From Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life, Vol. XXVIII, No.4 “Maturity” (Aug/Sep/Oct 2013). Back issues are available by calling 1.800.972.0433. View our inventory.
“May you live to be 120!” This is a traditional Jewish birthday blessing with foundations in Gen. 6:3, where “The Lord said, ‘My spirit shall not abide in mortals forever, for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred twenty years.’” If someone wished you 120 years, would you consider it a birthday blessing or a curse?
The people to whom I ask this question say, “It depends…,”asserting their need for quality of life, defined by continued relationships and the ability to experience a meaningful life. Unfortunately, most don’t believe these conditions would be possible and fear becoming a burden rather than a blessing to others and themselves.
The offer of 120 years is no longer a sentimental blessing. Research has found the natural human life span to be about one hundred twenty years. People in their eighties are the fastest-growing sector of the US population, and more are living beyond one hundred than ever before. While there are many negative changes associated with later life, the medical and social service communities are trying to promote higher levels of wellness, creating “successful aging” programs designed to develop and/or salvage physical, mental, and social well-being. Some progress is being made; older people now living in the US are healthier and have a higher level of life satisfaction than those alive just half a century ago, but our dread and denial of aging remain.
How can we address our fear of old age? How can we find purpose and sustain or create meaningful relationships even if we find ourselves living in a long-term care community? What about ourselves as aging Christian –is aging as a member of the Body of Christ any different from aging in secular society? Should there be a difference? Jesus alluded to a special way of living for God in late life in John 21:18, where he tells Peter that a day will come when Peter will no longer be in control of his own life, but in accepting his diminishments he assures Peter that he will continue to glorify God.
A NEW IMAGE FOR LATER LIFE
We know that the language we use to describe reality often influences the way we perceive and react to reality. Over the years we’ve used primarily negative images to describe aging and aged people – second childhood, over the hill, winter, December, old geezer. These words have created an image of the last third of life as a time of loss, frailty, rolelessness, and burden. What might happen if we found and used new, more positive images of wisdom and spiritual transformation?
As I’ve reflected on the need to create fresh metaphors for aging, one that I strongly resonate with is “natural monastery.” Why? Because many of the negative events that happen naturally and are lamented in later life, such a s relinquishment of home and car, loss of freedom to go wherever we please, inability to have or enjoy our favorite foods, etc., are voluntarily and eagerly adopted by younger people when they choose to enter a monastery. Let’s examine this comparison more closely.
For millennia, one way that people have made meaning of their lives is through the search for God. To this day, a few people become so focused and passionate about the search that they leave their secular lives to devote themselves to this pursuit alone. They choose to live in solitude as hermits or in supportive communities as monks and nuns; their way of life is called monasticism. The first known monks were of the Jain sect, living in India in communities called ashrams, around 600 BC. The first Christian monastic communities – male and female – were founded by Pachomius, a contemporary of St. Anthony, a desert hermit of Egypt. In the sixth century, St. Benedict, considered the father of Western monasticism, wrote a “Rule for Monasteries” (RB) that has become the quintessential guide for monks and nuns living in monastic communities whose goal is “To truly seek God” (RB 58:7).
Even in modern times, the monastery, the home of the monk or nun, is set apart from the pressing demands of society. It is considered a sacred space where the spiritual seeker is provided the opportunity:
To devote her total living experience to God.
To live in a setting that affords fewer distractions from all the good (and not-so-good) things of the secular world.
To have scheduled time for prayer and solitude.
To have the physical and spiritual support of others.
To help God repair the world through the disciplines of prayer, intercessory suffering, and sometimes spiritual direction and writing.
To witness to a different way of being “productive” by living a life of social marginalization and identification with the poor of the world.
Monasticism enables a person to take advantage of these opportunities by providing a Rule of Life, which requires the monk to take the vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, and stability. These vows provide the monk with a framework for living in community with others who are also seeking God above all else. For example, the vow of poverty helps the monk to relinquish attachments to material, social, physiological, emotional, and even spiritual things that hinder the search for God. It promotes simplicity of life for it frees the monk from the demands of ownership of personal property and calls for life in common with people not of the monk’s own choosing and for the relinquishment of excessive sensual pleasures.
The vow of chastity requires the relinquishment of genital sexual expression, releasing the monk from responsibilities to spouse, children, extended family, and friends. The vow of stability requires that monks stay in the same monastery for the remainder of their lives. This enables them to commit deeply to the needs and persons of one place, while freeing them from restless desires to wander to communities more to their liking. The vow of obedience to the superior (abbot) requires the submission of the monk’s own will, preferences, and desires to the needs of the community as interpreted by the superior. The superior is also responsible for facilitating the monk’s spiritual development.
