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Senior moments: the spiritual side of getting older.


The signs are plentiful. You begin to pay attention to those drug ads on the evening newscasts promising relief from ailments you didn't even know existed. The first snows of winter used to beckon beck·on  
v. beck·oned, beck·on·ing, beck·ons
1. To signal or summon, as by nodding or waving.

 with joy; now they are seen as a harbinger har·bin·ger  
One that indicates or foreshadows what is to come; a forerunner.

tr.v. har·bin·gered, har·bin·ger·ing, har·bin·gers
To signal the approach of; presage.
 of icy falls and reasons to move to Florida. You walk into a room and nervously wonder why you went there in the first place.


Aging. In a go-get-'em, hyper A Greek work meaning "above" or "more than." It is used as a prefix to technical concepts and products to convey a more advanced or more automatic capability.  world, it is a dreaded companion, a sign of inevitable decline and, eventually, death.

Yet what the world sees as an ending can be a renewed beginning in exploring the spiritual life.

Benedictine Sister Suzanne Zuercher, 77, a Chicago-based author and spiritual counselor, notes that those eligible for AARP AARP, a nonprofit, nonpartisan national organization dedicated to "enriching the experience of aging"; membership is open to people age 50 or older. Founded in 1958 by Ethel Percy Andrus as American Association of Retired Persons, AARP now has over 30 million  membership are frequently able to emerge from setbacks into the sunlight of a more rooted spiritual life--that is, if they have taken the opportunity to learn from experience, an attribute that maturity offers in abundance.

"Our life changes in many ways," she says about the process of aging. "We've built up lots of experiences. We've fallen down and gotten up many, many times. We develop a wisdom as life goes on."

Zuercher worked as a teacher--from elementary school elementary school: see school.  to graduate school--a school administrator, a psychologist, and an expert on the enneagram
For the use of the Enneagram with personality issues, see .

The Enneagram is a nine-pointed geometric figure. The term derives from two Greek words - ennea (nine) and grammos (something written or drawn).
 and other spiritual systems. Aging for her has meant giving up many high-prestige positions, a familiar routine of maturity.

The aging process is often a series of giving up the familiar, sometimes at great emotional cost. For many that can include moving from a large house where one's family was raised to a small condo, prized for its practicality. A once-supple body begins to take odd shapes. A large professional salary dwindles into a subsistence retirement pension. But there is wisdom to be earned in the process of giving up, says Zuercher.

"The only way to know enough is enough is to know how much is too much," she says. The accumulation of the middle years, whether collected through professional status or material goods, can take our eyes off the prize of spiritual serenity.

"God is the worst thief"

This process of letting go, says Jesuit Father William Scanlon, 68, is what he calls a "theology of diminishment." As chaplain of his community's Murray-Weigel Hall in the Bronx, a facility for mostly elderly Jesuits experiencing illness, he has regularly accompanied and prayed with the ill and dying.

"Our guys have to cope with the loss of stuff," he says. For Jesuits, who take a vow of poverty, that usually does not mean the surrender of material goods. It means the gradual losses as life declines, often the impairment of sight, hearing, and mobility.

"A prayer of surrender is the most effective prayer for our guys," says Scanlon. It is, he says, coming to realize that "God is the worst thief you will ever meet. He not only takes your money, he takes your eyes, your breath. The question is, 'How do we cooperate with that?'"


A nun once told him that the long process of decline "is the only way God can get us to experience raw trust, like Jesus did on the cross."

That sense of loss begins well before the end stages of dying, he notes. It often begins at the time a Jesuit is brought to Murray-Weigel Hall after having to leave an active ministry of teaching or pastoral work.

"We don't have wives and children. We have apostolates Organizations of the Catholic laity devoted to the mission of the Church. Explanation
Most understand the term "apostolate" to be synonymous with the term ministry, or outreach, such as "youth ministry.
," says Scanlon. "When we lose that, we sometimes lose our identity." Yet there are other compensations. For one thing, there can be more patience with relationships. Meal conversations at Murray-Weigel can linger for hours, as the residents have the time to share stories and insights.

Senior projects

While our bodies can decline, a spiritually healthy mature person compensates via a deepening of the inner experience.

Work, whether on the job or time devoted to a hobby, takes on a different dimension with aging. Climbing the corporate or professional ladder is a dream buried in the past. The hectic swirl of activities, whether driving kids to dance or soccer practices or running businesses or advancing professionally, also declines.

