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.