Spirituality and ageing
February 4, 2014
“You don’t feel any different, you know”, my Mum used to say to me. We were talking about what it is like growing old. “The years go by, but you’re just the same person inside. You know” she went on, “Ursula – (that was her sister)- Ursula and I used to play this game when we were getting dressed – we’d stand on one leg, and hop and wobble around, and laugh, and see how long we could keep going until we toppled over. Well, I could just put myself back there now. I’m just the same person.” I was very struck by this insight. Here was Mary, my Mum, in her eighties, with all her wisdom and life-experience, and there in her memory she was as happy, unselfconscious little girl, larking about in her draughty bedroom in the 1930s. One and the same person, precious in God’s sight now as then. “The years go by, but you’re just the same person inside. I’m so grateful to my Mum for helping me realise that older people are simply people. Only older.
Growing older is an issue for all of us. And in our society, in which thank God we’re living longer than ever before, the proportion of older people is steadily growing. Increased life-expectancy means meeting the challenges of more health and care needs. Yet on the plus side, it also means that most of us have the possibility of being more active for longer. Our latter years have the potential to be a creative time. How can living and praying as a Christian help us through the latter years of life? Do our spiritual needs, our journey with God change as we grow older?
Perhaps our Gospel reading for today can begin to help us think about these questions. Phil last week was talking about heroes, and this is a story in which the heroes – or protagonists, if you prefer that word – are both a ripe old age. let me recap for you.
As faithful Jewish parents, Mary and Joseph want to do the right thing for the baby before they head home for Nazareth. They’ve already had him named and circumcised according to Jewish tradition, but there’s one thing left to do: Jewish law suggests making a thank-offering or sacrifice in the temple. So they head off to Jerusalem, half-a-day’s walk away to perform this ritual.
Yet Luke doesn’t give us any details about the formal religious goings on. He wants to tell us about two crucial encounters that coincide with this temple visit – Simeon and Anna.
So who’s Simeon? He’s a faithful Jew, a deeply prayerful man, and lives in the city nearby. Simeon is waiting for the coming of God’s chosen one, the Messiah. Through his experience of God’s Holy Spirit in prayer he has been given the conviction that he will see God’s chosen one before he dies. We’re not told Simeon’s age, but it’s clear that he’s in the phase of his life in which he’s starting to prepare for letting go of life. And it’s important to know about Simeon that he isn’t a priest or any kind of religious professional – he’s simply a faithful, praying man. He’s one of the congregation, if you like, not one of the clergy.
The temple courts, are busy, bustling with people, animals, buying and selling. Whereas other people observe two anxious young parents trying to sort out their doves for the thank-offering, Simeon, sees something different. He sees the hope and promise of salvation, of God’s redeeming love for the whole world. The old man takes Jesus in his arms and praises God in a prayer which is both universal and very personal. “Now, Master, you are letting your servant go in peace, as you have promised. For my eyes have seen the salvation which you have made ready in the sight of the nations”.
It’s universal because he recognises that in Jesus is the light of God’ love not only for Jewish people, but for Gentiles too – that means, for all of us. It’s personal, because Simeon recognises that this is a letting- go moment for him, Simeon. Now he has seen the Messiah, God’s chosen one, face to face, he can begin to face his own end in peace and serenity.
This prayer is known as the “Nunc Dimittis” and is a classic prayer of the Anglican tradition – it’s said or sung at the service of Evensong, and it’s also traditionally used in the funeral service. “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace”, the older translation runs. It’s a prayer about letting go. Simeon’s prayer is saying, it’s OK for you to let me go, God, it’s OK for me to let go, because I have seen your salvation, your saving, forgiving love in Jesus. That’s the bigger picture. The grace of God, is always the bigger picture. Our individual lives are a beautifully worked detail of that bigger picture. We get immersed in the detail of our own experience but the invitation from God is to take a step back and see the bigger perspective of divine purpose.
I wonder if this prayer of Simeon’s is a particularly helpful way for us to pray as we grow older. One of the challenges of ageing is coming to terms with letting go, in all sorts of different ways. There are roles that we’ve had, either paid or voluntary roles, that have helped us have a sense of purpose and fulfilment, and there comes a time when we need to lay them aside, and let them go. We may find ourselves in a situation where we have to let go of some of our independence and enter into a greater sense of our interdependence with one another. For all of us there will be a time when we need to find the grace to be receivers of care and help from others. The reality is that most of us struggle with all this quite profoundly. How do we pray through these challenges?
The essence of prayer is the offering to God of life: not some air-brushed, super-pious version of life, but the reality of our lives. We need to lay out the difficult decisions and least-worst option. In the light of God’s love, we can name our deepest fears.
“Lord, now you let your servant depart in peace.”
It’s OK to let go. With its focus on letting go, Simeon’s prayer reminds us that the pattern of Christian living is of one dying and rising with Christ. By following the way of suffering and dying, Jesus is our role model for letting go, for all the letting go’s both big and small that we do throughout our lives. By pioneering the way of salvation for us, Jesus assures us that we do not let go into nothingness- rather we let go into new life. Resurrection is our hope and our destination in Christ, and we need never to lost sight of that reality.
Yet there’s more to growing old than letting go! Our latter years can also be a time for new beginnings. Enter Anna, the prophetess. Here she is, aged eighty-four, giving herself to a life of prayer and worship in the temple. Like Simeon, she recognises Jesus for who he truly is, praises God, and, the gospel tells us, “begins to speak about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.” On meeting the child Jesus, Anna becomes an evangelist. She find a renewed calling in her life of faith, not only praying now talking to other people about what she has seen, but sharing her experience. The meeting with Jesus, takes her off into an unexpected new direction.
How do you react to that? Is that unrealistic, for someone to take on a new role in her eighties? If we view old age negatively, it follows that we won’t expect that we will not make new beginnings in the latter part of our life.
Last week I watched the Disney film, “Up”, which I thought was the most wonderful parable about ageing, letting go and new beginnings.
It tells the story of Karl, a grumpy widowed balloon seller. Into Karl’s life comes a little boy called Russell. Karl attaches thousands of helium balloons to his house and flies it to the South American jungle with Russell. They have various adventures but Karl continues to be irritable and pre-occupied by his grief for his wife. There comes a point where the house won’t fly any more. Karl realises it is too heavy, it’s weighted down and begins to throw things out, furniture, pictures, precious items from his married life. This letting go is a turning point. As he jettisons the baggage from his past Karl finds a new capacity for love and friendship for the little boy, and a new energy for caring for and protecting him.
As Christian people we are called to a way of faith, hope and love. This is not a risk-free business. Jesus never offers us an insurance policy against suffering and loss, but rather an invitation to a way of radical openness to God and to one another. It’s a risky way, but it’s a way of thankfulness and joy, a life lived in companionship. Wherever stage we are at in our life’s journey, God’s promise always holds true for us: to be with us in Jesus, even unto the end of the age. He is with us, as with Simeon and Anna, we let go into God’s new possibilities, new beginnings, new discoveries.