Aging gracefully

Aging gracefully is God’s way of awakening in us a renewed appreciation for the richness of the ordinary. The older we become, the more we see why Jesus lived the hidden life of Nazareth for 30 years. Life unfolds day by day with moments seldom remembered because they are so unspectacular.

Growing older together is not easy, but it has the advantage of enabling us to see life in simpler terms. The best part of the day becomes a walk in the park, lunch at an open-air café, sitting in church praying the rosary or in silent adoration before the Blessed Sacrament.

Growing older gives us more time to seek the companionship of Jesus. We know with each passing day, with each look in the mirror, with each visit to the doctor’s office that we are coming closer to the end of our life.

To age “disgracefully” is to become bitter, stand-offish, full of self-pity, making even those close to us feel guilty for not doing enough for us and, worst of all, holding grudges against God. Being alone is only about feeling lonely, not about relishing the joy of solitude.

To age “gracefully” is to accept life’s limits as blessings. We treasure the moments of companionship we enjoy with others. Most of all, we become more contemplative. Presence to the Divine Presence illumines everything we do, whatever our level of activity may be. The present moment is all that we have, and we thank God time and again for this “eucharist of everydayness.”

There is no doubt that a huge obstacle to aging gracefully is a lack of gratitude to God and others. As Dag Hammarskjöld, the secretary-general of the United Nations, once said: “For all that has been, thanks. For all that shall be, yes!”

Aging gives us a new opportunity to respond with joy to the call to holiness that is as unique as it is universal.

An ungrateful old sourpuss is not a pleasant person whose company we seek. A grateful “elder statesman” is that proverbial person we want to be when we grow up.

To age in the attitude of gratitude, it helps to practice the “thank you” prayer. As physical limits become unmistakable, an example may be: “Thank you, Lord, for the walker that helps me to keep my balance and avoid dangerous falls.”

Emotionally, one might say: “Thank you, Lord, for the sadness I feel today because that call I expected did not come. I pray the phone will ring tomorrow, and I thank you in advance if it does.”

When memory eludes one, why not muster the courage to say, “Thank you, Lord, for letting me forget once again where I put my keys. You reminded me to stop that frantic feeling, to pause, to pray and to wait patiently until you showed me where they were. And you did! What a small but pertinent reminder that was to depend on you for every detail of my life.”

Low points happen spiritually, but here, too, it behooves one to say, “Thank you, Lord, that today the only prayer I could utter was the name of Jesus. I felt a wave of desert dryness, but I knew you were with me, and that with your rod and your staff you comforted me.”

Such gratitude cures the worst sickness of aging: not organic diminishment but loss of hope; not mild forgetfulness but a stubborn refusal to seek help; not normal times of loneliness or mourning for a lost loved one but chronic complaining and negative views that only allow one to behold dark clouds, never rainbows.

Aging gracefully gives us the opportunity to practice one of the greatest spiritual disciplines — that of detachment. To grow older necessitates letting go — of so much that we used to know and do, and ultimately of life itself. Before we pass over to the next life, now is the time to detach ourselves from useless worry; from possessions we no longer need; from hurts we finally have to forgive.

We have no choice but to slow down and celebrate the glory of God, manifested in a sunrise, in an expected encounter with a long-lost friend, in a compliment we never expected to receive.

To age gracefully is to accept reality as it is rather than filtering it through the narrow viewfinder of our “disgraceful” demands to be the center of everyone’s attention.

It takes courage to face the brevity of life, no matter how old we are. Time passes so quickly. We wonder where the years have gone, but our faith assures us that Jesus has gone ahead of us to prepare a place for us in the home of our Father. Where he is, there we will also be.

So let us thank God that the light tribulations of this life are preparing us for an eternal weight of glory. And, above all, let us recommit ourselves, whatever chronological age we may be, to grow in gratitude and to grow older gracefully.

Muto is dean and executive director of the Epiphany Academy of Formative Spirituality in Pittsburgh’s Beechview neighborhood. Visit www.epiphanyassociation.org.