Upholding the teachings of the Catholic Church
Vol. XVIII: No. 2 - Pentecost 2003
A Last Vocation -
to Grow Old Gracefully
by Rita Joseph
It's curious, as we grow older, how easy it is to lose our sense of direction, a sense of vocation, a sense of God's calling us to important things still to be done. Vocations are not just for the young starting out in marriage, a career, or religious life. There's another kind of vocation -- a kind of "late vocation" -- God's final call to a strong finish. It is God's call to each one of us to grow old gracefully -- full of grace -- to grow toward Him.
God calls us to respond heroically, like Saint Paul, pouring ourselves out like a libation until we can say: "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith" (II Tm 7).
As our bodies grow older and frailer, our souls are to grow stronger and truer. That's our final vocation -- and it's worth contemplating every day for the rest of our lives, for when all's said and done, it's that last call that really counts.
King Solomon -- No Fool Like an Old Fool
When I was a little girl, one of my big sisters told me the story of Solomon. I remember sitting on the back doorstep of our old homestead, and gazing up at the huge blue sky and across to the far horizons of the earth as I tried to figure out just how such a fine young king, given such a great gift of wisdom, could have ended up such a foolish, wicked old man. "I would never be like that", I said solemnly, with the smug innocence of childhood.
But now, I think I can understand Solomon's failure a little better. I think I can see how it might have happened. Perhaps it becomes quite easy as we grow older to want to take a little ease, to rest a while on our laurels, to take some small distractions, to crave some extra comforts, some additional pleasures that we might feel we've earned. And then perhaps sometimes these new relaxations get out of hand -- they become a kind of resentful compensation for the aches and pains and disappointments that accompany aging. How easy to surround ourselves with excessive levels of affluence and comfort, to retire into lazy self-indulgence -- to tell ourselves that we've finished our work and have earned retirement.
It would be so easy as we grow old to become "lovers of self, lovers of money... lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God" (II Tm 3:2,4). It is so easy to be beguiled by glamorous images of wonderfully-preserved aging stars enjoying amazingly youthful pursuits.
Like these older people today, perhaps Solomon was trying desperately to pretend he was not getting older -- that he could still enjoy all the pleasures of youth. Perhaps his behavior was the equivalent of today's religious devotion to gym work-outs and diets, face-lifts and makeovers, restless travel and endless educational courses in the trivia of life. On this last item, Saint Paul has some good advice. He warns us against "those who make their way into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and swayed by various impulses, who will listen to anybody and can never arrive at a knowledge of the truth" (II Tm 3:6-7).
Perhaps Solomon was prey to that perennial temptation to pretend that we do not grow old, that we will not die. Foolish, isn't it? Solomon squandered his old age in pleasing his silly wives and their silly gods. His last years were as ignominious as his youthful years were full of wisdom and glory. They remain a terrible reminder to us.
A Time for Growing Old
There is a time for growing old and a time to die, and the one is a preparation time for the other. A time for assessment. A time to discard the trappings of the world, a time Jesus says, to "sell your possessions, and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys" (Lk 12:33). A time to sell everything to buy the pearl beyond price, to acquire the field with the treasure. A time to pare down our material possessions: "take nothing on [the] journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money" (Mk 6:8). It's foolish to try to carry the things of youth with us to where we hope to go.
When Christ calls us to Him, there are specific instructions we are to follow. We are to prepare to let go -- to let go of everything.
If one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple (Lk 14:26-7).
When the time to die comes, we are to make prudent arrangements, to do all that is proper for those we are to leave behind. When the time was approaching for Jesus to die, He prayed for those He especially loved. He was worried for His apostles: "Father, make them one, as You and I are one..."
Jesus was concerned for His mother as He was dying: "'Woman, behold your Son! Then He said to the disciple, 'Behold, your mother!' And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home" (Jn 19:26-7).
Again, when the risen Jesus was getting ready to leave His apostles to ascend to His Father in heaven, His concern was for those He was leaving behind: "I will not leave you desolate, I will come to you.... The Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name ... will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you" (Jn 14:18,26).
