Celebrating Gifts of Ageing
“God has to work in the soul in secret and in darkness because if we fully knew what was happening, and what Mystery, transformation, God and Grace will eventually ask of us, we would either try to take charge or stop the whole process.”
– St. John of the Cross
We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us… Move. Move. Move into the transcendent. That’s what the whole sense of adventure is.
“My fiftieth year had come and gone,
I sat, a solitary man,
In a crowded London shop,
An open book and empty cup
On the marble table-top.
While on the shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessed and could bless.”
– W.B. Yeats
As my birthday approached this year, I found myself reflecting on what it means to turn sixty. This felt like a significant birthday. There is a lot I could say about it, but I also felt silenced by the profundity of the number. For some of you, sixty is no doubt a fond memory, perhaps in the distant past. For me, it has been a future milepost full of meanings for decades. I am tempted to remove my shoes as I step onto the “holy ground’ of the coming seventh decade.
I remember other notable birthdays. Many of the early ones were marked by new opportunities for life. There was entering high school, then the age when I could drive a car (finally!). There was the 21st birthday, which brought the ability to buy alcohol and the designation of “adult.” Finally! These were joyful mileposts full of significance. For someone who could not wait to grow up, they signaled that I had finally made it.
Now, it is almost 40 years since I “became an adult.” At this point, the ageing process feels a bit too fast, like a runaway train. And the new opportunities for life that are coming with age are more subtle, if no less profound. I doubt anyone out there is openly celebrating the transition to “must have glasses on when driving” that I now enjoy. Woot! Do any of you celebrate that that it now hurts when you take the first few steps each morning? Growing older is a mixed bag, a constant letting go of what has been for what may yet be.
St John of the Cross hits the nail right on the head when he points to the human tendency to shut down the spiritual transformation process that life offers us. Sometimes we would really just like things to stay as they are. It seems that opportunities for spiritual transformation are the gift that ageing brings us. In time, our physical strength and stamina fade and little aches and pains move in. What are we to do?
Joseph Campbell suggests that “we must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us… [We have to] move. Move. Move into the transcendent.” This movement into the transcendent is a great gift of ageing. As our bodies age, if we are lucky, there is a simultaneous dawning of an awareness of a timeless, ageless aspect of ourselves. Eastern mystics sometimes call this “witness consciousness.” It is said to generally begin showing up around age 40. No matter what your age, you might ask yourself: do you (the one looking out through your eyes right now) feel any older than you did twenty years ago? Can you sense, however tentatively, that the “you” who is reading this right now is actually than the ageless, timeless being that you have always been? Letting go into this aspect of ourselves can be exhilarating and freeing. Ultimately, we may hope that as we ultimately let the body go entirely, we will move into complete identification with this aspect of self that does not die, our true self or Christ self. For those who navigate this transition gracefully, Paul’s words will at that time ring true, “oh, death, where is thy sting?” I do not expect to die anytime soon, but this next phase feels like it will be a time of letting go into the transcendent and the timeless now. I am glad to have company such as you with whom to continue my spiritual walk.
Here’s to your ongoing awakening!