The youthful enterprise of multi-tasking is often beyond the abilities of older people, says Zuercher. Don't fret, she warns. The end result can be absorption on single items, done with care and concern. That reality, sometimes seen as a drawback of the aging process, actually mimics what mystics have talked about as a spiritual gift.

"You are focusing on the moment, which is the only thing we really have.

The center of all spiritual life is living in the present," says Zuercher.

Catholics in their senior years note that the gift of spirituality doesn't just fall from the sky when they're eligible for Social Security and Medicare. They say that developing a sense of spirituality takes time and effort and must be nurtured throughout those busy middle years of climbing the ladder and raising families if it is to take hold later on. Catholics who have made the effort to nurture a spiritual life in their younger years have discovered a spiritual treasure chest as they move into their 60s and 70s and beyond.

Len Sclafani of Queens, New York New York, state, United States
New York, Middle Atlantic state of the United States. It is bordered by Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and the Atlantic Ocean (E), New Jersey and Pennsylvania (S), Lakes Erie and Ontario and the Canadian province of
 is a retired New York City New York City: see New York, city.
New York City

City (pop., 2000: 8,008,278), southeastern New York, at the mouth of the Hudson River. The largest city in the U.S.
 police officer and a permanent deacon deacon: see orders, holy.

DEACON - Direct English Access and CONtrol. English-like query system. Sammet 1969, p.668.
 for the Brooklyn diocese, where he spends much of his time in ministry to men, most of whom are in their maturing years.

"I began to learn in my late 30s how to have a relationship with God," he says. Now in his mid-60s, Sclafani finds that increasingly he has grown "in understanding of what Jesus means to me, that it's all about relationship."

Through his years in retreat work, he has become more aware that "the church is not God. God is God." While the church is one way many meet God, he believes that God is seeking to break through in all sorts of ways, if we are willing and able to see it. His retreat work is often focused on the power of relationships and how they can be like sacraments to locate a God who operates freely in this world.

He now reads scripture with a renewed focus on relationship. One of his favorite stories is Jesus on the road to Emmaus, Luke 24:13-35, a tale of the resurrected Lord breaking bread with his disciples. Sclafani sees the story as a metaphor for older men seeking the spiritual life. They, like the disciples at Emmaus, meet the risen Lord in community. They cannot do it alone.

On the spiritual road, he says, men in particular need to be reminded of the need for companionship; while solitude is vital, few are able to thrive as hermits.

On a mission

Mike Bennett Mike Bennett is a professional rugby league player for British rugby club St Helens. His specialist position is second-row. On Tuesday, 29 August 2006, Mike signed a contract extension at the Lancashire club which will keep him at Knowsley Road for another two seasons. , also active in men's ministry, has reached 60, but he finds himself still searching. He's found that the spiritual quest regularly draws him down paths he never expected.

At the time of our interview, he was preparing to leave a three-year stint with a renewal center in New Mexico New Mexico, state in the SW United States. At its northwestern corner are the so-called Four Corners, where Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah meet at right angles; New Mexico is also bordered by Oklahoma (NE), Texas (E, S), and Mexico (S). , where he worked as a leader in men's spirituality. Where he will end up, he says, he is leaving up to God. As Bennett has moved toward Social Security age, maturity has not brought certitude cer·ti·tude  
1. The state of being certain; complete assurance; confidence.

2. Sureness of occurrence or result; inevitability.

 or a defined life path.

"As I've gotten older, I've figured out I don't have anything figured out. It's not as cut-and-dry as it once was," he says.

His spiritual life has been galvanized gal·va·nize  
tr.v. gal·va·nized, gal·va·niz·ing, gal·va·niz·es
1. To stimulate or shock with an electric current.

 by a number of experiences, including time spent in a charismatic community. More recently he was inspired by a Rites of Passage experience, a male spirituality movement spearheaded by Franciscan Father Richard Rohr Richard Rohr O.F.M. (born in 1943 in Kansas) is a Franciscan priest, writer, and internationally known inspirational speaker. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1970.

Rohr was the founder of the New Jerusalem Community in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1971 and the
. Bennett first experienced that movement back in 2001.


"It turned my spirituality upside down," he says. He retired from his job as a courier at Federal Express in Grand Island, Nebraska Grand Island is a city in Hall County, Nebraska, United States. The population was 42,940 in the 2000 census and had grown to 44,632 by 2006. It is the county seat of Hall CountyGR6.  and moved to New Mexico with his wife to work in the men's spirituality movement full time. It was a painful move in many ways, as they left their adult children and grandchildren GRANDCHILDREN, domestic relations. The children of one's children. Sometimes these may claim bequests given in a will to children, though in general they can make no such claim. 6 Co. 16.  behind in Nebraska.

