Thursday, August 14, 2014

Thursday's Reflection: Spiritual Practices As We Age

I have been reading and reflecting on two books during my morning meditation time recently: A Season of Mystery, 10 Spiritual Practices for Embracing A Happier Second Half of Life by Paula Huston and Joan Chittister's The Gift of Years, Growing Older Gracefully which I have read before and will probably read again. The two are a wonderful combination, challenging me into deeper contemplation of my life now and my intentions for living these years. I recommend them both.  

I do wonder, however, if Huston is responsible for the subtitle of the book.  The use of the phrase "second half of life" feels pretentious and inaccurate to me. Huston is 60. Does she intend to live till she is 120? The lessons and wisdom she offers in the book are valuable no matter one's age, but are not likely to resonate with a 40 or 50 year old, so right away we are faced with one of the myths our culture likes to perpetuate, lulling us into thinking we elders are in the second half of our life. Also, the word "happier" is one of those popular words right now. In fact, there is a Happiness Movement with books by Gretchen Rubin at the forefront,  encouraging us and teaching us how to be happy. Do I sound like a curmudgeon? Sorry. I'll work on that. 

Instead of offering a view of aging as the "best years of your life," both Chittister and Huston acknowledge that old age is the most challenging stage of life. "We must be able to tap into all the wonderment of childhood, the hope of young love, the patience of parenthood, and the determination of middle age if we are not to be defeated by it." (Huston, p. xi) Defeated--that's a pretty strong word, especially since Huston reminds us that every time we look in a mirror we see a person who is in the process of dying. We have been since the day we were born, but we had a lot of living to do first. For some looking in the mirror translates into a challenge to cover up, to fight the wrinkles and the droopiness, using whatever means possible to maintain a youthful veneer. When doing that becomes an exercise in the extreme, I wonder what the real cover-up is. What soul work is waiting your attention?

My sister has a new kitten. Is there anything cuter than a frisky, playful kitty? As you dangle a length of yarn just out of her reach, she gets down on her haunches and waits for the right moment, her little rear end wriggling with anticipation and finally, she pounces at the colorful yarn. It is time, this is the time to take the leap, to reach for the lessons your soul has been inviting you to address all your life. 

Huston and Chittister are wise and congenial companions.
Huston explores the practices of listening, delighting, lightening, settling, confronting, accepting, appreciating, befriending, generating, and blessing as antidotes to what can become our defenses as we age: tendencies to be close-minded, to complain and fear change or to obsess about comfort and security, to deny reality and to judge, hiding behind our view of the way things should be. Instead, this is a time to live in the "continual presence of God," Huston says, quoting the theologian Karl Rahner. 

I find some practices easier than others. Right now as I think about what I want to do next (Do I want to give energy to building my audience for this blog? Should I take a course that will help me write and develop the drafts for books I say I want to write?  Do I try to start a spiritual direction practice here? A contemplative writing group? A group to explore the spirituality of this time of life? Where should I offer myself as a volunteer?), I am challenged by the practices of accepting and generating. How do I use my gifts, the wisdom within without getting stuck in the need to be productive or to achieve? Sitting with these words, accept and generate, one on each knee, letting them sink into my body, mind, and spirit, I ask for guidance. How is it I am to live in the continual presence of God? This is a time of discernment. 

I turn to Chittister whose short chapters wend their way through a wide range of topics: joy, meaning, regret, adjustment, freedom, success, solitude, forgiveness, memories. Here's what she says about productivity--an issue for me:
      Retirement has nothing to do with whether we work
      or whether we don't. It has something to do with only
      the kind of work we do and the reason we do it…
      retirement does not free us from the responsibility to
      go on tending the world…This may, in fact, be the first
      moment in our lives when we are really free to choose
      work that brings out the best in us and so brings out
      the best in the world around us. We become co-creators 
      of the world. pp. 150-151

At the end of each chapter, Chittister offers summary statements--a burden and a blessing. In the chapter about accomplishment, Chittister reminds us that "There is no excuse for simply dropping out of life. As long as we breathe we have a responsibility for the cocreation of the world, for the good of the human race." (p. 53) 

      The burden of a lack of commitment to accomplishment
      means that we have moved into a period of suspended
      animation, that aging is nothing more than deterioration.
      The truth is that aging means aging. Nothing more, 
      nothing less. It is just us grown ripe.

      The blessing of a commitment to accomplishment is 
      that, as we continue to bring out considerable skills, 
      experience, and insight to bear on the present needs 
      of humankind, we will certainly become wiser, definitely
      spiritually stronger, and more than ever a blessing to
      the rest of society.  p. 54 

I invited Paula and Joan into my life and we are in ongoing dialogue, whether they know it or not. They respond to my seeking nature, my need to go deeper, but my need to live what I am discovering as well. And they have provided me with just the right tools. You can be sure I will let you know what I learn along the way.

An Invitation
Where are you finding guidance right now and what spiritual practices are strengthening you on the path? What are you discovering? I would love to know. 

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