A Time for Forgiving
Each day brings judgment day closer for each of us. Important things are still to be accomplished. As He was dying, Jesus prayed: "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do" (Lk 23:34). We too are to be forgiving -- there is to be no anger or resentment in our hearts for anyone on earth. Keeping in mind that all our lives we have prayed that God forgives us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, we should do a careful checklist of those against whom we still hold any grudges. A good test, I find, is to imagine myself arriving in heaven and meeting there some of my erstwhile banes. Can I imagine myself saying to them with true sincerity; "It's wonderful to see you here. I'm so glad you made it, too!"? If I can't say that and mean it, then I've still got work to do -- to forgive them truly -- to pray for them with all my heart. Jesus warned us about that: "If you love those who love you", He said, "Do not even the Gentiles to the same?" (Mt 5:46,47).
Old age is no excuse for failing to love others. Even in the most limiting circumstances, there are yet things we can do to help others -- through prayer and through accepting our suffering both mental and physical, through offering up the agony of doubts and fears, bouts of depression and the physical discomfort of our growing list of limitations.
A Time to Be Groomed for Heaven...
It's a tricky course we need to steer between presumption on God's mercy (I'm already saved -- Divine mercy is so great, I'll make heaven, no sweat!) and despair (I'm no good -- God will never forgive me -- I'll never make it!) I think it was one of the Marx Brothers who said that he wouldn't want to belong to any club that would have him for a member. Perhaps a little of that humility wouldn't go amiss in assessing one's hopes of joining the august company of saints in heaven. I suspect there are all kinds of unlikely people who will make heaven before I do. Remember the story of Lazarus and the rich man? And maybe that's why God gives most of us an aging body, and a longish lead-up to death -- so that we can be groomed for heaven, our hearts and our souls purified for when we are to come before God. That's certainly what Purgatory's about, ridding us of the dark residues in our souls -- getting us ready for the pure, shining goodness of God's presence.
Sometimes it dismays me when I attend a funeral, and the deceased is presented as a canonized saint -- the sermon and the eulogies come across as hagiography. While a certain amount of this no doubt comforts the mourners, it is the congregation's prayers, not its admiration, that are of most value to the one who has died. It troubles me because many people don't seem to understand that getting directly to heaven is quite a tricky thing -- most of us sinners are likely to need heaps of prayer. Prayers for the dead are "a holy and wholesome thought. Thus [Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sins" (II Macc 12:46). Read the Catechism's section on Purgatory (1030-32), which cites scriptural sources for the Church's teaching.
As we grow older, we need to think about this -- deeply.
Still Time to Make Good
Each one of us has a unique part to accomplish in God's plan. Each one is called to do special things that have been optimally designed by God to contribute to the coming of His Kingdom. Yet Saint Paul explains to us that salvation is God's gift to us -- we can none of us earn it through what we accomplish: "We are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them" (Eph 2:10).
So when we look back at the failures in our lives, we should not despair -- often God gives us second chances. Some late grace. A late lark singing. Sometimes He brings us by a detour back to where He wanted us to be, and affords us second chances to accomplish what we were assigned to do. Remember Saint Peter's three-fold denial of Christ before the cock crowed twice? Such is Christ's extraordinary mercy, His compassionate understanding of failure, that He gave to Saint Peter that second chance to repeal his denials, and to declare his love for Jesus three times in recompense. Our God is a God of second chances. Such is His loving kindness that He reconfigures our lives after the most appalling mistakes, and then calls us again to take up His work here on earth, entrusting us, as though we had never messed up. "Feed my lambs", He said to Saint Peter -- thus declaring the utmost confidence in this man who had three times betrayed Him. Saint Paul and Saint Augustine -- these, too, were entrusted with the work of the Lord after disastrous beginnings. Remember always that God makes all things right for those who love Him -- if we grow in love for Him, and are truly sorry for our sins, He will send others to rework the things we have spoiled.
