On the Gifts of Aging – A Meditation on the Inverse Proportionality of Physical Aging and Spiritual Vigor

We live in an age where youth is celebrated and aging is lamented. Generations ago, age was the “hoary crown of wisdom,” the elders were reverenced and the young stood when they entered. But in this age of the visual, this age of television, everything is reversed. I remember a line from a song (by The Who) when I was a teenager which said, “Hope I die before I get old.”

The Photo at  right is me at 5 years old, my dad to the right was 38, my grandfather was 68. All three of us were named “Charles Evans Pope.” Now they’re both gone on, and its just me. The world laments age and death, But as I look at this photo I rejoice for them and myself. They were men of faith, their journey is done, and my is well past noon. And as I journey in their wake, I marvel at what the Lord is doing for me.

Yes, as for me, I must say, I’m glad I’m getting older. I know, you’ll say, “At 50 you’re just a child.” But I am not child, I’m half past dying and celebrating that God has brought me a mighty long way. Yes, I’ve discovered that the gifts of God have come more alive in me as my youthful vigor has dissipated.  I see those old pictures of myself in my twenties, looking young, tan and trim, now I’m old(er), white and fat. But though my body has gone south for the winter of life, now my soul has come alive as never before.

St. Paul says, Therefore, we are not discouraged; rather, although our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day (2 Cor 4:16).

Yes, indeed, I am a witness. I have to admit, my body isn’t exactly wasting away (it actually tends to gain weight), but it surely is not the sound sleek body of my youth. But this I can surely attest, my inmost self is being renewed and strengthened with each passing day. I have become more prayerful, more joyful at what God is doing, more aware of his presence and his ways. I am seeing sins put to death and better things come alive.I am less fearful, more confident, less angry, more serene.

Inverse proportionality – Yes, even though my physical stamina is less, I get winded climbing stairs now, my spiritual strength is better than ever. At age 50, I am more alive than I was at age 20. Glory be to God! I would never want to be 20 again, the Lord has just brought me too far and done too much for me, to ever want to set the clock back again. A few particulars occur to me that suggest an inverse proportion between youthful vigor and spiritual growth.

  1. My physical eyesight has become very poor. I am quite crippled without my glasses now. Until forty I did not wear glasses at all. But since forty I have come to place where, without my glasses everything is just a hazy blur. And yet, I spiritually see things I never did before. The word of God jumps off the page in new ways. There are new insights, new enlightenment as to what God is saying. I rejoice in this new inner vision that has come upon me in this second half of my life and I look with great expectation to the even deeper vision He will give me as I age.
  2. My hearing has become poorer with the onset of middle age. I have had a certain hearing loss since birth but now it becomes worse. But here too, I have learned to listen more attentively and to look at others while they speak. This connects me more deeply to them.
  3. I also have new insights into the people I am privileged to know. I have come to appreciate how wonderfully quirky we all are and how closely related our gifts are to our deficits. Though my physical vision is poor, my insight into the glory and the struggle of those closest to me is a gift I appreciate and hope to see grow even more with the passing years.
  4. Even as my physical hearing has diminished, my spiritual hearing has become far more acute. I hear things in God’s word I never did before. I hear God speaking to me on my spiritual walk with greater sensitivity. We have very good lectors and a marvelous choir in my parish and I marvel at what I hear from them each Sunday. Faith comes by hearing, and as I age I am more sensitive to what I hear at Mass and in sacred moments. When I was young, I was tuned out at Mass. The priest was just “some dude” up there talking and the Choir, well they weren’t singing rock, so what did it matter. But God has opened my ears as I have aged to appreciate his voice in newer and wider ways. Thanks be to God. He speaks to me throughout my day and I hear his voice more consistently.
  5. As I age, I am less physically able to accomplish things I once did on my own. I now fear heights and can’t climb tall ladders. I have a hard time lifting heavy things without injury. But all this has made me more humble and more appreciative of the help that others can give. Gratitude and an proper sense of interdependence are a gift I have discovered with age.  In the gift of age God has helped me be more grateful and connected to others.
  6. As I age and become less physically “glorious,” I appreciate more deeply the beauty and glory of Creation. Indeed, it astounds me in new ways. Each new discovery shouts out the glory of God to me. I am far more appreciative of the present glory of God than I ever was as a youth, when the focus was more on me. Now simple things, like the color purple, the magnificence of Spring, the quiet still after a heavy snow, the wonder and awe created by watching a science channel show on the mysteries of the deep oceans. As I have become more vincible and fragile with age, the world far more astonishes me and makes me cry, Glory to God!
  7. As I have aged I have discovered limitations. But this has made more humble and understanding of the struggles of others. When I was young I was impatient. There was little I could not do, or at lost thought I could not do. But, now, experiencing more of my limits I have seen compassion and understanding awaken in me, patience too.
  8. As I have aged, I am more easily fatigued. I usually need an afternoon nap and am blessed to be able to take one, living as I do “above the store.” It’s the only way I can get through my evening appointments. Yet, what a gift a nap is. I am mindful of Psalm 127 which says, In vain is your earlier rising, your going later to rest, you who toil for the bread you eat; for the Lord pours gifts on his beloved while they slumber (v. 4). Yes, God does pour his gifts on us even when we slumber. And as I age a I grateful even for the gift of a brief rest.