Like others who seek God in their later years, Bennett has discovered that more awareness has given him greater insight into a religious reality that transcends many of the rules and regulations he was raised with as a young Catholic.

"It opened my eyes to a bigger picture of God. I can't put him in a box. He's way too big for that," he says. For Bennett, God is seen as much in the pain of life and its uncertainties as in the joys. He spent much of the past three years visiting Juarez, Mexico, where Bennett says he has seen God's presence among the poor. As he moves into his 60s, a time often seen as a period of rootedness and looking backward Looking Backward

Julian West awakens more than a century later to enjoy a new life in the Boston of A.D. 2000. [Am. Lit.: Looking Backward in Magill I, 520]

See : Time Travel
, he has found his worldview world·view  
n. In both senses also called Weltanschauung.
1. The overall perspective from which one sees and interprets the world.

2. A collection of beliefs about life and the universe held by an individual or a group.

Spiritual writer and social justice advocate Sister Joan Chittister Sister Joan D. Chittister, OSB (born 26 April 1936) is a Benedictine nun and an international lecturer on topics concerning women, the poor, peace and justice, and contemporary issues in church and society. , O.S.B., 72, notes in The Gift of Years (Blue-bridge) that spiritual and emotional growth doesn't end as we grow older. It can even become more intense as it is leavened leav·en  
1. An agent, such as yeast, that causes batter or dough to rise, especially by fermentation.

2. An element, influence, or agent that works subtly to lighten, enliven, or modify a whole.

 by experience.

While the media proclaims that life after 60 is a downward spiral, the reality is much more complex, she says. Some aging people do encounter sickness and disability. Yet, says Chittister, an American who reaches age 65 today, in previous generations a milestone generally indicating approaching death and decline, can on average expect to become an octogenarian oc·to·ge·nar·i·an
Being between 80 and 90 years of age.

A person between 80 and 90 years of age.

Because of improved health care, most people can expect that at least a quarter of their lifespan will be lived after eligibility for Social Security. Chittister emphasizes that life can be full with friends, family, and meaningful work and leisure well past 70. The irony is, she says, that our youth-oriented culture is graying, with older people making up a greater percentage of the general population.

"Every age has a purpose," says Chittister. "Every age has its meaning."

Getting some alone time

While many will continue to enjoy the company of spouses, family, and friends in their mature years, a part of growing spiritually is to learn to be comfortable in solitude, says Zuercher.

"As you get older, your friends die, you are more and more alone, you have to be happy in your own company. You put more on inner resources," she says. Some struggle with the empty temptations of old age: Life for some, particularly those with money, can be filled with vacation trips, outings, and socials. Grandparents grandparents nplabuelos mpl

grandparents grand nplgrands-parents mpl

grandparents grand npl
 can become obsessed ob·sess  
v. ob·sessed, ob·sess·ing, ob·sess·es
To preoccupy the mind of excessively.

 with grandchildren.

"That can be a very lovely thing," says Zuercher. "But it can be overdone o·ver·done  
Past participle of overdo.

Adj. 1. overdone - represented as greater than is true or reasonable; "an exaggerated opinion of oneself"
exaggerated, overstated
. There's a bigger world than your grandchildren."

That solitude can result in a deeper prayer life. But it doesn't happen automatically as the years go by. The habit of prayerful prayer·ful  
1. Inclined or given to praying frequently; devout.

2. Typical or indicative of prayer, as a mannerism, gesture, or facial expression.
 solitude needs to be nurtured earlier in life, a time when many are pressed down by the weight of work activity.

When solitude is a friend in our crowded, hectic middle years, she says, it can be handled with more comfort when aging causes it to be more abundant.

"You are forced to be a pray-er as you grow older," says Zuercher. The alternative is increased anxiety as worries about ill health and death approach.

As friends die and one's health declines, she says that the Christian concept of eternity becomes more concrete to older people. In that process mature spiritual people may have to redefine what hope is, seeing it more as a present reality than as a vague dream about the future.

"Hope is not about the future. Hope is the absolute trust that there is life in the now," she says. An insight that, God willing, can compensate those who don't remember where they left their keys.

RELATED ARTICLE: Not even Alzheimer's can erase God.

The lines on her face indicate that Sister Miriam is well into her 80s. But she tells a visitor that she is 40. It isn't a concession to vanity. In her mind Sister Miriam truly is 40. Minutes later, she is a young girl, walking through the fields with two of her siblings near the Irish village where she grew up. A torrential rain ensues and she prays to God to rescue them from the coming flood. He does.