Some Final Temptations
Meanwhile, the temptations of aging can be very trying -- for example, the temptation, when the going gets tough, to think we have been abandoned -- yet Christ is with us, helping us carry our cross every step of the way.
Self-pity is another temptation of aging, particularly as troubles mount. In the grand scheme of salvation, self-pity has no place -- the bigger the cross we are being asked to carry, the greater should be our sense of privilege. We must strive to grasp the immensity of the great drama we are living. The stakes are transcendentally high -- to win is to be with God -- beloved, safe, blissfully content, at home in His presence for all eternity. To lose is unthinkable -- it is the loss of God, the loss of every good thing, it is to be banished from home, damned to bleakness and despair for ever and ever.
Preparing for the Final Assault
Given what's in the balance, only fools could think of old age as a bore, as an anti-climax, a codicil to all the important business of living. One of the silliest phrases ever applied to older people is that they are "over the hill". How wrong-headed! Both the best and the worst is yet to come. The worst first, of course. Far from being over the hill, we have the toughest climb still ahead. Careful, prudent preparations must be made for the final assault on the final peak.
Whatever our physical handicaps (and there are many as the body ages), we must get our spiritual life into peak condition. Get ourselves a spiritual trainer (a good confessor). Build up those spiritual muscles. Daily Mass. Regular confession. The Rosary. Read the Gospels, the lives of the saints. Tap into the Communion of Saints. Pray for the souls in Purgatory -- befriend them, their suffering and prayer can help us; our suffering and prayer can help them. Get to know the saints and call on them to pray for us. Don't forget our guardian angels, nor the archangels -- they have extraordinary powers to intercede for us. Daily prayer is critical to success: prayers of praise and thanksgiving, not just prayers of petition, all sorts of prayers, morning, noon, night, and especially prayers when we can't sleep. Often our best, most honest prayers are when we lie awake, alone, in pain, in the darkness. Seek comfort through prayer. "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest" (Mt 11:28). And above all remember that as each of us makes that final assault on the peaks of holiness, all the angels and saints are cheering each of us on. Our Lord Himself spoke of the whole of heaven rejoicing when one sinner is saved.
Beware the Noon-Day Devil
The wise old monks of centuries gone by used to warn the young monks to "beware the noon-day devil" -- the devil that comes to tempt them in the middle of the day, after they have risen early, and prayed fervently, and worked hard all morning in the fields. So too perhaps we should be wary of the temptations of middle-age, the prelude to old age. The noon-day devil targets us just when we are getting a little weary, disillusioned, disappointed, dissatisfied. The courage and enthusiasm of youth have dissipated, our souls are dry, and life seems dull, flavorless. But Jesus warns us: "if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltness be restored? It is fit neither for the land nor for the dunghill; men throw it away" (Lk 14:34-35). If we are to be the salt of the earth, then we must pray for a fresh resolve to press on into old age with renewed integrity and courage.
Our Lord understands so well the human condition; He warns us again and again to make ourselves ready for the finals, to make sure we've enough in our spiritual stores in heaven to see us through. We are to approach death with prudence, knowing that it is going to be tough. Not like the foolish virgins who run out of oil... Not like the man who hasn't done his homework and runs out of building materials... Not like those who lay up treasures in this world to be eaten away by moths and worms and rust Nor like the farmer who builds new barns and fills them with grain right up to his last day on earth... Nor like the Dives of this world who eat and drink and party their way through life, without even noticing the poor waiting at the gates.
Fear of Being Dependent on Others
In His prophecy about the end times (Luke 21), Jesus advises us to prepare for the ordeal ahead. We must size up our cross, recognize the things that are going to be difficult. Dependency is one of the greatest fears people have these days as they grow old. The proponents of euthanasia understand this and play on it unscrupulously. "I don't want to be a burden to my family", they say as they grow frail and ill and in need of intimate care. Of course, the Christian response should always be: "You are no burden -- we love you". This is the beauty of love, part of what the Holy Father has called the economy of grace -- that careers move toward heaven through their loving care of the old, and the old move toward heaven through their humble, patient suffering. It is hard to lose our independence. But it may be part of God's call -- remember Jesus warned Peter: "when you were young you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go" (Jn 21:18). For us too, losing our independence can be a kind of martyrdom -- it is not without meaning and value.
