A Reflection on Growing Older

Living with Open Hands

Just as parents bring their child for baptism in our culture, so Mary and Joseph brought the infant Jesus to the Temple to consecrate him to God and to offer sacrifice. This event we call the Presentation of the Lord. Almost out of nowhere two very old and very attractive people appear. One is Simeon, who is prompted by the Spirit to come and the other is Anna who just happens to be in the right place at the right time. Both are able to recognize the baby as the long awaited Messiah and Simeon utters his well known prophecy, that this Christ child is destined for the fall and rise of many people in Israel and to Mary he foretells that, ‘her soul a sword shall pierce that the secret thoughts of many will be revealed’. Both of them are full of wisdom having lived lives of faith. They are serene and discerning and when this great moment of grace offers itself they are able to grasp it with both hands. Each are role models for people in older age and as the years pass it be wonderful to be like them. The question is how?

It seems to be true that ageing is not an option while growing old is. We can neither turn back the clock or slow it down, but to a large extent we are responsible for the face that greets us when we look in the mirror each morning. It’s our face that reveals our inner life and for a woman it reveals her inner beauty long after the time when rosy cheeks and supple lips have passed. Here in this community we have known and know so many who were not ninety years old but ninety years young. I think of my old friend Brendan Mullins who although over ninety when he died didn’t have an aged bone in his body or even a negative thought in his mind. He was utterly young at heart and the same is true for so many around that age in this community. When visitors see women in their late seventies and eighties with smiling faces still serving long hours in the Coffee shop, many ask what are they on because they sure could do with some of it.

In fact what they are on is one of the big ingredients of happiness and contentment, for those of any age. To be involved in some kind of service in your local community is a key to feeling productive and alive. Its now well recognized that those who do voluntary service, live lives that are far more fulfilled than those who don’t and receive a form of payment that money can never match.

Last week I carved a pair of hands that could symbolize service but because they are open could point to so much more. Usually, in the words of Shakespeare, ‘it’s not too hard to read the minds construction in the face’. If we allow ourselves to slip into a mode where we are continually complaining we will rarely smile. If we take ourselves too seriously we will never laugh and just frown at other peoples jokes. Also there’s nothing that shows on our face so fast as bitterness and resentment. When we say that someone is eaten up with anger and negativity it’s in their faces that we will have noticed it first and only later in their words.

A man said to his wife, ‘Dear when we get older, and if the day comes when I’m dependent on a machine with some liquid being fed into me you know what to do.’ She just turned off the TV and poured his glass of whiskey down the sink!

There is a type of old age that we all have good reason to fear and it’s a kind that we can so easily create for ourselves. Society presents us with an image of old age that is disastrous where we are past our best before date and are even into our worst after phase and are a burden on others and society. So many are afraid of dying badly, ending our lives alone, being unloved, dependent on others suffering from dementia and in in some lifeless place. But does it have to be like that? While it is the lot of so many, the living testimony of others is clearly quite the opposite.

Here in the western world we tend to fear old age whereas in many parts of the East it’s something that is looked forward to and so they speak of ‘venerable old age’. In our culture the first stage of ageing for the female is the menopause. I don’t know if there’s a women pause yet as I’m still too young! In China this is practically unknown and so they don’t even have a word for it. That’s likely because the attitude to growing older is so different to here. While the old person is not able to be as productive physically, he or she is the wise one, who is able to contribute something that is much more valuable than physical work.

I often ask one of the oldest men in our community how is he doing and his answer is, ‘Thank God, I am ageing well’. What better way to live out one’s latter years than to age well. In our society so many are terrified of growing old and so a fortune is spent on age defying treatments. A nip here, a tuck there, some botox somewhere else. Perhaps even a toupee to cover up the strand long after the tide has gone out! Paradoxically, the ones who are obsessed with remaining young in appearance always seem to be those who become old looking the fastest.

There’s really nothing older than not wanting to grow old. If we become too caught up with outer appearances, the radiance of inner beauty doesn’t always get a chance to shine. That’s where you often see in an older face an inner beauty that is even greater than what nature had granted in their thirties. The secret seems to be, to remain young at heart. When the nursing home was in operation in Kilmore, a young attractive nurse came to work. Inevitable one of the elderly men made a grab at her. She fielded off his advances by telling him to ‘feck off’ and calling him ‘a randy old man’. He just smiled and said, ‘what you forget nurse if that at heart I’m still a young man and now I’m just in an old body’. In every eighty year old there’s a forty year old wondering whatever has happened and how the heck did it happen so quickly.

Society can show us lots of poisonous examples of old age and all the negatives that it brings, but we will also see many around us who are bearers of good news. They have managed to grow old gracefully and you only have to look in their contented faces in order to see that to be the case. They have tapped into that part of themselves, which we call the heart, that can never grow old, and for the person who remains young at heart, while their body may wear out it will never rust out.

Like Simeon and Anna in the Temple who recognized their moment of grace when it came, wouldn’t it be nice to approach older age with open hands and to see it not as a time to be feared but also as a time of grace.

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