Sister Joan Chittister
Sister Joan Chittister is offering an online course on the blessings behind every aspect of growing older. Learn more about this opportunity here.
The one certain dimension of US demographics these days is that the fastest growing segment of the American population is comprised of people above the age of 65. We, and all our institutions, as a result, are a greying breed. At the same time, we are, in fact, the healthiest, longest lived, most educated, most active body of elders the world has ever known. The only real problem with that is that we are doing it in the face of a youth culture left to drive a capitalist economy that thrives on sales.
So, what we sell is either to youth, about youth, or for the sake of affecting youth. But after all the pictures of 60-looking 80 year olds going by on their bikes fade off the screen, the world is left with, at best, a very partial look at what it means to be an elder.
Especially for those who never did like biking much to begin with.
The truth of the matter is that all of life, at any age, is about ripening. Life is about doing every age well, learning what we are meant to learn from it and giving to it what we are meant to give back to it.
The young give energy and wonder and enthusiasm and heart-breaking effort to becoming an accomplished, respected, recognized adult. And for their efforts they reap achievement and identity and self-determination.
The middle-aged give commitment and leadership, imagination and generativity. They build and rebuild the world from one age to another. And for their efforts they get status, and some kind of power, however slight, and the satisfaction that comes from a sense of accomplishment.
The elderly have different tasks entirely. The elderly come to this stage of life largely finished with a building block mentality. They have built all they want to build. It is their task in life now to evaluate what has become of it, what it did to them, what of good they can leave behind them. They bring to life the wisdom that comes from having failed as often as they succeeded, relinquished as much as they accumulated. And this stage of life comes with its own very clear blessings.
Given the luxury of years, the elders in a society bring a perspective on life that is not possible to the young and of even less interest to the middle aged whose life is consumed with concern for security and achievement. Instead the elders look back on the twists and turns of life with a more measured gaze. Some things, they know now, which they thought had great value at one age, they see little value in later. The elders know that what lasts in life, what counts in life, what remains in life after all the work has been completed are the relationships that sustained us, not the trophies we collected on the way.
The Elders are blessed with insight
For the first time in life, the elderly have time to enjoy the present. The morning air becomes the kind of elixir again that they have not known since childhood. The park has become an observation deck on the world. The library is now the crossroads of the world. The coffee shop becomes the social center of their lives. And small children a new delight and a companion, if not leaders, as they explore their way through life again.
The blessing of this time is appreciation of the moment.
FREEDOM:There is a kind of liberation that comes with being an elder. All the old expectations go to mist. The competition and stress that comes with trying to find a place in today’s highly impersonal economy fade away and I can do what I like, wear what I like, say what I like without bartering my very survival for it. For the first time in years it is possible simply to be a person in search of a life rather than an economic pawn in search of a high-toned livelihood. The need to reek of competence and approval gives way to the need to enjoy life.
The awareness of life as liberating rather than burdensome is the most refreshing blessing a soul can have.
NEWNESS: The truism prevails that it is the young, that part of the social spectrum who stand on the brink of adulthood who have the opportunity to make the great choices of life: where to go, how to live, what to do with our one precious and fragile life. But if truth were told it is really the elderly who have the option to become new again. With the children on t heir own and the house paid for, with our dues paid to the social system and our identities stripped away from what we do to what we are, we have the world at our feet again. We can do all the things we’ve put aside for years: learn to play the guitar, go back to school, volunteer in areas we have always wanted to do more of like become a tour guide or a museum aid, go backpacking or become a children’s reader at the local library. We can now get up every morning to begin life all over again.
The blessing of life now lies in the realization that life is not over but beginning again in a whole new way.
TALE TELLING: The elders in a society are its living history, its balladeers who tell the history of a people and the lessons of growth that come with them. The war veteran can talk now about the hell of war that belies its so-called glory. The mothers know what it means to raise children with less money than the process demands. The old couples know that marriage is a process not an event and that what draws people into marriage will not be what keeps them there. These are the ones who raise for the rest of us the beacons of hope that tell us the truth we need, on our own dark days, to hear: If these others could survive the depression, the losses, the breakups and breakdowns of life, we have living proof now, so can we.