The Temptation to Settle for Mediocrity
The cynicism of old age must be avoided -- our reaching for holiness must be sincere, full of hope, passionate. Our Lord abhors those who are luke-warm in their faith: "I will spew you out of my mouth" (Rev 3:16).
Especially, we are to resist the temptation to look around at all those who appear to be a great deal more sinful than we are, and like the foolish man in the front pew of the synagogue, congratulate ourselves on not being adulterers and not missing Mass on Sundays like all these other people.
On the other hand, we should beware the current fad for false modesty, the deprecatory claims that "I'm no saint". How often have we heard people say that with a kind of inverted pride? And yet they are making a fundamental mistake. If they are not wanting to be a saint, then they are not wanting to reach heaven. Simple as that.
Either we do the hard yards in the last decades of our lives here on earth, or we shall have to do them in Purgatory. We strive to follow exactly what Christ says: "Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Mt 5:48). We should be careful not to take false comfort in a middle-of-the-road status. Neither too hot nor too cold -- this is a pathetic response to the great love that God has poured out on us. He loved us so much that He sent His only Son, whom He loved beyond all telling, to die on the cross in order to give us another chance of heaven. God loves us extravagantly, beyond anything we can understand. He loves us passionately. And to this extravagant, passionate love, there can be only one appropriate response:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself (Lk 10:27).
Through the Valley of Death - the Way Home to the Father
I have called you by your name... That is the marvelous truth of each life on earth. God's love is personal. Though there are six billion people on earth, each one of us is known and loved and sought out by God. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is ready to leave the whole flock to find the one who is lost. "I am the way, and the truth, and the life". Christ is our way home to the Father, "no one comes to the Father, but by me" (Jn 14:6). We go home via Calvary through Jesus and through His cross. "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me" (Lk 9:23). The way of the cross takes us "through the valley of death"; but we are not to fear it, for Christ is there with His crook and His staff -- with these we will be comforted.
Being Formed in the Pattern of Christ's Death
A vocation to aging is for some a vocation to suffering and pain, for others a vocation to loneliness, and for all it is a vocation to dying -- these are the things God calls us to endure, and we must not turn back kicking and screaming. In quiet dignity and resignation, we must follow Jesus. Like Him, we must follow what is ordained for us. On the road to Emmaus, Jesus explained to the disciples that His suffering and death were "ordained". For each of us comes a defining moment when like Jesus, we must turn our face toward death. He turned His face to Jerusalem. We must go forward to embrace the cross and follow Him.
He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If any one serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there shall my servant be also; if any one serves me, the Father will honor him. Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? 'Father, save me from this hour'? No, for this purpose I have come to this hour (Jn 12:25-7).
This is the meaning of our final vocation -- that in each life, God is calling us to "this hour", to suffer patiently and to die in His grace. He calls us to follow the perfect lines of Christ's passion and death. We will come to "this hour" when we must echo Christ's prayer of acceptance in His agony in the Garden of Gethsemane "My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will but as thou wilt" (Mt 26:39). In "this hour" we are to travel beyond despair: "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?" (Mk 15:34) and to reach our greatest act of faith: "Father, into Thy hands I commit my spirit" (Lk 23:46). Only then comes the final release: "It is finished" (Jn 19:30).
This is our real vocation. Few have mapped it out as clearly as Saint Paul:
that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and may share His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead (Phil 3:10-1).
But then few have seen as clearly as Saint Paul the rewards of following Christ to the Resurrection:
No eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love Him (I Cor 2:9).
Rita Joseph has represented family concerns at UN conferences, and writes and lectures on social issues especially concerning women and families, and has made a special study of the Holy Father's writings on family and on women. She has previously lectured at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family Studies in Melbourne. Rita and her husband live in Canberra, Australia.
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