SPIRITUALITY OF THE OLD ESPECIALLY OF
Bandhu Ishanand Vempeny, S. J.
One of the most attractive “Jumbo Movies” often shown in the History Channel is ‘St. Peter.’ In this movie the old Peter gets a message through St. Mark from the Pauline Roman Christians. Mark tells Peter that the Christians in Rome are eagerly waiting to hear the precious teachings of Jesus from the mouth of the very leader of the Apostles. Peter in meditation gets the same message from Jesus Himself that he should go to Rome. Peter, the totally dedicated and generous disciple of Christ that he is, still remains the same old impulsive man. Walking rather nervously with his swollen feet Peter shouts at the top of his voice, albeit reverently and prayerfully: “Jesus, you do not seem to know the problems of an old man like me. Remember, Rome is not in our neighbourhood.” Peter must have thought that Jesus, crucified at the peak of his youth, could not know from his own experience, the problems of the aged people.
When we look into Christian spirituality we hardly find anything serious about the spirituality for the ageing or the old. Both the Latin and the Cappadochian Fathers experienced the problems of old age. But their spiritual treatises were written mostly during their middle age or pre-old age situation. Hence, we see very little in their writings something specially valuable for the old. Of course, it is unrealistic to expect inspiring spiritual writings for posterity from the pens of senile, doting, cranky, weak, and sick old people. But the great medieval and post-medieval spiritual writers like Bernard, Aquinas, Bonaventure, Catherine of Sienna, Ignatius of Loyola, John of the Cross, Theresa of Avila and Francis de Sales handed down their precious spiritual legacy in their late adulthood, middle age or pre-old age. With my limited knowledge of the teachings of these great saints and so, at the risk of being accused of presumptuousness, I venture to state, in terms of random sampling, that the massive writings of these saintly & learned persons do not seem to offer much materials for a spirituality for the aging clerics and religious. I was, however, pleasantly surprised recently to see some enlightening articles for the eldering religious in the Jesuit news magazine Jivan (May-June 2008) and in the Malayalam Theological magazine Karunikan (May 2008).
In the first part of this paper we shall have a close look at the reality of old age and the elderly. We shall do this first in a general way through some facts and figures. Looking at the eldering people from the points of view of physiology and psychology will follow. Then we shall get into the ashrama system of Hindu tradition that can make valuable contributions to the spirituality of old age. These views, especially the psychological ones emphasizing the “self-realization” or similar ideals and the ideals of the ashrama, system help us to focus on the final destiny of our ‘life-journey.’ It is on the background of these facts and data about the old that we are going to articulate our views on the Christian spirituality of the elderly religious. At the beginning of the second part some descriptive statements will be made about our concept of spirituality. We shall spell out the this-worldly (historical) and the other-worldly (eschatological) dimensions of Christian spirituality. I will make a few practical points when we deal with its this-worldly dimension. In the final part I will give a few exercises hoping that these or similar ones would help one to grow into healthy old age.
I. THE REALITY OF THE OLD AND OLD AGE
A. Some General Considerations with Facts and Figures
When we speak of old people we are tempted to think of them as a small minority. Four or five decades ago in a village of hundreds or even thousands of people we could point out just a handful of village-elders. Due to various factors like improved socio-economic structures, welfare systems and up-to-date medicines, life expectancy has been growing by leaps and bounds. Let us have a look at the statistical data on the growing population of the aged.
