Age, Waiting and Dying.
The theme for the weekend is old age, a dreary topic which I won’t fancy up with notions of the sanctity of wisdom, nor with praise of the well-lived life. As a friend of mine, just rounding 62, says, “Age sucks.”
Friday afternoon, I drove out to the Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville, Virginia, home to a handful of Trappist monks living on 1200 acres in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Twenty years ago, my parents began gathering here with a group of mostly Catholic friends for one weekend every November and May. They were comrades in spiritual reflection and all devotes of Brother Benedict, a bartender once on a Mississippi steamship, who’d attended Williams college with my parents’ friend, Peter.
Peter is a long, cool drink of a man. Until lately a theater director in Baltimore, he has enormous intelligence, warmth and charm. At 73 he has wavy white hair and a joyful laugh. Twice a year, a month before the trip to the Abbey, he and Gerry send out a reading to the weekend retreatants. Last May we discussed Richard Rohr’s The Naked Now. A year later the photo-copied sheets are all meditations on old age, waiting and dying.
Peter and Garry sit at one end of the circle on folding chairs to pose questions and call on raised hands. Peter is reserved but electric — nodding thoughtfully at comments then suddenly charging into discussions. Garry is a tall slender woman who entered St. Mary’s Seminary at age 50 to become a chaplain. She takes the tiller from Peter when someone talks too long.
Retreat from Raw Life
The purpose of a retreat is separation from daily life and entry into the holy. We retreat from the complexity of our work and relationships to find simplicity in a small bare room and in long linear days. We strip away the unessential aspects of our lives. A retreat can be luxurious — a pampering of the body — but to be effective it should remove the overload of stimulation we receive from computers, TV, rich foods and high-octane drinks.
Effective retreats are of two kinds: high-energy and low-energy. I have been to yoga weekends scheduled from arrival to departure with hard physical practices and exhausting spiritual exercises. I love them, the way I love sweaty, hot runs up a steep mountain. The physical and spiritual exercises bore into your mind and flesh like a screw into pine, chucking away tired habits, laying the foundation for a relationship with the divine.
Prayer for the Grace to Age Well
“When the signs of age begin to mark my body
(and still more when they touch my mind);
when the illness that is to diminish me or carry me off
strikes from without or is born within me;
when the painful moment comes to which I suddenly awaken
to the fact that I am growing ill or growing old;
and above all at the last moment
when I feel I am losing hold of myself
and am absolutely passive within the hands
of the great unknown forces that have formed me;
in all these dark moments, O God,
grant that I may understand that it is you
(provided only my faith is strong enough)
who are painfully parting the fibers of my being
in order to penetrate to the very marrow
of my substance and bear me away within yourself.”
Teilhard de Chardin, The Divine Milieu
Low-energy retreats, like the one at the Abbey, work by peeling away stimulation. The mind rests instead upon a view of Blue Ridges, the body is pampered by a cool evening mist that rises up from the grass to caress the cheeks.
Each day is punctuated by worship services. After a ten-minute walk under linden and black walnut trees from the retreat house we arrive at the chapel. This is spectator religion: We, the laypeople, sit in pews by the front door, separated by a gate from the monks. We might as well not be there, for none of the service appears to be directed toward us. There is no sermon, except Sunday morning. The monks chant their prayers to God.
If no one showed up at your church or synagogue Saturday or Sunday morning, would the service still go on? Is the purpose of the service to lead the congregation, or converse with the Holy?
If no one showed up for a yoga class, would your teacher give it anyway? Is the purpose of your practice the exercise, or the conversation with the divine?
The Divine Within
At the Abbey retreat this spring 2011, we attend services, walk the mile through the fields to the entrance gate and back, and disrobe, setting aside the outside world like dirty laundry. We unburden ourselves of the superficial. But we cannot strip away age. We cannot unburden ourselves of sagging flesh, blurred vision and encroaching deafness.
Age itself wishes to remove us from the bite of life – to dull the blues of the mountain spruce, and the chip-chip-chip of the crickets outside the window. My parents’ friends range in age from 70 to past 90 years. They are not growing old — they already are old. The Sutras teach us to remove ourselves from attachments to the physical and emotional world. Through pranayama and meditation our conciousness is pulled inward toward divine awareness.
Sanctification in the Christian doctrine is the process by which a person becomes more holy. It is a life work. Some branches believe one becomes holy through faith alone; others believe good works are required. As sanctification occurs, one accepts divine grace and becomes another person.
Both faiths believe we put aside over-attachment to our physical beauty. Both honor the divine within, the soul within the age-ravaged body. Can I approach Peter, the snap-crackle-pop of his charm lost to the present, with love? Can I adore my mother, an Audrey-Hepburn beauty once upon a time, with true reverence? Gerry the chaplain offers spiritual succor to the aged in institutions. She describes meeting them in their beds, the spiritual Braille of their conversations, the life she raises with her supple fingers as she offers them the Eucharist.
Death is not the enemy. It is age that cuts us down with its innocuous scythe.
The Salt Doll