers. So much of what you say is so very true. A friend of mine recently said, “How did we get this old?” He wasn’t really asking, but I answered, “I don’t know about you, but I’ve been working really hard at it.” There have been many changes in my life, but as you note, little progress. Recently, I sat on a bench in a public place. Two little boys (they seemed to be brothers) climbed up next to me and began tickling and wrestling with each other. Occasionally, they’d bump into me. They didn’t notice. I didn’t mind. They felt safe. I didn’t feel threatened. Maybe this is the progress I’ve made. I mind less and notice more.

  8. Thank you for all of this, Fr. Stephen! This especially made my heart happy to read: “My intention has been to rid our spiritual progress from the assumptions of secular progress. We do not build anything in our spiritual life, for nothing is static. We do not establish one thing and then move on to the next. In that manner, nothing in the spiritual life is “past”; everything becomes present.”
    I am thankful to God this morning that you write as you do and that I can read it and that we are close in age — you’re a little further down the path in years, but not much and so many things that you write about and comment on God blesses my heart richly.
    My son and husband have gotten to visit Mt. Athos, a young friend of ours has chosen and been granted the life of a monk there, we are so blessed to know him and I feel personally blessed that my son and husband have gotten to visit. I pray they get the chance to go back because of what you talk about here and to me it is closer to the real world there than we are here. Although I definitely believe that we serve the Good God who is the Lover of Mankind, Everywhere Present and Filling All Things.

  9. Fr Stephen thank you for these reflections and illustration. They are are helpful for this ‘old friend’.

  10. Thanks for this Father. Only 3-mths ahead of you I pray you will continue
    to help me prepare and move rightly…into our old age with wisdom & peace.
    Lord have mercy

  11. Skip,
    You said you need to hear more from your peers. I don’t know if you are referring to peers on the blog or not. If you are maybe there is someway we could share email addresses.

  12. I recently read a quote on Facebook that resonated with me:
    God didn’t add another day into your life because you needed it, he added it because someone out there needs you.
    I am an old soul from the old world. 70 is just a year and a half away from me, but it says absolutely nothing to me. I have a 28 year old son finishing his last semester in a University, a 50 year old daughter, she is a Flight attendant and a Nurse and a 48 year old retired Navy Seal son. I spend a lot of time in my heart, on my knees praying, pleading, fighting and arguing with God. I ended up raising them all by myself. I asked a lot of why’s and how could he do this to me. He always answered with “you have to be strong”. Tired and weary at times he was my greatest support and comforter. I still head for the mountains hiking with group friends, love to read, and engage in my sons Sociology studies and we dialogue. We disagree agreeably, and I have learned to assert my position on Cultural and religious issues which I never could do before. He loves our talks. He and some of my friends say I look 20 years younger. and been told that I must have drank from the fountain of youth. I correct them and say, yes it was the “Fountain of Life” and with gratefulness I think of the greatest gifts that I have had the privilege of knowing.
    I only sometimes think of my body ceasing to exist and decay, and what ever remains in this world I hope to be the spirit of Truth in my Children. They mean the world to me, though I may not mean that much to them, but hopefully someday they will know that even the unpleasant times were ordered for their good. I love the time I spend with all of them, and I am going to my granddaughters high school graduation next month. She is one of the youngest of 5, can anyone say I am not blessed. I can’t……Glory to god for all his patience, and mercies. By early standards I could and should not have survived, but only by his mercies granting me and adding one more day for someone who needs me. Feeling thankful.

  13. Thank you for sharing your life experiences, Maria W.. Your children must be grateful for having you as their mother. It’s indeed a blessing to have children and grandchildren, and to participate as you do in their lives and they in yours. May you have many more blessed years with your family.

  14. It is sobering and focusing to realize, as CS Lewis noted once in a letter, that there are many more days behind me than in front of me.