According to the statistics given by the UNO, by the year 2050 there will be 200 crores of people who are above sixty.[i] An article by N. Suresh in the Nursing Journal of India (Octobet 2002) states: “It is estimated that there are 416 million old people (aged 60 years and above) around the globe and by 2020, 11.9% of the world’s population will be above 60 years. In India also the trend is the same: 7.5% of the total population is above 60 years and the life expectancy is increasing gradually.”[ii]
Dr. Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, concentrating on USA gives some other interesting data about the growing number of old people: “In 1776, a child born in the United States had an average life expectancy of thirty-five. In a little more than two centuries, thanks to medical breakthroughs, public health campaigns and lifestyle changes, Americans have more than doubled that figure to seventy-five. By the middle of the next century, the National Institute of Aging projects that life expectancy will be eighty-six years for men and nearly ninety-two years for women. One hundred years ago, only 2.4 million Americans were over sixty-five, making up less than 4 percent of the population…. Throughout most of recorded history, only one in ten people could expect to live to the age of sixty-five…. Today, nearly 80 percent of Americans will live to be past that age.”[iii]
According to these data, old people constitute a large portion of the population today. As children deserve special care and consideration in welfare planning, the same could be said about the old, especially when it is guided by a value system, which respects human rights and dignity. This consideration has to be on the micro level of the family or of the Religious houses and on the macro level of the states and Religious Congregations as well.
In Gujarati there are two words to express old age: Ghadpan and Vrudhhavastha. The first comes from the word ghatavum which means to get diminished, to become smaller, to shrink, etc. This term expresses that in old age, man’s physical abilities and psychological aspirations, adventurism and dare-devilry, intellectual depth and achievements get diminished and become less and less. The latter word comes from vruddhi which means growth, expansion, etc. These two terms bring out the positive and negative approaches to old age.
Today we live in a youth-centred culture very much influenced by Americanism. About this culture Zalman writes: “Everywhere you look, old age suffers from a bad reputation. Because of negative images and expectations shared by our culture, people enter the country called ‘old age’ with fear and trembling. Feeling betrayed by their bodies and defeated by life, they believe they’re condemned to lives of decreasing self-esteem and respect. As citizens of this oppressed nation, they expect to suffer from reduced vigor, enjoyment and social usefulness.”[iv]
Influenced by this youth-centred culture, many elderly people refuse to acknowledge their age and disabilities. Often elderly and even old people try to disguise their age and pretend to be young in their style of speech, dress and various other behavioural patterns. These people often look really ridiculous, or shall I say, old wine in ‘new’ wine-skins.
According to the positive point of view, an elder stood for self-control, impartiality and wisdom. Dr. Zalman writes: “Throughout most of history, elders occupied honored roles in society as sages and seers, leaders and judges, guardians of the traditions and instructors of the young. They were revered as gurus, shamans, wise old men and women who helped guide the social order and who initiated spiritual seekers into the mysteries of inner space. Beginning with the Industrial Revolution, with its emphasis on technological knowledge that often was beyond their ken, elders lost their esteemed place in society and fell into the disempowered state that we now ascribe to a ‘normal’ old age. Today, as the Age Wave crests all about us and we confront existential questions about the purpose of our extended longevity, we are searching for new myths and models to ennoble the experience of old age.”[v]
In the ancient civilizations, the Greeks and the Romans could be contrasted to highlight the negative and positive attitudes towards old age. Dr. Zalman writes about the Greeks: “Since the Greeks valued youthful heroism, physical perfection and beauty, it’s not surprising that they looked upon aging as a catastrophe, a form of divine punishment. ‘The gods hate old age,’ says Aphrodite in the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite…. Greek literature reveals how pessimistic people felt about growing old. The poets Homer and Hesiod describe old age using epithets such as ‘hateful,’ ‘accursed,’ and ‘sorrowful.’ In general, poets and playwrights lampooned the elderly as ugly, feeble and worthy of social rejection…. In fact, in the Rhetoric, Aristotle rails against old people, accusing them of being cowardly, selfish, suspicious, talkative, avaricious and ill-honoured.”[vi]
[i] cf. Karunikan, May 2008, p. 24.
[iii] Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, From Age-ing to Sage-ing, New York: Warner Books, 1995, p. 4.
[iv] Z. Schachter-Shalomi, From Age-ing to Sage-ing, p. 12.
[v] Z. Schachter-Shalomi, From Age-ing to Sage-ing, p. 6.
[vi] Z. Schachter-Shalomi, From Age-ing to Sage-ing, p. 61.