More could be said. I am glad to be getting just a bit older. I am running to meet God, and every day brings me closer. I can’t wait to see Him. I am like a child in Mid December who can’t wait for Christmas morning. That the days speed by more quickly only increases the longing for me. Each day, each step, closer to God.

And while my body goes south, my soul looks up. The weaker my physical flesh, the stronger my spirit and soul. The weaker my eyes, the deeper my spiritual vision and insight. The duller my physical hearing, the more intent my spiritual ears. God is good, he takes the one gift and returns another and greater gift.

And the best is yet to come! The Gospel today was of the man born blind who came to see, and God said to me at Mass today, in the words of a Gospel song,  “You ain’t seen nothing yet!” Scripture affirms: Beyond these, many things lie hid; only a few of his works have we seen (Sirach 43:34).St. Paul says, When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. (1 Cor 13:11-12)

I’m running to meet God. Age is a glorious thing, bring it on!

This song says,  Sicut cervus desiderat ad fontes aquarum,ita desiderat anima mea ad te, Deus. (As the deer longs for running water, so longs my soul for you, O God). The text is from Psalm 42:1  I would compare the song to a musical sigh. Palestrina has captured well the longing of the human heart for God here. Another gift that I think comes with age.

31 Replies to “On the Gifts of Aging – A Meditation on the Inverse Proportionality of Physical Aging and Spiritual Vigor”

  1. Thank you for this lovely post. Here’s another thought for you: my favorite season has always been autumn, and one of the things that I appreciate most is the beautiful, vibrant palette of the leaves. I love the idea that the loss of something so essential (chlorophyll) is a necessary condition for this phenomenal color to appear and that each leaf plays a part in this great and beautiful creation, even as it gives up its life. It makes me hopeful and excited to see what God will yet call forth from me.

  2. Very true words! I’m not far behind you, myself. I find as I get older that I have a broader realization of myself as well as my surroundings and the people I know. I see things now and ask myself, “Why is it I never noticed that before”. With age comes wisdom? I would think so. I also agree that I would not want to be 20 again. While I may miss the physical attributes of my youth, I also appreciate the respect I now garner from the experiences I’ve gained in the 28 years since then. I look back on that cocky 20 year old I was, and just shake my head…

  3. Amen! I have not posted for a while because I usually retreat from the Net during Lent (except for this blog), but tonight, I am succumbing to my temptation to say how grateful I am to the Lord and for you, my dear Father, who brings me closer to God across the miles. May God bless you and give you a long life.

  4. Thank you for this lovely assessment of “old age” and renewal in the spirit, of the spirit, with the spirit!
    I had rather a need for a bit of encouragement on just this process you so elegantly discribe. I am very happy that you are applying your present little changes to the good things of our Lord, in the way of His increasingly greater gifts to us through out our life time.

