We have all be moved and shaken by the Pope’s resignation. And yet it is remarkable to consider that he is 85 years old. How many 85 year olds are working at all, let alone trying to shepherd a worldwide Church of over a billion souls with the expectation of a “jet-set” Papacy and almost daily public exposure.

Yes, it is a remarkable thing to ask of an 85 year old. Age has its burdens. And while I have never been 85, I have walked with many who have come to experience that age has its glorious moments but also it grueling ones. A good priest friend of mine finally had to leave a rectory he loved because, at 85, he can no longer ascend the stairs.

Yes there is something about aging. It is painful, but it is also poignant and beautiful if we accept it. There is a kind of gentle letting go that God effects in us as we age. Little by little we hand things back to God and learn to depend on him more, and those he sends us. To be sure, I am aware that old age is not easy, but there is something strangely beautiful about what God does in old age if we are willing to see and accept it.

One of the more beautiful passages in the Old Testament is the 12th Chapter of Ecclesiastes. It is a melancholy but soulful meditation on old age. It’s poetic imagery is masterful as it draws from the increasingly difficult effects of old age such as hearing loss, fading eyesight, difficulty walking, digestive issues, even gray hair. I have presented this reflection here before, but it occurs to me to present it anew in the wake of the Pope’s gentle admission that his physical and mental strength is failing.

Consider then this passage from Ecclesiastes and then some line by line commentary from me.

Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come And the years approach of which you will say, I have no pleasure in them; Before the sun is darkened. and the light, and the moon, and the stars, while the clouds return after the rain; When the guardians of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, And the grinders are idle because they are few, and they who look through the windows grow blind; When the doors to the street are shut, and the sound of the mill is low; When one waits for the chirp of a bird, but all the daughters of song are suppressed; And one fears heights, and perils in the street; When the almond tree blooms, and the locust grows sluggish and the caper berry is without effect, Because man goes to his lasting home, and mourners go about the streets; Before the silver cord is snapped and the golden bowl is broken, And the pitcher is shattered at the spring, and the broken pulley falls into the well, And the dust returns to the earth as it once was, and the life breath returns to God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth, all things are vanity! (Ecclesiastes 12:1-8)

And now, if you will, some commentary on each verse. My comments are in red:

1. Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come And the years approach of which you will say, I have no pleasure in them -

We are advised to give thanks to God for the vigor of youth for “evil” days will come. Here evil does not mean evil in the sense of “sinfully evil.” Rather, evil here means the days that are difficult and bad, days that bring challenge and pain.

We might want to be thankful for living in the modern age since the burdens of old age are far less than in the ancient world. Consider all the medicines and helps that make aging less difficult. Pain medicines alleviate arthritis, calcium supplements help with osteoporosis, blood pressure meds help prevent stroke and partial paralysis, motorized scooters help mobility, eye glasses and hearing aids improve our ability to interact and so forth.

But most all of this was missing in the ancient world. Age brought increasing and cumulative burdens so that our author says regarding these days, “I have no pleasure in them.”

2. Before the sun is darkened. and the light, and the moon, and the stars, while the clouds return after the rain - Here is a poignantly poetic description of eyesight going bad. The light darkens, stars and moon are less visible (perhaps blurry) and the clouds of cataracts begin to afflict the elderly.

3. When the guardians of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, And the grinders are idle because they are few, and they who look through the windows grow blind -

The “guardians of the house” are the biblical reference to our arms, and they start to tremble with the tremors common to old age even without Parkinson’s disease.

The “strong men” are the legs, and they are bent, less able to carry the weight of the body, Bent also indicates the legs when we are seated, unable to walk.

The “grinders” are the teeth and they are few! We have better dental health today, but then, it was common for the elderly to have lost many if not most of their teeth. This made it difficult to eat, requiring food to be mashed.

The image of an elderly person sitting in a window looking out but growing blind is surely sad, but also vivid. I remember my Grandmother in her last years. She could no longer read much because her eyes were bad and her mind could not concentrate on the text. So she sat for hours and just looked out the window.

4. When the doors to the street are shut, and the sound of the mill is low; When one waits for the chirp of a bird, but all the daughters of song are suppressed -

The “doors to the street” are the tightly compressed lips common to the very elderly, especially when teeth are missing. This also depicts how many of the elderly stop talking much. Their mouths are shut tight.