The process of past reflection is one of the major blessings an elder can have because it crystallizes the value of one’s own life and blesses the rest of the world with wisdom at the same time.
RELATIONSHIPS: In the lexicon of elders, all too often and all too late, a new event begins to take front and center where once work and the social whirl had held sway. Elders wake up in the morning aware that the only thing really left in life after all the schedules have disappeared are the people that have been left out of them for far too long: the adult children they haven’t talked to for weeks—no, months—now. They remember the last old friend they met in the market who said “We really have to have coffee together some day” and begin to look around for the phone number. They recall with a pang the grandchildren they promised to take to the zoo and wonder with a pang whether or not the zoo is still open for the season—and whether the children still remember grandpa and the promise. Elders have the luxury of attending to people now rather than to things. And out of that attention comes a new sense of being really important to the world.
One of the great blessings of being elderly is not that it isolates us but that, ironically, it ties us more tightly to the people around us
TRANSCENDENCE: Finally, it is the elders in a society who distill for the rest of it the real meaning of life—and right before our eyes. The quality of their reflections on life are so different than ours, they must certainly be listened to. The serenity of their souls in the face of total change—both physical and social—give promise that behind all the hurly-burly lies a deep pool of peace. The devotion they bring to the transcendentals of life—to solitude, to prayer, to reading, to the arts, to the simple work of gardening, to the great questions of the age, to their continuing commitment to building a city, a country, a world that will be better for us when they move on, may be the greatest spiritual lesson of life a younger generation may ever get as well as the greatest insight they every have.
Indeed, to find ourselves on the edge of elderhood, is to find ourselves in an entirely new and exciting point in life. It is blessing upon blessing and it invites those around them to live more thoughtfully themselves by listening to them carefully now—while we all still have time.
If you are interested in learning how aging is really a great adventure and are looking for an online retreat, this just might be the thing for you.
Each great spiritual tradition, in its own way, suggests a model of what it means to be a holy person. Each of them shines a light on the human ideal. Each of them talks about what it takes to grow, to endure, to develop, to live a spiritual life in a world calculatingly material and sometimes maddeningly unclear.
Every major spiritual tradition—Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam—brings a special gift to the art of living the spiritual life. Each of them refracts the light of its own spiritual wisdom texts in particularly sharp and distinct ways. Each of them strikes a different tone in giving the great truths of life that form a chord, a symphony of truth.
It is an enlightening excursion, this wandering into the spiritual insights of other whole cultures, other whole intuitions of the spiritual life. It depends for its fruitfulness on openness of heart and awareness of mind. But the journey is well worth the exertion it takes to see old ideas in new ways because it can bring us to the very height and depth of ourselves. It can even bring fresh hear¬ing, new meaning to the stories that come down to us through our own tradition. A Sufi story defines the process clearly:
“Tell us what you got from enlightenment,” the seeker said. “Did you become divine?” “No, not divine,” the holy one said. “Did you become a saint?” “Oh dear, no,” the holy one said. “Then what did you become?” the seeker asked. And the holy one answered, “I became awake.”
It is the task of becoming awake to our God, to our world, to the wisdom that even now lies within us, waiting only to be tapped, that is the real meaning of our questions. It is, more than that, the one great task of life.
May your journey through these questions bring you a new moment of awareness. May it be an enlightening one. May you find embedded in the wisdom of the past, like all students of life before you, the answers you yourself are seeking now. May they waken that in you which is deeper than fact, truer than fiction, full of faith. May you come to know that in every human event is a particle of the Divine to which we turn to meaning here, to which we tend for fullness of life hereafter.
God speaks in many tongues, glows in many colors, calls to us in many voices, is beyond any puny little parochial image we make of God. It is this great cosmic God we seek.