Sister Miriam--not her real name--is beginning to suffer from a form of dementia. She lives in a community for the elderly on the East Coast, a facility much like many of the institutions she helped to lead in her younger years. One of those facilities was located in a Midwest city Midwest City, city (1990 pop. 52,267), Oklahoma co., central Okla., a residential suburb of Oklahoma City; founded 1942 with the activation of adjoining Tinker Air Force Base, a logistics center. The developer and builder W. P.  prone to flooding, perhaps explaining her current obsession with water.

Besides her memories, Sister Miriam lives in the present.

"I go through the building here three times a day," she tells her visitor. "I see if it's tidy, that everything is in order." She says she prays six times a day, "to help me to be a good person and to be very kind in every which way."


She is convinced that God is watching over this facility. Recently she encountered a depressed resident who was crying, saying that no one loved her. Sister Miriam took her hand and assured her that she was loved by an eternal God.

Sister Miriam may not, at times, make sense to some people. She may well be in her own world. Yet God is real to her, a presence who is loving yet demands a moral accounting--she often talks about God frowning upon violent behavior. Her religious imagination is as alive as ever.

That would not be surprising to Father John Malecki, a priest of the Diocese of Albany, New York For other uses, see Albany.
Albany is the capital of the State of New York and the county seat of Albany County. Albany lies 136 miles (219 km) north of New York City, and slightly to the south of the juncture of the Mohawk and Hudson Rivers.
 and a psychologist who completed a doctoral dissertation on the spiritual lives of Alzheimer's patients.

Working as a chaplain at Teresian House, an Albany facility that cares for the elderly with dementia, he developed techniques to draw out the religious imagination of the patients. Most were judged to be in the middle stages of Alzheimer's. At first he found himself correcting the patients, bringing them back into present reality, an often-understandable reaction among those first encountering Alzheimer's patients. But as he continued his research, he found it better to just go along with them, to follow where their imaginations led.

He found that talking about patients' feelings in regular conversation was often impossible. So he used other means. He asked them to draw images. Some drew evergreens, which in Jungian psychological terms is sometimes seen as a symbol of life everlasting (Bot.) a plant with white or yellow persistent scales about the heads of the flowers, as Antennaria, and Gnaphalium; cudweed.

See also: Life
. He told them symbolic stories, including one about a man and his son who worked tirelessly to dig away a mountain that blocked their view of a beautiful valley.

What did the mountain represent? A patient responded quickly: "It's like our illness that keeps us from seeing the wonderful valley. But we hope and pray and persevere per·se·vere  
intr.v. per·se·vered, per·se·ver·ing, per·se·veres
To persist in or remain constant to a purpose, idea, or task in the face of obstacles or discouragement.
 that we will see that valley."

He retold re·told  
Past tense and past participle of retell.
 other patients the story of the Prodigal Son prodigal son, in the New Testament, parable of Jesus about heaven and the sinner who repents. A young man leaves home and becomes a wastrel; repentant, he returns to be received with joyful welcome.  in the gospels. One nailed the symbolism. "God loves us with no strings attached," she said. Often, said Malecki, the response to religious stories was as on target as it would be from people without Alzheimer's.

Others saw their condition as an ongoing struggle with the Almighty. "Sometimes I fight with God and, at other times, I have the picture of embracing God in love," one patient told Malecki.

Even when dementia makes people unable to articulate and sense what is happening to them, Malecki notes that the religious imagination remains.

For Catholic patients the symbols of the Mass retained their power. He found, however, that taking the residents to a liturgy in a church or chapel disoriented dis·o·ri·ent  
tr.v. dis·o·ri·ent·ed, dis·o·ri·ent·ing, dis·o·ri·ents
To cause (a person, for example) to experience disorientation.

Adj. 1.
 them, moving them away from familiar surroundings. Yet when he celebrated Mass in their rooms, they recognized the familiar symbols of the chalice chalice [Lat.,=cup], ancient name for a drinking cup, retained for the eucharistic or communion cup. Its use commemorates the cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper.  and the Eucharist.

Maggie Hume of Clifton Park, New York Clifton Park is a town in Saratoga County, New York, United States. The population was 43,995 at the 2004 census. The name is derived from an early land patent.

The Town of Clifton Park is in the south part of the county and is located approx.
, says that Malecki's research helped her when she was taking care of her late mother who had Alzheimer's. She found herself more willing to listen to her mother's stories by "not looking at the person with a condition, [but by looking] at the person."