The sound of the mill may be another reference to chewing. Many of the elderly lose their appetite. One the psalms says regarding the elderly “I moan like a dove and forget to eat my bread” (Psalm 102:4).

Waiting for the chirp of the bird may be a reference to the silence of the elderly but it may also be a reference to deafness of the elderly who can no longer hear the singing and chirping of the birds. Something the young take for granted.

5. And one fears heights, and perils in the street; When the almond tree blooms, and the locust grows sluggish and the caper berry is without effect, -

Walking is difficult and treacherous and requires great effort for many of the elderly. Whereas the young may not think twice about a flight of stairs, the elderly may see them as insurmountable. Perils in the street like loose or upturned stones cause fear since a fall for the elderly can be devastating. They may also not be able to get up if they fall.

The almond tree blooming is a symbol for gray hair since almond trees had white blooms. The caper berry had several uses in the ancient world. It was an appetite stimulant, an aphrodisiac, it also was used to treat Rheumatism! But in old age, it would seem that the desired effects are hard to come by.

6. Because man goes to his lasting home, and mourners go about the streets; Before the silver cord is snapped and the golden bowl is broken, And the pitcher is shattered at the spring, and the broken pulley falls into the well, And the dust returns to the earth as it once was, and the life breath returns to God who gave it. –

And finally death comes, as symbolized by the mourners in the street, the silver cord, the golden bowl, symbols of life now snapped and broken.

The broken pitcher symbolizes that the body no longer contains the soul.

The pulley, a device used to lift is now broken, indicating that the body too will no longer rise from its place but falls into the well of the grave.

And we return to the dust and the soul goes to God.

7. Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth, all things are vanity! - In the end, all things pass. Nothing remains. Since all things are to pass they are vain (empty). The physical world is less real than the spiritual for the physical passes but the spiritual remains. Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is seated at God’s right hand (Col 1:3)

A sad but powerfully beautiful description of old age and of the dignity of the elderly.

I have often shared it with the very elderly and those who are suffering the ill effects of old age. I remember reading it slowly to my Father as he lay dying in his hospital room. He could no longer talk much. But as I read it to him I saw him nod and raise his hands as if to say “Amen!” Almost too as if he meant to say, “Somebody understands, God understands.”

Perhaps you also know an elderly person who could benefit from this passage. I know it is sad and not everyone is in a place where they can hear such a stark and sad description. But some are in that place where they can derive peace as God, through his word, says He knows exactly what they are going through.

Perhaps too this reflection helps to understand what Pope Benedict is saying about experiencing his limits.

Here are a couple of videos I put together on the Pope a couple of years ago. Once celebrates his world travels to the Tune by Johnny Cash “I’ve Been Everywhere.” The other celebrates the photogenic quality of Pope Benedict to the tune “Get my Picture Took with You”

20 Responses

  1. Kathy J. says:

    Beautiful….just beautiful. That video made me smile after such depressing news reports all day.
    Praise God for your gift of writing and wisdom.

  2. B. Durbin says:

    This is beautiful. Thank you, Monsignor.

  3. workingclass artist says:

    Thank you Msgr. Pope.

    I will miss this Pope….very much.

  4. Aloysius Duque says:

    You dont have to write on everything; it shows you are trying to impress…

  5. Vijaya says:

    Beautiful … I have grown to love him very much, just as I love you, Msgr. for bringing us closer to our heavenly Father. My selfish little self wants him to be with us forever, but age does take its toll. Even in his weakness he teaches us to be humble and put all our trust in God. He is always in my prayers, and I am praying for the next Pope as well. God bless you.

  6. susanna says:

    Monsignor there is a malware warning on this site if you search with google, firefox. I went to Internet Explorer and got on, but Norton said they blocked something. Thank you.

    I love Pope Benedict and pray for him.

  7. aimee says:

    I think the Pope’s gesture is beautiful, and we will have a saint praying for us from within the Vatican walls. And, future Popes will likely thank him, as he has set a precedent that retiring due to old age is fine, especially in an age of advancing medical technology in which people live to be older and older. In earlier centuries, he probably would not have lived this long due to his heart condition and two strokes. So here he is, able to enjoy a peaceful retirement of prayer and, I am sure, continued theological studies and writing in peace, for as long as he is able. God bless him!

