The Gift of Aging
by Carroll E. Simcox
Dr. Simcox was the former editor of the Living Church Magazine in 1987 He was residing in Hendersonville, North Carolina. This article appeared in The Christian Century, December 2, 1987, pp. 1090-1092. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found atwww.christiancentury.org. This article was prepared for Religion Online by John R. Bushell.
This collect for the second Sunday in Advent by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer is an inspired expression of the Bible's ultimate purpose: to educate God's people for and in that knowledge of God that constitutes our eternal life (John 17:3).
In speaking of eternal life, Cranmer was wise to point to a blessed hope rather than to a triumphant certainty. I for one have always felt more secure in my hopes than in my certainties. Cranmer correctly spoke of the blessed hope as given to us in rather than by the Lord. Our asking Christ for faith, or hope, or charity, or any other gift must be our striving to live, move and have our being in Christ, who is our "hope of glory" (Col. 1:27).
But not merely by reading, learning and digesting the Scriptures do we see Christ formed in us and we in him. He gives us throughout all our experiences what Wordsworth calls "intintimations of immortality. " My own intimations seem to register more sharply and clearly upon my consciousness as I have grown older -- now aged 75. So it seems to be with most people.
These intimations conform to the cycle Paul describes in II Corinthians 4:16: the outer self is winding down, petering out, while the inner self is being born as a new, or renewed, creature. The new I, now coming into being, is entirely composed of what remains of the old disintegrating self. This is the beginning the first pang -- of the resurrection of the body into eternal life.
Paul's language is that of classic mysticism: the outer self, the body-mind entity, is transient, what the scholastics called accidental. The inner self, the soul-entity, is the essential self, and it is permanent, immortal and, scholastically speaking, substantial. This is the only way in which I can see myself and make any sense of what I see.
The evidences of the decay of the outer self are lamentably familiar to most of us beyond 60 years. The evidences come in many shapes, sizes, ways and degrees: stiffness of joints, forgetfulness concerning names, the feeling of being less and less "with it."
My intimations are not unique to me; they have been observed by others wiser than I. Someone asked William James at age 70 if he believed in immortality and he replied: "Never strongly, but more so as I grow older."
-"And why is that?"
"Because I'm just getting fit to live!"
James's implicit theology argues for an order in life that is ultimately right to an ultimate Intelligence. He felt that the seven decades of his existence had been an educative experience which had as its telos a completeness of being, a full fitness for life, which even now he could view only prospectively. James was the very model of a human achiever, yet he saw himself in no such laudable light. Though he was hopeful about his years of striving and stumbling, he felt that at long last he was about to cease being a "human becoming" and to start a new existence as a human being. Such was his intimation-from reality itself.
"At 80," said Archibald MacLeish, "you have to begin to look ahead. " Apparently, I am in the fast lane with James and MacLeish. It's quite exhilarating.
Douglas MacArthur evaluated his life on his 75th birthday, saying: "Nobody grows old merely by living a number of years. People grow old by deserting their ideals. Years may wrinkle the skin, but to give up interest wrinkles the soul. In the central place of every heart, there is a recording chamber; so long as it receives messages of beauty, hope, cheer, and courage, so long are you young. When the wires are all down and your heart is covered with the snows of pessimism and the ice of cynicism, then, and then only, are you grown old.
MacArthur lacked the wisdom of the heart that Benjamin Disraeli expressed in a letter to Lady Bradford: "I am certain there is no greater misfortune than to have a heart that will not grow old. " The wisdom of the heart is its growing old in experience, recollected in tranquility, and digested in grace, humility and love. What other wisdom is worth seeking and having? If people are rightly aging, they are growing in that wisdom, and as their years increase so does this wisdom.
G. 'K. Chesterton tells us that his old Victorian grandfather grew more silent as he grew older. One day his grown-up sons were peevishly complaining about a portion of the General Thanksgiving in the, Book of Common Prayer. It is wicked, they were saying, to thank God for creation when so many people have little reason to be thankful for their miserable existence. The old man broke his silence to say: "I would thank God for my creation if I knew I was a lost soul.
Likewise, I find myself constantly thanking God for the gift of being (or becoming) since otherwise I should be a nonbeing (or a nonbecoming). I remember no such feeling from my youth; it has grown upon me as my decades have increased. I accept it as a distinct and undismissable intimation of immortality. This sense of the intrinsic goodness and worthwhileness of my being is a sense of its perdurability. I could never convince myself, no matter how hard I might try, that I will cease to exist, since I already exist. Something will come of nothing only when God says, "Let there be. "My final destination may be hell; it cannot be nowhere. And if, though God forbid, it comes to that, I hope I shall still be man enough-and sensible enough-to thank God for my creation.
Plato Wrote in The Republic: "Old age has a great sense of calm and freedom; when the passions relax their hold, then we are freed from the grasp not of one bad master only, but of many." Many people beyond middle age -- including me -- validate Plato's observation. On his 90th birthday, U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., saw a beautiful woman and remarked with a sigh, "Oh, to be 70 again!" I can appreciate the plaintive humor in that sentiment, for am I not a man like any other with body, parts and passions? But I can testify to gratitude rather than regret in this relaxation of the passions. As my libidinous desire for a beautiful woman either diminishes in itself or loses its power to perform, my delight in her whole beauty-mind and spirit as well as body-increases. What a happy turn of interior events that is: love without sweat! I love all people more, because now I can dare let myself love them for their own beauty-of-being instead of what I can get from them. I have realized this development as a twofold intimation of immortality; on the one side Platonic, on the other Christian.
Whatever truth we learn comes ultimately from God: that I have known since my youth. God teaches me through Plato that all our experiences of beauty in this present world are but reflections or indirect manifestations of the eternal and divine Beauty. Platonically-minded mystics also see these experiences as rungs on the ladder which they are ascending toward the ultimate direct vision of the divine Beauty itself.
On its other side, my intimation is Christian. This change in the focus and very nature of my loving is a change of the command of myself from eros to agape, from loving others for my sake to loving others for theirs. The switch is only beginning, having a long way to go before completion; but it is unmistakably underway.
This transition from the one way of loving to the other is taking place in me, and without my conscious effort to bring it about. It appears to be part of the aging process (though not in any who refuse to allow it). I am sure that it was taking place in James at 70, MacLeish at 80 and Holmes at 90.
William Saroyan, who died in 1981, would have remained one of my favorite people even if I had never learned of something he said while dying of cancer in his 70s: "I'm growing old. I'm falling apart. And I find it VERY INTERESTING!" When I read this statement in an obituary I began to take self-inventory. I was growing old. I was beginning to fall apart. But I was in good health-not dying of cancer. Here was a man who found life "very interesting" when it was most painfully coming apart. After reading Saroyan's words, I experienced one of those salutary shames that so often revive the soul. Through his brave and bright witness, God gave me the grace to look at my life as it had been and was and is becoming, and as a debtor: as one to whom God owes nothing whatsoever. Instantly, I began to find the growing old, the coming apart-and everybody and everything else-more interesting than they had ever been before. Saroyan's comment made me aware of the sheer interestingness of existence in all its multifarious motions and commotions.
The self can die only if and when it loses all wonder, either this side of the grave or beyond. Sir Wilfred Grenfell reportedly said while in his 20s: "As for the life to come, I know nothing about it; but I want it, whatever it is." Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for more and better life, for they shall receive Life everlasting. Jesus must have had our ultimate desires in mind when he taught us that by asking we receive, by seeking we find. And when we knock, the door is opened to us. The longer I live the more I ask, seek and knock.
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