  15. My grandpa is nearing 80 and his body is failing him badly. The bones in his knees and back are deteriorating and he can only walked a few steps with great pain anymore. All of his closest friends and family have passed away or are dying of cancer. Thank God he still has my grandma at his side, but he is terribly depressed. He hardly talks to anyone, and cries a lot lately according to my grandma. I don’t know that he ever believed in God his whole life, or If he has any faith now, but my brother is a Lutheran pastor and he sends him his church’s monthly bulletins and he gobbles them up, reading them front to back. This gives me hope, and I pray for him daily. Please, anyone, say a prayer for him. I’m eternally greatful for any prayers offered up to the Lord of Mercy for him.

  16. As I stood in the checkout line of a typically understaffed big retail store the angst of time pressed down on me as each minute ticked by. My last item was finally rung up and as I was putting the last bag in my cart I turned to the older man next in line behind me and he smiled. I thanked him for his patience. He replied, “It’s fine, I have all day.” That gentle smile and the comment from an older soul blessed my day.
    As I read your thoughts on living life in the ‘old lane’ (vs the fast lane) the force of blessing that occurred in my brief encounter with that man revisited me along with a much greater appreciation for what had happened in that second. ”

    “There is no past in the spiritual life, all things become present.”
    Thank you for this reflection.

  17. Being young and diagnosed with a chronic disease that shortens up one’s projected life expectancy a bit also has a way of throwing one down the road a few yards. I’m learning things I shouldn’t even be thinking about for a good 20 or 30 yrs from now.

    Like no longer burning for the future with countless dreams and plans. I wish only to absorb the moment I’m in, enjoying it’s wonderful fullness. I hold my children’s hands and carefully note the feeling of their skin on mine. I try to slow down and take notice, and drink in even the most “mundane” things of life, as though they were the most highlighting experiences of my life.
    And also like how priorities change. I could be a working woman, with dreams of a bigger house, bigger account balances, and more numerous vacations, but instead all I want to do is spend my time at home raising my little one’s. As a stay-at-home mom I want to spend my days being their daily example and teacher in the humble ways of life. I wash and clean, and try to play and sing, always reminding them that this is life, to be in the present, and it is God’s great and beautiful gift to us.

    I really am thankful for the blessing of being numbered with the “older crowd” (typically people diagnosed with my disease are in their 50’s or 60’s). Even if I were to beat the odds, or God grant’s me a miracle and I get to live a long life, I hope to never go back to bein as “young” as I was just a short time ago.

  18. Michelle you have my prayers for you and your grandfather. God willing, may He grant you strength, peace and healing,

  19. I might need to read this a few times. I’ve often been told I’m mature for my age. At only 31, men in my family often fall asleep in their 60s, so my days may be briefer than others my age. Of course, there’s much I can do about that still, and the Lord will decide. However, the first sentence struck me deeply. I’m still quite convinced I can fix my own problems. I know there will be truth and healing in the realization that I must surrender my errors in confession and humility. My mind knows it, but my heart doesn’t yet accept it.
    I’m not quite old enough for my age.

  20. Years ago I read 1 John with no understanding. Passages addressed to “young men” were difficult and those addressed to “old men” were impossible. Now my years are fuller and the Scripture makes too much sense. . .

  21. Michelle’s submission here as well as Michael Bauman’s in the previous thread, reminds me of the ‘hidden life’ where God appears to be shaping/preparing us in ways we cannot see. And these will have started from the very beginning of our lives, throughout our childhood and adulthood.

    In my reflections of such moments, I recall two incidents early in my life that would be part of the way that I was brought into the life in Christ:

    One happened while I was in first grade. It would be the first winter snowfall that I would have a cognizant understanding that ‘something special’ was unfolding in life. I was looking out my bedroom window one morning thrilled to see my first snowfall. The weather was just settling in and in the sky were clouds that were showering the snowflakes but there were also patches of broken cloud where the sun was breaking in. In one moment a snowflake fell tangentially and stuck on the window pane, so that its entire structure could be seen. In that same moment, the sun broke out and the light of the sun struck the snowflake and lit up the structure in such a way that it seemed almost like a Christmas light. The experience was sheer awe and wonder, and quickly it was gone. But the experience was so salient I couldn’t forget it.