What happens “naturally” in later life that corresponds with life in a monastery? The ascetical or unusually self-disciplined way of life adopted freely by monks is very similar to the unintentional losses of later life. For example, especially in a retirement community, beloved property must be relinquished, enjoyment of physical pleasures often diminishes, control of one’s time is in the hands of others, privacy may be non-existent, and individuality is lost, especially in a nursing home. One may have to become obedient to one’s physician, health insurance plan, director of the retirement facility, and even to over-solicitous children.
Stability is ensured when one is prohibited from driving or moves to a nursing home. Opportunities for sexual intimacy may end due to illness or death of a be loved partner.
Resonating with the image of aging as a “natural monastery,” author and retired pastor Richard Morgan, writes of his own experience.
Nine years ago, due to increasing age and declining health, my wife, Alice Ann, and I relocated to the Pittsburgh area to enter a continuing care retirement community (CCRC). We soon began to realize that in many ways living here is quite similar to living in a monastery, where residents are called monks and take vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, and stability. First, to live here we were required to surrender all ownership of private property. We no longer live in our own home, but share common life with others in a community of people not of our own choosing. We did not take an actual vow of poverty, but like monks, we had to get rid of most of our possessions to fit into a small space. Abbot Christopher Jamison tells about how monks in a British Benedictine monastery must write out a “poverty bill” every Lent and give away what they don’t need. Although we have given away most of our possessions, we continue to simplify life so as not to be encumbered with “stuff.”
Like monks, we have relinquished control of our lives and given obedience to the authority of the corporation. We have little voice in the decisions of the community, but we have learned to adapt to those made by the corporation. Whether it be new programs, annual rent increases, or staff changes, we must abide by the decisions of the administration. This is similar to the monastic vow of obedience.
The Rule of St. Benedict states, “Day by day remind yourself that you are going to die.” Most of us are reminded of this everyday, for in the past nine years 150 members of our community have died. Their memorial services and names on our Memorial Board are a constant reminder of our own death. We now offer small groups on “Death and Dying” issues so we may face death with courage and faith.
As in a monastery, we live by a schedule and share a common life — eating, playing, worshipping, and praying together. We exemplify St. Paul’s words that in the body of Christ, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it” (1 Cor. 12:26). We strive to practice hospitality, remembering the words of St. Benedict, “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say, ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me’” (RB, 51). That is not easy when at times people come into the community with whom we have nothing in common and may even dislike! We try to welcome them as if they were Christ himself.
Although no bells call us to prayer, we worship together at specified Although no bells call us to prayer, we worship together at specified times in our chapel, which is always available for meditation. At every service, intercessory prayers are offered for those in need. As “real” monks do, we bear witness to a radically different kind of productivity, not based on achievement or material success, but on service to others. Most residents find some avenue of service to one another in this community. Some visit persons with dementia, others are hospice volunteers, still others practice the ministry of comforting presence. Every day we find people needing help. A distraught woman, suffering from dementia, can’t find her apartment and we shepherd her home. An anxious widow stops us in the hall and pours out her grief over multiple losses she recently endured. We listen. Once a month we host an Alzheimer’s support group, where persons from town come to vent their feelings. Members of our community who have cared for loved ones with dementia provide guidance and support.
Of the four monastic vows, the most conspicuous here is stability. All of us know that this community is our final resting place — there is no “next place” to look forward to. Stability becomes a commitment to this geographical place and to the people in this place, as a way to God. In a world where change is constant and often frightening, stability brings the peace that is, as Jesus said, not “as the world gives” (John 14:27). Although we realize we have not fully attained all the criteria of true monastics, with lives fully devoted to God, we continue to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in us, enabling us to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12-13).
Use of the metaphor of “natural monastery” has enabled Richard to transform what could easily be a depressing existence in the last third of life into an experience of renewed service to others and to God, giving him a strong sense of meaning, purpose, and hope for the future.
Perhaps God speaks lovingly to all of us with aged bodies and souls, asking: Will you accept my invitation? Will you enter into the “natural monastery” of your late life, there to find Me?
How does the metaphor of “natural monastery” fit into your understanding of later life?
Jane Thibault is a consultant for aging issues, specializing in spiritual dimensions of aging. A
trained spiritual director, she provides spiritual mentoring, workshops, and retreats for adults
and their caregivers. Her latest book is Pilgrimage into the Last Third of Life: 7 Gateways to Spiritual Growth, co-authored with Richard Morgan.
Richard L. Morgan is a retired Presbyterian minister who has served as pastoral counselor
and chaplain in hospitals, retirement communities, and nursing homes. He lives with his
wife, Alice Ann, at Redstone Highlands retirement community near Pittsburgh, PA. Among
his books are Remembering Your Story, No Act of Love Is Ever Wasted, and Pilgrimage into
the Last Third of Life. richardmorganauthor.com