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The Leveson Centre for the study of Ageing, Spirituality and Social Policy

What next?

Alan Horner, Associate Staff member of the Living Spirituality Network

A few years ago there was considerable debate about death. It concentrated on the physical and medical. With an increase in the means of keeping a person alive artificially, how was death to be defined? Was it to do with function of heart and lungs? Was it rather to do with brain death? Poets are not primarily scientists. Their approach has more to do with the spiritual than the physical. D H Lawrence, for example, wrote: ‘When the wonder has gone out of a man, he is dead.’ (No doubt he would have applied it to a woman too!)

We can apply the same principle to growing old. Age is not to be defined in terms of chronology. Being old is a state of mind, more than a state of body. There is a Yiddish proverb which says: ‘A man [sic!] is not old until his regrets take the place of dreams.’ Let me illustrate. When my wife reached 70 I wrote a poem for her:

Seventy used to seem
so senior, the Biblical
three score and ten,
and then the horizon
receded. Eighty
became unremarkable,
and a hundred
not inconceivable.
Middle age has elastic
boundaries, moveable
parameters. Old age
is for others,
none known to us.

© Alan Horner

When I was a young minister, one of my friends was 50 years my senior, but I never thought of him other than as my contemporary. He affirmed as his own a saying of his father: ‘I’m going to live until I die.’ After the death of my mother, when my father, then in his late eighties, got dispirited, he would go out to visit some of those he referred to as the old people. Many of those who staffed the two luncheon clubs for elderly people in one of my former churches were well qualified to be members, but preferred to serve others. True, all this may well have to do with the state of bodily health, but often it has also to do with a state of mind, rooted in a personal spirituality.

Part of the open secret of such attitudes is not in the pretence that nothing has changed, but in the ability to live with change and to adapt to it and grow through it. I am reminded of the words of Charles Darwin: ‘It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.’ We are all involved in the ageing process; being old is capitulating to it, seeing no opportunity in it. In the Greek New Testament there are two words for time, chronos and kairos. Chronos is the word which gives us chronology; it has to do with clock time. Kairos is a word about the possibility of the moment, used for example in the account of Jesus declaring the time is fulfilled; the kingdom of God is at hand. A challenge of growing older is cultivating the ability to see one in the other, the kairos in the chronos, the opportunity brought by the passage of time. In a way, it is the ability to ask ‘What next?’

That is not to deny the value of the past, the importance of memory. It is past experience which teaches us to recognise patterns in the unfamiliar landscape of the present without being afraid. Souvenirs, photographs, mementos are important physical expressions of our memories, helping to anchor our recollection. Those whose involvement is with confused older people – and that means most of us at some time, I imagine – discover how important such anchors can be.

But before we ourselves are in danger of becoming those for whom, in the words of the hymn, mind and memory flee, it is important to go on asking the question ‘What next?’ It was the question my wife and I faced when the end of my paid ministry came in sight. It led us on an interesting quest, knocking on various ecumenical doors to see what might be on the other side. I confess, as a north countryman whose longest stay in any place has been in Scotland, that I was in danger of restricting possibilities by mentally drawing a line from Lancaster to York and assuming that we would be north of it somewhere. We moved instead to Milton Keynes! Based on an office there, I serve as an Associate Staff member of the Living Spirituality Network.

Retirement from paid work is only one example of life’s changes which stimulate the question ‘What next?’ It happens in early life, at the end of formal education, at the time of marriage, after the birth of a child. It happens throughout life, as a marriage ends whether in bereavement or divorce, as children leave home, in times of redundancy or as health problems occur. It is there to the end. In the farewell service when we left the church where I had my last pastoral charge, my wife and I read a poem by Edwin Muir called The Way with its constant reiteration ‘The way leads on’. I have suggested to my family that it might be a reading to include in my eventual funeral service.

Asking that question is one of the things that can sustain our spirituality in the process of growing older. There are others. I want to suggest three.

Remembering, and the remembering being done with thanksgiving.
In The Use of Praying, Neville Ward declares that thanksgiving is the chief characteristic of Christian prayer. Our spirituality could be transformed by making that a principle of our lives. And if we look backwards with thanksgiving, we are more likely to look forward with hope. But the thanksgiving is not merely personal; it finds its supreme focus in what God has done for us in Christ, and it is expressed in Holy Communion, one of whose other names is the Eucharist, which means thanksgiving. For Christians this is one of those important anchors I referred to earlier.

Praying – and being prayed for.
Without wanting to limit the significance of prayer, I do believe it helps to know that we are prayed for. The German theologian and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrote in his prison cell:

The Christian community exists by the intercession of its members for one another. We have a too individualistic understanding of prayer. We pray in the context of the praying church, whether physically present with others or not. When we cannot pray, others are praying for us, not only ‘remembering us’ as we like to say, but taking our part. It is as if the Church is a great ship, and for a while we have to ship our oars, but others pull on theirs, and the boat glides on. We are always part of its fellowship.

Doing what we can.
There are always things we can do, whether we have been doing them already, or we are required to find them; and sometimes, accepting may be the new doing! From my first appointment, I recall a church member who fulfilled a remarkable ministry from the confines of her home by writing letters, by action if not by word having said in her particular circumstances ‘What next?’ I think too of my own father saying to me in his closing years, ‘There’s not much I can do for you now, lad, but I pray for you every day.’

Much of what I have written has been a reflection by a Christian minister about Christian people, but not exclusively so. There is a wide spectrum of people in society with varying kinds of relationship with the church, and many who have no conscious link at all. Some have a life-long commitment, some only a tenuous link. Some have left the church, and others are just discovering it. Some belong to other faiths, others to none. But all have a spirituality, acknowledged or not. The Irish poet and philosopher, John O’Donohue writes, ‘Spirituality is more than the pious attitude of the explicitly religious. It is the deeper yearning of every life … Ultimately there is no such thing as an “unspiritual life”.’ Those in the Quaker tradition, among others, would affirm that there is the life of God in everyone.

Our attitude to others and to ourselves must surely to be to recognise it, to affirm it and to seek its quickening. Part of the Christian approach is to value all, whatever their gifts or needs. Within the church we are learning to affirm, regarding children and young people, that they are not part of the church of the future but of the church of the present. We need equally to challenge a similar assumption about older people: they are not part of yesterday’s Church but of today’s church. And what is averred regarding the church must also be averred regarding society at large; they are today’s people, not yesterday’s people. That may be easier to do when people are active and involved, responsive and supportive. We tend to value activism and many would identify with the prayer, ‘Lord, let me not live to be useless’. But there is a gift of service which is passive, receptive, and in the course of my ministry I have been frequently humbled and blessed by those who have accepted my ministry.

Sometimes my ministry has brought me into the company of confused older people, some of whom cannot remember yesterday nor anticipate tomorrow. They may not have recognised me, or even recognised their own family, and after I have left there would be no recollection of my visit. But often there has been pleasure in the immediate. Perhaps this has been their gift, given unawares, to remind me that the immediate moment is the given moment; this has been all unknowingly their ministry. For them there may be only rare moments of lucidity, memory, awareness. They may not be capable of asking ‘What next?’ But they remain not only people loved by God, and hopefully by others, but people who may yet be a source of challenge to our spirituality. Perhaps the question they ask is not about the next, but now.

Alan Horner

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