    Years later, I was beginning to read a biology book for the introductory course of biology that I was taking at university. I kept that book for this reason: In the introductory chapter was a kind of overview of the topics covered in biology. Near the first pages was a picture of snowflake that was back lit and so resembled my memory of that ‘hidden’ experience that I was memorized looking at the picture and reliving that moment of awe. On the next page (or so) was yet another picture, this time the text was introducing the topic of chemistry and it’s relationship to biology. To make the point, it portrayed a molecular structure of heme, which is the molecule that transports oxygen in our bodies. When I looked at it, the experience was like another “pull” at my heart. It seemed so similar to “my snowflake” in its’ structure. Then just a page or so later, was yet another picture of a molecules, this time it was the molecular structure of chlorophyll. Again it too seemed to have the same structure as heme but with what seemed to me (at the time) only a slight difference with the atom that occupied the center. The heme had an iron atom and the chlorophyll had the magnesium atom. The biology text described that chlorophyll helps plants ‘capture’ energy from the sun. This idea of ‘capturing’ light was again another heartfelt tug to that first experience of the snowflake. Then the question came to me, how is it that chlorophyll captures light but that the heme doesn’t? The text said it was all related to the atom that occupied the center of the structure of the molecule (my snowflake shape). Perhaps this was how the “seed” was planted. All that was needed was the careful watering supplied by a positive and supportive chemistry teacher who loved my questions.

    We do think we know and control the path we’re on don’t we? At least I can say I thought I did. I decided to go into the sciences to avoid what seemed to me as some kind of amorphous shape of other forms of knowledge disciplines. And yet in retrospect I can see that it was the beginning of a path into the discipline of Chemistry that would eventually lead me to Christ. Who knew?

    I am grateful for the hidden hand of God.

  22. Thank you, Fr. Stephen, and all who commented. What a lovely discussion (just got to it this evening).

    In just the last year or two, I have begun to feel “old”. Mostly this is not a bad thing, though there are discomforts now and then. And the awareness that I’m not as sharp as I used to be and I need to be a bit more careful.

    There are also some aspects of this process I find intriguing, even pleasant.

    One is the awareness that my agemates and I are becoming the “elders” in the communities of our work, our churches, our cities. Most of us are not retired yet, but many are thinking about it. We still see ourselves having something to give but what we have to give has changed. It is not so much about being “productive” as it is about sharing what we have come to know.

    Another observation is far more personal. I have been noticing my life becoming increasingly monastic (don’t ask me to define this, I just recognize it as what is happening). It isn’t really a choice as much as a gradual transformation in my life that I not only accept but embrace. It feels like a preparation of sorts…for whatever comes next.

    Then again…in a month, I will go to visit my 90 year old mother who resides in an assisted living facility. There I see an entirely different version of what it means to be old. There is a very slow pace and frequent napping in this world of the very old. The loss of friends and acquaintances is routine as each person awaits their “turn” to go. When will it happen? How will I go?

    I once heard a 90+ year old priest give a homily in which he said with considerable enthusiasm: “The best is yet to come!” And isn’t that what we believe? Though we dread losing our “old friends” and relatives, it is primarily because we miss their physical presence and the many roles they have played in our lives.

    But the promise of eternal life reminds us that we still share spiritual presence and new roles are born as the old fade away. (My father reposed almost 3 years ago now but he is still very much part of my life.)

  23. Bingo indeed Father… Bingo indeed.
    God bless and peace be with all.
    Christ is risen,
    He is with us!

  24. This is such a beautifull article. I also appreciate the comments, as always, and Dee your story of the snowflake and the molecules is so wonderful and truly mystical. It is beautiful in how He spoke to you silently and perfectly.

    My earliest memory of Scripture is from 2nd grade in Catholic School when I was taught by a elderly nun.

    I remember a grey kind of afternoon and all of my classmates sitting quietly and listening as our teacher read the story of Mary and Martha directly from the Bible while seated at her desk. Martha was busy with serving we learned, and became frustrated. I remember my teacher gently shaking her head towards the end of it and saying, to herself and to us, “Jesus didn’t need all that! He would have been happy with a sandwich!”

