The Ageing Body
Sister Margaret Dorgan, D.C.M.
First Published In:The Living Pulpit : Dedicated to the Art of the Sermon
“Truly, you have formed my inmost being. You knit me in my mother's womb. I give you thanks I am fearfilly, wonderfully made.” (Ps 139:13-15) Do you sing these words of the Psalmist in praise of the body God has designed for you? Or do you complain—wishing you were taller or shorter, your hair a different color, your skin less dry? Certainly you find yourself taking note of your body's changes when the years add up. As a child, I wanted to get older quickly. I always made sure I described myself in the year approaching: “I'm eight going on nine. Do any of us know an adult who says, “I'm 39 going on 40,?” or “... 69 going on 70”??
My body walks a very different path as the decades increase. Once I could run fast and my body simply perspired more, seeming to delight in the vigor of the pace. Bones and muscles did not admonish me. No warning came forth, objecting to my swiftness. My body was agreeable to most of my decisions, and I rarely paused to consult it, listening to what it had to say. The ageing body however, becomes somewhat intrusive, demanding more attention. At times before going ahead, the body initiates a compelling dialogue about the best way to proceed: Be careful.
When I was a young novice just out of my teens, a wise, older nun addressing my novice class spoke of what approaching our senior years would require. “You will need virtue,” she said with a gentle smile, rather than a sad shake of her head. “Work at that now in your youth. Build your habits of patience and compassion, willingness to give in to another, and acceptance of difficulties. Your older years seem so far away, but they come quickly.” In her instruction, she wanted us to know that the virtue we would need in ample supply as elders was best developed and practiced from an early age. Youth, of course, is not always a stranger to bodily ills and distress that benefit from patience and acceptance, but ageing often brings them in abundance!
To become one of us, Jesus assumed a mortal nature like ours with all the physical senses that connect us to the material world. For the first time, God looked with an infant's eyes, smelled the pungent aromas of a cave with animals, tasted a mother's nourishing milk, felt her warm breast, and heard the sounds of her loving voice. He was hungry. He was thirsty. The Almighty was incarnate in a child's weakness. Mary's son had a short span of years, ending abruptly in violence as too many earthly lives do. Jesus' thirty-three years changed the course of human history and reached forward to your personal history and to mine as we proceed through each successive day.
The lifetime God gives us is never static. Held fast in time's boundaries, we progress on a journey God lays out for us. “A short span you have made my days. Only a breath is any human existence. ... I am but a wayfarer before you, a pilgrim like all my ancestors before me.” (Ps 39:4-5, 12) The body alerts us to the reality of this onward passage. We are not where we used to be, and yet the place where we are contains special blessings which an earlier part of the journey did not offer. “You must know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is within—the Spirit you have received from God. You are not your own. You have been purchased and at a price! So glorify God in your body.” (I Cor 6:19-20)
This temple of the Holy Spirit is meant to shine with an ever brighter light, its sacredness more transparent to us as the present progresses into the future. The transitory hours are not a source of regret, for grace is at work continually while we inhabit this corporal dwelling.
Brother Body, as St. Francis of Assisi addressed it, or Sister Body is with us all our days. Our physical nature opens the door to joy and pleasure, but not always. With the multiplying years, perhaps aching and illness arise more often. When soreness intrudes with its sharp pointed finger, we think of Jesus who took on human flesh to become one with us in a nature subject to frailty. “It was our infirmities that He bore, our sufferings that He endured.” (Is 53:4)
Different cultures value ageing in widely divergent ways. In some countries, particularly in the Far East , special respect is given to elders. With a deferential bow, youth honors the evidence of wisdom that wrinkles proclaim. In Japan today, more than 25,000 people are over a hundred years old. Lots of bowing there! Contemporary Western society, however, urges an ongoing battle to smooth out any wrinkles. It is the same with other evidence of age. Advertisers pressure us to throw a disguise over the advancing years. This media onslaught often gives good advice, suggesting regimes of exercise and diet control. Pain relief, too, is a tribute we can pay to our corporeal nature. But where is there mention of the interior riches offered as time takes us forward? We don't want to miss the golden worth of the lessons being taught. Do we realize that each new decade knocks on the door of our consciousness to unfold a fresh accumulation of treasure? “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain wisdom of heart.” (Ps 90:12)
In fashioning us, our Maker placed our spirit in a material home that undergoes change. The unique creation you are was designed by a master craftsman to give glory to God in every dimension of your mortal existence. Christians do not follow the ancient Greek philosopher Plato in belittling the physicality of our being. The body is not an adversary but an ally. We are summoned to relate to our external world by viewing it as a wondrous encounter with our Creator who offers us new experience in every moment. God comes in each fresh sensory perception with a special message. The Holy Spirit helps alert us to what is being communicated.
