On spirituality and aging
As I began reflecting on the “spirituality of aging” for this article, I soon knew that I would have to change the topic from spirituality of aging to spirituality and aging.
This comes from my favorite definition of spirituality: “True Christian spirituality is faith raised to a lifestyle.”
Our spirituality is about living our experience of God. We do not “change” spirituality and put on a different one for aging, a different one for work. We don’t change spirituality like we change clothing. Living our experience of God is influenced by each of our temperaments. By our social, financial, educational, denominational and cultural context. And that experience of God, that spirituality, affects our daily living.
I am certainly no authority on aging. But I can articulate my nearly 77-year experience.
Besides my own mother who died at age 93 and modeled graceful and dignified aging to me, I have had as my mentors and models many Sister of Providence elders.
In many of these sisters I see similar qualities. Three of these qualities, like the word aging, begin with the letter “a” — attitude, appreciation and acceptance.
Sister Alice Friend, indeed my friend and a mentor, always said about life, “You gotta have attitude!” In a way, that was her definition of spirituality and she lived it. She approached her aging in a realistic and prayerful way, living one day at a time, and accepting its attendant losses of hearing, diabetes, difficulty walking and debilitating weakness. However, our conversations were always upbeat and not about her, unless I asked. How many times she said to me, “I thank God I can still read.” Reading was her touchstone to the world and its needs, the stuff of her prayer life.
A current “aging-mentor” for me is Sister Helen Dolores Losleben. At age 94 she is almost blind. She navigates via a walker to church and meals and daily exercise on a stationary bicycle. She uses a large magnifier to do a bit of reading. She began to lose her eyesight to macular degeneration nearly three decades ago. About four years ago she found out that it was beginning to progress quickly. “I determined then,” she told me, “that as my condition worsened, I would accept graciously any offer of assistance.” Adding, “After all, I can make that person feel good that they reached out to me.” Talk about attitude, acceptance and appreciation!
Plan to live
Another good spiritual maxim was adopted by my soul-friend, Sister Suzanne Brezette. It was actually her mother’s, “Sue,” she said, “as long as you live, you must plan to live.” And that was Suzanne’s attitude, even as she aged. She appreciated the fact that she had a lot of energy and a personality that enjoyed a challenge. She stayed very involved, curious and particularly ready to join in whatever justice cause she cared about deeply. Suzanne was a snappy dresser. An image many of us recall is her standing in heels beside the highway outside the chemical depot in Newport, Indiana, to protest chemical weapons and their stockpiling. Suzanne never really thought of herself as an elder. Reality finally set in when she received a letter from a student she had taught her first year teaching. As she read the letter, she gasped and exclaimed, “My God, my student just turned 80!”
As I write about these mentors I am aware that they gained such wisdom over many years of “raising their faith to a lifestyle.” I, too, can gain such wisdom by living my own experience of God as I continue to age.
God in reality
A spiritual maxim I find myself employing even more as I age is “God is in reality.” And so, as part of my spirituality, I try to have a positive attitude toward that reality. I appreciate it for what it is and accept it as something I have to deal with. I’m dealing now with the reality that I do not have the strength and energy that I had even a few years ago. I need to ask someone to open a stubborn jar lid for me. I’m no longer able to lug things around without stopping to rest. I take a few pills in order to function daily and I hate that reality!
If acceptance of the reality of aging is difficult in my life at times and my attitude borders on complaining, I find it helpful to stress appreciation. I remind myself that all is gift — each moment, each hour, each day. Gifts surround me in nature, family, friends, spiritual opportunities, food, leisure … I tell myself, many there are who do not have these gifts on a daily basis as I do — gifts I can so easily take for granted.
(Originally published in the Fall 2015 issue of HOPE magazine.)