    Over the years I have been touched by this memory and glad that she shared with us a story that must have been very close to her heart. It was like she was learning it as well while she read it out loud. I also remember a classmate behind me gently shouting out ‘and some cookies!’ And many of us nodding as we agreed with him and our teacher.

  25. I’m a little embarrassed to be doing so much commentary here. But I will be very busy and will not be able to participate for awhile (and readers will have a rest from me ! 🙂 )

    Nicole I love your story about your nun teacher. She sounded like she was a very wise and loving teacher. I would like to share a similar story involving a Roman Catholic priest.

    When I reflect about how it was that the hidden hand of God helped me to overcome my anger (and admittedly hatred –I was 17 in this story), I remember something that also stayed with me over the years. After a car accident that killed my parents and mangled my brother and I, we were taken to the nearest hospital which was a Catholic hospital. Up to that time, I had not had exposure of any significance with any religious in the Catholic faith. After I was brought to my hospital room (that I shared with other kind people), a priest came in and sat next to my bed. He asked if I was Catholic, and I said no (tempted to say that I wasn’t sure I was even Christian). Then he asked if I wanted him to pray for me. What really broke down the walls of my heart was that he ‘asked’ in the most gentlest way. I said yes. I had a crushed rib cage on one side and one functioning lung. He laid down his rosary on the crushed side and prayed. The doctors thought I would always be a’ respiratory cripple’ (their words). But the lung healed. I have always reflected on that experience with love.

    If I were to point to a ‘pilot’ light that kept my heart ready over the years for that moment when the Lord would ‘stoke’ the fire, it would be that experience.

    Thank you for your reflections Nicole!

  26. Thank you too, Dee. Sending a warm hello to you on this Feast of the Ascension.

  27. Thank Fr. Stephen for your thoughts and to all the commentators. For the record, I am middle-aged, having turned 40 just last year.

    I seem older because I am a divorced mother with two boys in grade school, and when I read, “A young man imagines that the mistakes he is making are, with more effort, things that he will correct. An older man knows better,” tears formed in my eyes. My mistakes. . . there is no correcting.

    I am also a high school English teacher, and just yesterday I sat through another graduation ceremony. A young person’s speech is more often than not a thing to be endured. The worship of youth and success and progress . . . it is difficult to teach in such an environment. I am not a popular teacher, but many of my students comment on how calm I am. Yes, that is what I am able to give, not much more.

    Finally, this post and its comments make me think of my neighbor who is 84 and lives alone. When I was young, the elderly and nursing homes frightened me. I was determined that would not be true for my boys. So our neighbor, Miss Edith, has been a salve for our wounds. My sons adore her! They visit her almost daily and often ask to take their dinner plates to her house, so they can sit and chat with her. We live in a rural community of west Texas, so she often tells crude (hilarious) jokes and speaks with a sometimes incomprehensible drawl. It matters not to them. They soak up her stories and her wisdom, and I simply marvel. Now and again her heart causes her problems, and the boys fear for her. She is always honest about the nearness of death when she talks with them. In fact, she is the caretaker for the local cemetery and often takes them on walks around the graves. They discuss life at school and death, and it is all quite natural. She even lectures them and kicks them out of her house when they get ornery. We are Orthodox and she is Methodist, but her closeness to the earth (grew up on the farm) and wisdom makes her seem almost Orthodox. Being her neighbor is probably the single best thing I have ever done for my boys.

    Again, thank you for the post and the comments.

  28. Michelle and Anastaica,
    I read your posts and both touched me. You two both have young children, one a single mom. The devotion and love that you express, in your comments, toward them and others move me. We also have daughters with children of their own. It is a very real struggle to raise them in the way of the Lord in our society. Michelle, I will pray that Christ give you physical strength. Anastaica, your story of your neighbor and her relationship with your boys is priceless! West Texas, reminded me of stories of Texas by William Least Heat Moon. Thank you ladies.

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