  8. Dennis says:

    Monsignor, I received the same warning as @susanna with both Firefox and Safari. Thank God for you and for our Holy Father.

  9. Deacon John M. Bresnahan says:

    Valentine’s Day I turn 70 ( also the birthday of one of my daughters-in-law and my youngest grandchild.) I hope that as I approach Pope Benedict’s age that I can have the class and grace that this holy man has shown as time has taken its toll on him.

  10. Jennifer says:

    Oh I love this pious and scholarly pope just as if he were my own dear father. I am sad to see him go but I admire him for his humility in resigning and making way for a stronger person. I hope he will not be truly cloistered for I long to be able to see his smiling face and know he is rested and happy in his retirement.

  11. David M Paggi says:

    Msgr Pope:
    Thank you kindly for these photo montages. Setting Benedict XVI to this Johnny Cash number with the photos going by at a frantic pace really does give one a feel for just how much we receive from our Popes, which we so easily take for granted. Such radiant joy we have seen on the faces of John Paul II & Benedict XVI! Our last two Popes left office in diametrically opposite fashion, and both taught us deeply by their example.

    Your reflection on Ecclesiastes clarifies vivid figures not easily grasped. This sacred writer always makes me grateful for the hope we have in Jesus, the absence of which is so starkly conspicuous in this book.

    Incidentally, I have had extensive experience in the business side of Ophthalmology, and ironically developed a relatively uncommon form of cataract 5 years ago at 51. What has historically been the leading cause of blindness (and still is, worldwide) is now routinely treated in a 20 minute operation with minimal risk, outstanding results, and overnight recovery. From being nearly incapacitated I now have better vision than before, as the intraocular lens implants corrected my previous myopia. Ecclesiates tells us how much we take this for granted, too.

    It is perhaps our greatest hubris that so many have placed their faith in science rather than the good God who gave us these faculties in the first place.

  12. GaryM says:

    All true. Little things seem to go wrong as you age, sometimes major things too. I enjoyed your thinking on this.

    As for the Pope, Msgr., it is not only physical aging, but also, as he states, his ability to fight the “wolves” within the Church. I can just imagine. . . .

    He has been the best of the post Vat II Popes, for sure. I really admire him. He does cross the line in some areas like, for example, his Jewish salvation innovations. Based on traditional Church teachings clearly this concept is “out there” beyond foundation somewhere. Very easy to debunk, unless rupture (not continuity). This is minor and hardly worth mentioning compared to the larger issues facing the Church which he clearly articulates.

    As for me, well, I am praying hard for him and the Church. My hope is that we get a vibrant Pope that can pull us together by restoring the authentic spirituality of the faithful.

  13. chris awo says:

    The news of Pope Benedict XVI resignation on February 11th 2013 left me dumbfounded for the first twenty four hours. I just did not know what to make of it. Why resign? For what purpose? To serve whose interest? To what end? Whose will?
    Indeed i am astounded at the ease with which most catholic journalists, writers, bloggers and indeed clergy have taken it all in their stride. It is as if was just another day at the office.
    Few people seem to appreciate the gravity of this unexpected renunciation of the papal office. The question all catholics should ask themselves is this: was the election of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger as pope in April 2005 the will of God or not? If it was not the will of God, should we then rejoice and be glad that a usurper has voluntarily quit the chair of St. Peter or should we be sad that we were careless, sleeping and not praying and watching, such that a usurper could be elected in the first place to the chair of St Peter (and of course such instances have occurred from time to time in the past).
    If the election of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger was the will of God, which majority of us catholics affirm, why resign from the Petrine ministry? On health grounds? On old age grounds? On the stress of post-modern era grounds? On energy level grounds? On mental drive grounds?
    But let’s wait a moment. Is there any limit to power of our God? Is there any limit to the power of the Lord Jesus? Is Jesus of Nazareth still the same yesterday, today and tomorrow? Can catholics not pray to the Lord Jesus to give good health to the pope? Can we not pray to the Lord Jesus to renew the youth of our pope like that of an eagle? Can we not pray to the Lord Jesus to increase the energy levels and drive of our pope? Can we not ask the Lord Jesus to send his holy angels to protect our pope from all unbearable stress of the post-modern age?
    Can it be said that we catholics – especially the laity – have failed in our duty to look after the pope? Had we prayed enough, fasted enough, did penance enough would Pope Benedict have felt the need to make the grave decision he has now made? Would the church have come to this pass?
    How I wish the pope had confided earlier in us. How I wish he had challenged us to ask the Lord Jesus to give him all the prerequisites he needed to complete his apostolic tasks to the end. Rather than resign how I wish he had reduced his foreign trips to zero. Rather than resign how I wish he had reduced his sermons to five, ten minutes of key points. Rather than resign how I wish he had reduced his public exposure to minimum. Rather than resign how I wish he had appointed more able and more loyal assistants to the roman curia. Rather than resign outright how I wish he had signed a resignation latter to come into effect in the case of mental incapacity.
    Did Moses resign his commission? Did Samuel resign his commission? Did Elijah resign his commission? Instead the Prophet Elijah dehydrated, hypoglycemic and in great distress in the wilderness cried to God to take his life. And the Almighty God sent his holy angel with bread and water to bring relief to Elijah; and strengthen the prophet continued his journey.
    Furthermore did the old man St. Simeon of Jerusalem resign? Did St Anna (the prophetess) of Jerusalem resign? Did Sts Peter and Paul resign?
    Is it possible for the Lord to load us with a burden that we can not bear? Is the yoke of the Lord hard and difficult? Is the burden of Lord heavy and crushing? Should those of us in distress flee from the Lord Jesus?
    Is the resignation of Pope Benedict an act of courage to be emulated more often by future popes or is it a one-of f event to be seen maybe once every 600 years?
    No matter what the spin doctors churn out over the next couple of weeks, to say the resignation is a happy event is to stretch it more than a little bit. I personally wish for the reversal of the resignation but if that is judged to be impossible then the time is right to begin to pray for divine intervention in the election of a new pope.
    It was in the 1880s that Pope Leo XIII got a divine message that the enemies of the people of God are on the march but some people think that was mere superstition. Well the enemies of the church are definitely on the march again.
    O God arise and scatter the enemies of your people! O God arise and scatter the bones of the enemies of your Holy Roman Catholic Church.

    • Tom says:

      Yes, we need to remember the Pope in our prayers. I personally say “The Prayer before the Crucifix” after Communion for the Pope’s intention. We should all be praying a novena for Grace for the College of Cardinals as they travel to Rome. However, we don’t know the ways of The Lord. We “get” the Pope that The Church needs and that God chooses. We needed Pope John Paul II for the time he was chosen and we needed Pope Benedict when he was chosen. Only God knows who we need now (we will discover this after the Conclave) but, I firmly believe that The Holy Spirit has told Pope Benedict that The Church no longer needs him in the Papal role. I know that sounds harse but we can’t see the challenges in the future.

      Didn’t Moses “retire” when he didn’t pass into Israel? Didn’t Simian tell the Lord he could dismiss his servant in peace because he had seen Jesus?

      I also am not “happy” about Pope Benedict’s resignation but I am at peace with it because I believe he was guided by the Holy Spirit. If I am wrong, you will get your wish and the resignation will be rescinded. If Pope Benedict is the right man to be Pope after March 01, the College of Cardinals will have their vote and he will be elected! Of course, I don’t know what they will call him :).

      Trust in God, he will take care of us.

  14. Kaye says:

    There seem to be conflicting themes about the goodness of life. God says it is good and a long life can be a reward, but then there is the passage you quoted above and the place where we are said to have 70 years or maybe 80 if we are strong and most of those are trial and suffering.

  15. Jeff Lea says:

    I’m sorry to see Pope Benedict go. I was so happy to see how well he did after such a controversial role he played as Prefect for the Congregation of the Faith. Even my father, now a member of the CofE in England was impressed by him when he visited there.

    From what I’ve seen among the men who might follow him one stands out brilliantly, Cardinal Archbishop Luis Antonio Tagle of Manilla. I hope God taps him for the job.

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