Carmelite Sister Peter Lillian of Germantown, New York Germantown is the name of three places in the U.S. state of New York:
  • Germantown (town), New York, in Columbia County
  • Germantown, in the town of Clarksville, Allegany County, New York
  • Germantown, in the city of Port Jervis, New York
, who ministers to people with Alzheimer's, has also found that Catholics with the disease often connect with symbols, such as the habit she wears as a member of her religious community. She finds that when she walks the halls patients will sometimes break out in a spontaneous recitation rec·i·ta·tion  
a. The act of reciting memorized materials in a public performance.

b. The material so presented.

a. Oral delivery of prepared lessons by a pupil.

 of the rosary rosary [rose garden], prayer of Roman Catholics, in which beads are used as counters. The term, applied also to the beads, is extended to Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist prayers that use beads. , drawing upon some of their earliest religious imagery.

Holy Cross Family Ministries, based in North Easton, Massachusetts Easton is a town in Bristol County, Massachusetts, United States. The population was 22,299 at the 2000 census.

Easton is governed by an elected committee of selectmen and a town administrator.
, has produced a guide to the rosary for those with Alzheimer's and their caregivers. The book notes that even when patients cry out in sometimes disturbing, inarticulate inarticulate /in·ar·tic·u·late/ (in?ahr-tik´u-lat)
1. not having joints; disjointed.

2. uttered so as to be unintelligible; incapable of articulate speech.
 ways, their religious sense remains alive. "The disease does not kill the soul," says Malecki. "The spiritual life is growing." The protective and loving God that Sister Miriam prays to remains as alive as ever.

--Peter Feuerherd

Six spiritual tasks of aging

1. Letting go

This is the period when we evaluate everything we have come to know about life and look for a dimension above the things of this world, for the sake of what is yet to come. The search means, then, that we strip ourselves of whatever it is we have accrued until this time in order to give ourselves wholly to the birthing of the person within. Into this part of life we travel light.

2. No regrets

When we regret the roads that have led us to where we are now, we risk the loss of the future. We drain it of new possibility. We fail to see that these new roads we're on can be just as life-giving, just as good for us, just as full of God-ness as the roads we've come down in the past.

3. Meaning

To be meaningful to the world around us means that we need to provide something more than numbers. It means that we are obliged o·blige  
v. o·bliged, o·blig·ing, o·blig·es
1. To constrain by physical, legal, social, or moral means.

 to offer important ideas, sacred reflection, a serious review of options, and the suggestion of better ideas than the ones the world is running on now. It means that we prod the people around us to reflect on what they themselves are doing--while they can still change it.

4. Legacy

Our legacy is far more than our fiscal worth. Our legacy does not end the day we die. We have added to it every moment of our lives. It is the crowning moment of the aging process. It is the major task of these years. In this period of life, we have both the vision and the wisdom to see that [our] legacy is what we want it to be. If we need to erase old memories and create new ones, this is the time to do it.


5. Forgiveness

Recrimination A charge made by an individual who is being accused of some act against the accuser.

Recrimination is sometimes used as a defense in actions for Divorce. Traditionally the underlying theory was that a divorce could be granted only when one individual was innocent and the
 never really solves anything, It only evens the scales. It does not turn the need for justice into the balm balm, name for any balsam resin and for several plants, e.g., the bee balm.

Any of several fragrant herbs of the mint family, particularly Melissa officinalis (balm gentle, or lemon balm), cultivated in temperate climates for its fragrant
 of love. It does not give me back to myself, a little more humble, perhaps, and a great deal more human, as well. Only forgiveness can do that. Only forgiveness is the therapy of old age that wipes the slate clean, that heals as it embraces. Forgiveness is more important to the one who forgives than it is to the one who is forgiven.

6. Solitude

The problem with solitude is that we often confuse it with aloneness or isolation. Isolation means that we are cut off from the rest of the world by circumstances over which we have no control. Solitude is chosen. It is the act of being alone in order to be with ourselves. We seek solitude for the sake of the soul. We take time to be by ourselves, to close out the rest of the world, to concentrate on the inside of us rather than wrestle with everything going on around us.

Excerpted with permission from The Gift of Years: Growing Older Gracefully (Bluebridge) by Joan Chittister

PETER FEUERHERD is a writer from Rego REGO Reinventing Government
REGO Renewable Energy Guarantee of Origin (UK) 
 Park, New York.
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Author:Feuerherd, Peter
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2009
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