Dogmas are signposts along the road of the soul on the way to God. They are meant to open our minds to mystery. They are not meant to keep us from learning about God in other places and ways.
Religion is meant to lead us to the center and source of creation. The aberration of religion, then lies in spending so much time as religious people claiming our truth and condemning everybody else’s. When theology is used to condemn another person’s path to God, it not only distracts us from the purpose of religion but it distorts it, as well.
What is the deepest meaning of Buddhism, Master?” the disciple asked. And in answer the Zen masters tell us, the teacher only bowed. It is in being able to find the sacred in everything that a person finally discovers God.
“God is the East and the West and wherever you turn, there is God's face,” the Koran teaches. “Behold I am with you all days,” the evangelist Matthew says, “even to the end of time.”
The Hindus teach, “May peace and peace and peace be everywhere.” Jesus says “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you.” The overall message is clear: the abiding presence of God is a universal revelation.
The Buddha said there is an Eightfold Path to inner peace: right view, right aim, right speech, right action, right living, right effort, right mindfulness, right contemplation. Jesus says there are eight beatitudes: mercy, poverty of spirit, mourning, meekness, hunger for righteousness, purity of heart, peacemaking and witness.” Do you think they decided on these together?
“In this world aspirants may find enlightenment by two different paths,” we learn in the Bhagavad Gita.“For the contemplative is the path of knowledge; for the active is the path of selfless action.” The Christian tradition teaches that both contemplation and a commitment to social justice are essential parts of the Christian life.
“Hear O Israel: the Lord our God is One,” we learn in Deuteronomy. And the Hindu prays, “He is the one God, hidden in all beings, all-pervading, the Self within all beings.” And the Sikh says in the Mul Mantra, “He is the Sole Supreme Being, of eternal manifestation.” Clearly, the whole world knows that our God is their God, too. So how can we be more loved than they?
“I have breathed into humans My spirit,” The Koran says. “Let us always consider ourselves as if the Holy One dwells within,” the Talmud teaches. “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me,” Christianity says. But if we are all vessels of the divine, how can we use religion to justify destruction of other human beings?
“I have just three things to teach: simplicity, patience and compassion,” the TaoTe Ching teaches. “There are only three things that matter: faith, hope and love. And the greatest of these is love.” Wouldn't the world be different if we all loved what God loves–the other?
How do I know if I’m finally becoming closer to God? It’s when I see God in everyone I meet and touch God in everything that is.
—from Joan Chittister::Essential Writings, selected by Mary Lou Kownacki and Mary Hembrow Snyder (Orbis)
The Sufi tell stories that say all I think I'll ever know about finding God.
The first story is a disarming and compelling one. It is also, I think, a troublesome one, a fascinating one, a chastening one: “Help us to find God,” the seeker begged the Elder. “No one can help you there,” the Elder answered. “But why not?” the seeker insisted. “For the same reason that no one can help a fish to find the ocean.” The answer is clear: There is no one who can help us find what we already have.
The second story is even more challenging. “Once upon a time," the Sufi say, “a seeker ran through the streets shouting over and over again, We must put God into our lives. We must put God into our lives. "Ah, poor soul,” an Elder smiled wanly. “If only we realized the truth: God is always in our lives. The spiritual task is simply to recognize that.”
As a Benedictine, a disciple of an order historically devoted to the Sacrament of the Ordinary, I know how disappointing, how exhilarating that kind of advice can be. The neophyte seeks to pass the test of spiritual heroics; the wise seek to accomplish only the testimony of integrity. The young think the task is to buy God by their good efforts; the insightful know that the task is to want God beyond the lure of lesser ends, including even the trappings of spirituality.
For my own part, I entered religious life intent on being spiritually intrepid. I wanted something far more romantic than the Sacrament of the Ordinary. I expected to find formulas tried and true, ideas that were esoteric, a life that was mystical, a regimen that was at least duly demanding, if not momentously ascetic. What I found were spiritual manuals that were convoluted and academic, at best, and a community that was simple and centered in God always. The writers had missed the mark; the women were living the life. It was very disappointing. And it was very right.
