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A Biblical Meditation on Aging

May 29, 2018

Last week in the Office of Readings we concluded the Book of Ecclesiastes. 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. Its 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, and even gray hair.

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 some commentary on each verse (my comments appear in red).

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 because “evil” days will come. Here evil does not mean sinfully evil. Rather, it refers to days that are difficult, days that bring challenge and pain.

We might want to be thankful for living in modern times because the burdens of old age are far less than they were long ago. Consider all the things that make aging less difficult today: pain medication alleviates arthritis; calcium supplements help with osteoporosis; blood pressure medication aids in preventing strokes; motorized scooters increase mobility; eyeglasses and hearing aids improve the ability to interact. In the ancient world, age brought such increasing and cumulative burdens that our author said, regarding these days, “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;

This is a poignantly poetic description of failing eyesight. The light darkens, the moon and stars are less visible (perhaps they are blurry), and the clouds of cataracts begin to hamper vision.

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 arms. They begin to tremble with the tremors common to old age, even without Parkinson’s disease.

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

The “grinders” are the teeth and they are few! We have far better dental care available to us today. In ancient times, it was common for the elderly to have lost many if not most of their teeth. This made it difficult to eat and required food to be mashed.

The image of an elderly person sitting by a window looking out, but able to see less and less, is surely sad, but also vivid. I remember my grandmother in her last years. She could no longer read much because her eyesight was so poor, and her mind could not concentrate on the text; and so she sat for hours and just looked out the window.

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. It also depicts how many of the elderly stop talking much. Their mouths seem 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 birds may be a reference to the silence of the elderly, but it may also be a reference to deafness, as many can no longer hear the singing and chirping, something the young often take for granted.

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, sometimes treacherous, and requires great effort for many of the elderly. Whereas the young may not think twice about climbing a flight of stairs, the elderly may see them as an insurmountable obstacle.

Perils in the street like loose or upturned stones cause fear because falls for the elderly can be catastrophic. They may also not be able to get up if they fall.

The blooming almond tree, with its white blossoms, is a symbol for gray hair.

The caper berry had several uses in the ancient world. It was an appetite stimulant, an aphrodisiac, and was also used to treat rheumatism!  In old age, however, it would seem that its desired effects were hard to come by.

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.

Finally, death comes, as symbolized by the mourners in the street. The silver cord and the golden bowl—symbols of life—are 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 will no longer rise from its place but rather fall into the well of the grave.

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

Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth, all things are vanity!

In the end, all things pass. Nothing remains. Because all things are to pass, they are vain (empty). The physical world is less real than the spiritual world, because the physical passes while 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).

This chapter from Ecclesiastes is a sad but powerfully beautiful description of old age. I have often shared it with the very elderly and those who are suffering from 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!” It was almost 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 that it is sad and that not everyone is in a condition that they can hear such a stark and sad description, but some are in a frame of mind such that they can derive peace from it, as God, through His word, tells them that He understands exactly what they are going through.

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Comments (10)

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  1. You are singing to the chior Monsignor.Songs are best remembered by their melodies than their lyrics.

  2. Sj says:

    I remember reading somewhere that the silver cord referred to the backbone, and the golden bowl to the brain.

  3. Douglas says:

    Monsignor:
    As always, thank you. I work with patients and families who are dying. Some are better prepared than others. Some don’t take it well, at all. We do have instructions to say the good things men need to hear, and pray for the wisdom to know what the words of comfort will be. I really hate it that we say “lost a loved one.”. We lose bets, or our care keys, or other things through our neglect and indifference. When a loved one leaves we gain a hole in our heart. Fortunately, as the narrator in the musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat says “We’ve read the book and we know how it turns out.”

    We are fortunate indeed to have a small clue as to how much God loves us.

  4. Mike S. says:

    That was so beautiful. Thank you Lord for your inspiring Word.

  5. for you says:

    Some don’t suffer the slow degeneration of life through the later years of old age. My husband died of cancer before losing so much as you describe above. The last week of his life he almost died but was revived the next day to tell me he saw his whole life pass by before him. I now believe that really does happen. He also said he saw Jesus in the Garden. I asked if Jesus said anything and he said, no, He was just smiling at me. I asked him what the Garden was like, if it was like my garden at home and he said, oh no, it was not like a little made up garden. What a gift! I think if we are God’s, He puts us to His Good work right up to the last minute.

  6. John R says:

    I fit into the category of old age. The thing I fear most is steps. Going up them is not so bad, but going down is my greatest fear. I really need a handrail to cling on to. I fear catching my heel on the edge of a step which will result in me falling forward down the steps and then….!!
    I can see the result even though it has not happened. Hence I really do FEAR steps.

  7. Kay says:

    This is quite true, and beautifully put. I’m in the elderly time of life myself; there are those increasing difficulties. I think of these things but then also from Psalm 92:

    The righteous will flourish like a palm tree,
    they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon;
    13
    planted in the house of the Lord,
    they will flourish in the courts of our God.
    14
    They will still bear fruit in old age,
    they will stay fresh and green,
    15
    proclaiming, “The Lord is upright;
    he is my Rock, and there is no wickedness in him.”

  8. Sue says:

    Thank you for a very insightful, compassionate article, Monsignor! I am only 60, but have Meniere’s Disease & all that goes with it–hearing loss, dizziness, etc., along with arthritis. So often, I think of my many elderly relatives whom I loved dearly & miss so much. I wish they were here so I could ask them all the questions I have about growing older & how they kept their spirits up. There’s so much about growing old that younger people look at & think, “Well, that’s just normal for their age.” It might be “normal,” but that doesn’t make it any easier to deal with as it’s still “new ground” for everyone! One of the greatest gifts you can give an elderly person is a weekly visit & just let them talk about their life. They have so much to share with us! God bless you!

  9. Deacon Rick says:

    Monsignor Pope,

    Thank you so much for this article. First, because it gave me a much better insight into the passage from Ecclesiastes. Secondly, because it will be an excellent resource to those whom I will email it to.

    My wife, who is 63, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease this past January, so there is much in the passage and your reflections that apply to our life now. But, we know, as you mentioned, that God knows what we are going through.

    There are two quotes from St Faustina’s diary that have been a great help to me.
    1310 You along my Lord and Master, know what this day has contained.
    1039 I carry their torments in my heart so that it even wears my out physically.

  10. connie says:

    Thank you Monsignor.

    Your explanation is priceless, especially for the spiritually challenged like myself. I loved it! I’m an 85 year old who knows she is one fall, stroke or other mishap away from permanent disability and all that entails. These things one never thinks about in their youth. And with these thoughts come fear and insecurity. I have found consolation in Psalm 63:2-9 from The divine office 1st Sunday, a portion follows. ” O God you are my God, for you I long. for you my soul is thirsting. My body pines for you like a dry weary land without water.So I gaze on you in the sanctuary to see your strength and your glory. For your love is better than life.” Something greater than what we have here is waiting for us.

    I recite this when I feel blue or challenged by my increasing frailty. I know that He is here with me, and loving and longing for me too. The losses I am experiencing are bringing me closer to our Lord and the peace He has for each one of us. There are reasons for sufferings,

    I am truly blessed and grateful for my faith, family, friends, and the privilege to live in this country.

    Thank you again for this treasure.