Yes, there are alterations in our five senses. Scientific data record possible impairment of hearing in the middle 40's, of vision, touch, and taste in the middle 50's, and of smell in the middle 70's. Skin becomes thinner. Our teeth ask for increased dental care. But that doesn't mean we smile less. Sleep may become elusive or hold us in its grip. Legs and arms, shoulders and waists, hands and feet, wrists and toes can issue complaints as they never did before. I should have noticed you more, aching feet, when you caused me no discomfort. So much that we took for granted, now presses upon us. St. Paul speaks of “life in the flesh. That means fruitful labor for me.” (Phil 1:22)
Added years are not a source of mourning. The term advancing age is appropriate because it truly is a matter of forward motion. You look at a tree and all the trees you have ever gazed at enter into your perception as you relish the wonder of this particular tree rising up before you. Your world does not become gray and colorless. Most of us may need glasses, but what we see can add a shining brilliance to our inner vision. When hearing is adversely affected, whatever our ears do convey can arouse a new canticle of praise within us. And if deafness comes, the voice of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, speaks quietly to lift our hearts.
Growing older is an adventure we have not encountered until now. We feel a greater need for God's help. Demands are high, but the return is also high. “How numerous have you made, 0 Lord my God, your wondrous deeds. And in your plans for us, there is none to equal you.” (Ps 40:5)
Our brains can sometimes seem to leave us in the lurch. What is the word I'm trying to think of? It's gone. The short-term memory is on vacation. Then we use our creativity to substitute other phrases to convey what we want to express. I can't think of the name of that flower in my garden. So I describe it in its budding beauty. The large red blossom, the towering height. Ah, it's a dahlia. I do not curse my forgetfulness but use the occasion to remember God who has created the beauty in every dahlia I have rejoiced in. Help me, Jesus, to transform anger at any mental lapse into praise of my Creator. This makes all that seems like loss into gain—the gain of turning my awareness to my God who is always aware of me.
At a retreat on prayer I once met a woman who usually had a friend nearby because she was moving into Alzheimer's. How much of the prayer program did she comprehend? Who could tell? She explained to us, “Some of my mental faculties are leaving me. I ask God to let me know beforehand what will be taken from me next, so I can give it to God ahead of time.” Silence held the few of us listeners. We recognized what she said as one of the most precious fruits of our retreat.
She understood that her Creator had made her for a purpose and had allotted her a particular number of years to fulfull that purpose. So it is with all of us. We don't envy the angels. Each one's humanity is here on earth to glorify God as no one else can. “O God, You have taught me from my youth and till the present I proclaim your wondrous deeds. ... You who have made me see many sore troubles will revive me again.” (Ps 71:17, 20)
Christ declared, “I have come that they may have life and have it to the full.” (Jn 10:10) Jesus, assist me as I grow older to embrace that fullness. Let me realize that with each dawn, you offer something I did not have before. “By day, the Lord bestows grace, and at night I have God's song, a prayer to the God of my life.” (Ps 42:8)
Sister Margaret Dorgan, D.C.M., (Diocesan Carmelites of Maine), is a member of the John of the Cross Monastery Hermitage of the Diocesan Carmelites of Maine (D.C.M.) in Orland , Maine . She holds a degree in philosophy from Harvard/Radcliffe and has written extensively on prayer, contemplation, and Christian mystics. She currently has three audiotape collections of her lectures. They are Guidance in Prayer from Three Women Mystics: Julian of Norwich , Teresa of Avila and Theresa of Lisieux, available from Credence Communications; St. Therese of Lisieux: The Experience of Love and Mercy, from Alba House; and A Walk in Radiant Darkness: Hope and Fulfillment in John of the Cross, from ICS. Sister Margaret is a frequent contributor to The Living Pulpit. A fascinating collection of her reflections is available online at: http://carmelitesofeldridge.org/dorganhub.html
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