God is not in the whirlwind, not in blustering and show, Scripture teaches us. God is in the breeze, in the very atmosphere around us, in the little things that shape our lives. God is in the contradictions that assail us, in the circumstances that challenge us, in the attitudes that impel us, in the motives that drive us, in the life goals that demonstrate our real aspirations, in the burdens that wear us down, in the actions that give witness to the values in our hearts. God is in the stuff of life, not in the airy-fairy of fertile imaginations bent on the pursuit of the preternatural. God is where we are, including in the very weaknesses that vie for our souls.
Benedictine spirituality attends to those things, not to tricks and trials designed to make spiritual athletes out of spiritual weaklings. Finding God depends on finding what determines our own lives and realizing in them the power and transcendence that is God.
I learned from holy women before me that finding God depends on four things: a conscious awareness of the presence of God; the sacralization of life; an atunement to the Holy Spirit and a sense of place in the universe.
A conscious awareness of the presence of God requires the development of a sincere and serious prayer life that is more reflective, thoughtful, and contemplative than it is mere rote and ritual. “Going to church’" is not a substitute for putting myself in the presence of God. Turning our minds and hearts over to the God of the universe puts us in the place of That Which we seek. The purpose of prayer is not to make God conscious of us; it is to make us conscious of God. It is to attend to the God in whom we live and whose presence we either ignore or expect to find somewhere else.
The sacralization of life requires us, in the words of Benedict of Nursia’s fifteen- century-old Rule, to “treat all things as vessels of the altar”–to hold every isolated thing in high regard whatever their use, to treat them gently, to take care of them well whatever their age. It leads us to become part of the holiness of the universe by recognizing each and every element of it as a spark of the Divine. It nurtures in us that sense of the sacred in all things so that the presence of God becomes a fact of life, not a myth to be fabricated. It leads us to save and care and preserve and respect the goods of material creation so that we can come to respect the spiritual energy that underlies each of them. It is learning to live in sacred space again so that we can be surprised by God. We are part of a holy universe, not its creators and not its rulers. God has done the creating, God does the judging and God waits for us to realize that.
An atunement to the Holy Spirit enables us to hear the Word of God in those around us and in the circumstances of our lives–in our culture, in our sexuality, and in the racial makeup that is the raw material of our being. It lies in bringing each of those things to fulfillment--whatever the obstacles to each. Everything we are, everything that is said to us, everything that happens to us is some kind of call from God. In fact, everything that happens is God’s call to us either to accept what we should not change or to change what we should not accept so that the Presence of God can flourish where we are. Until we learn to listen to these manifestations of divine presence all around us in life, we need not expect visions.
A sense of our place in the universe is what Chapter Seven of the Rule of Benedict calls “The Twelve Degrees of Humility.” In one of the earliest pieces of Western spiritual literature, Benedict is very clear that the beginning of a spiritual life depends on the realization that we live in the womb of God, that we need to admit our struggles, that we need to accept the inconsequential circumstances of life with equanimity and that we need to cultivate the kind of internal peace that leads us to live gently with the rest of creation, to tread lightly through the universe and to deal tenderly with both ourselves and others.
Finding God is a matter of seeing God where God is, of seeing the God who is in us to sustain us, around us to touch us, before us to beckon us onward in life. Finding God is a matter, not of learning to become something we are not but of learning to see what we already know, to touch what we already contain, to recognize what we already have. Finding God is a matter of living every minute of life to its ultimate. “Oh, wonder of wonders,” the Zen teacher teaches, “I chop wood. I draw water from the well.” Finding God has little to do with church and more to do with becoming the best of everything we are every moment we breathe.
God is not a mystery to be sought in strange places and arcane ways. God is a mystery to be discovered within us and around us. And savored.
—from How Can I Find God? ed. James Martin, SJ, Triumph Books, 1997