  5. What a beautiful piece! Thank you, as always, for sharing the gifts of your discernment and insight. Although I am just shy of 20 years younger than you, I have started to feel the effects of aging and know that it is highly unlikely that I will experience a reversal in this sensation! Yesterday, though, it hit me (again): I am going to die someday. And this was not in a sober, fearful way, but in a way that came with actual hope. I felt enthusiasm that the Lord feeds us with His Body and Blood now on earth and then, provided we don’t separate ourselves through mortal sin, waits for us to be with Him eternally in heaven. That time will, indeed, come, and each day brings us that much closer. WOW! Funny how it’s such an integral part of our faith but isn’t necessarily in the center of our consciousness as we live and serve in our vocations.

  6. At 45, my hair is mostly gray. I’ve chosen not to color it, as I’ve no particular desire to look 10 years younger (or worse, as if I were TRYING to look 10 years younger). Being around children, however, certainly can cause one to reconsider one’s self image:

    One day I was out jogging. My daughter was accompanying me on her bicycle, and rode ahead. She looked back at me and laughed. When I asked about her amusement, she said it was “funny to see someone with GRAY HAIR jogging.”

    This past weekend, several girls from my troop and I attended Girl Scout camp. While we were waiting to check in, a third-grader gazed at my hair for a moment, and then said: “Mrs C, my mother dyes HER hair to the color it USED to be.” [hmm…was that a hint?]

    1. Oh, have to laugh at this. I went grey very early and tried dying my hair for years (it was black so that made for interesting roots). i finally gave up when my 6 year old daughter came home complaining that someone told her she was fat (she was not) and I gave her the “accept yourself as God made you” lecture. Realizing I was something of a hypocrite on that point, I quit coloring my hair. I well remember some time after that a clerk made mention to my daughter (after I gave her a dollar for a purchase) of how nice it was to have a Grandmother that gave her money……I suggested to her that her gaffe meant the purchase ought to be free! Seriously, I find a certain liberation in accepting the wrinkles, the gray hairs, the saggy ankles….it makes me pay more attention to the things that matter. And my hair has mellowed into a lovely silver that some women pay big bucks to get. Who says God doesn’t have a sense of humor?!

    2. Both good stories here. As for jogging, I admire that you can still do it. I had to stop at age 35 due to bad knees. I had likely damaged them in High School when I ran almost 10 miles a day.

      Gray hair is beautiful.

      1. I have a friend in her 60s who still jogs. She clearly comes from sturdy stock, as her mother lived well into her 90s.

        My friend thought my daughter’s comment to me was hilarious!

  7. Msgr., thanks very much for the reflection. The best is definitely to come. One of my favorite saints on the calendar that we will be celebrating tomorrow is St. Vincent Ferrer. This famed Dominican began his whirlwind tour de force of preaching about the age of 50. So, strap on your boots Msgr., because you might have a lot more intriguing adventures ahead of you!

    Ad multos annos!

  8. Msgr Pope: Thanks for allowing us into your material and spiritual MENU. You are awesome. I am so grateful and thankful of being born 3/4 of a century ago. I am going downhill so fast I can SMELL THE DIRT! My only regret is that after so many years I have an urgent need of lissening and humility skills (graces). I have been given the best of everything without even asking for it but I seem to hang on to fear – of what?- I don’t know. Pkease pray that HIS will be done and I can snap out of this yo-yo stage.
    Keep blessing us with your MENU. Thanks, thanks.

  9. I came upon your blog and was moved to tears. I have been going through a dark time in my life and feeling rejected and abandoned because of my age. I forgot how much God has brought me through and that He has never failed me nor forsaken me. Yes, my heart is broken, but God is creating something better in me.

  10. What a beautiful piece, indeed! I recently presented an My Heirloom Memoirs seminar to a group of women from 21 to 94. I asked them to complete the sentence, “I used to think…” Their writing was astonishingly rich and insightful—and so much the same in depth and content, both age groups hit what really matters. At 80 myself, I can only feel joy in the experience.

  11. Once again, another post sent straight to my heart! I have been mourning, in a sense, my days of youth gone by. I have been very tired of being sick and tired. Yet here today you remind me of all the graces I have been given and give me new things to ponder. I AM very thankful that I have grown in my faith well past where I was in my youth. Just thinking about that ought to snap me out of the youthful memories. Thank you Father.

  12. Having read your Blog on ‘Physical Ageing and Spiritual Vigour’ along with the (so far) 24 Responses all of them favourable, may this writer add his two pen’uth. Here is his response.

    Hey! Hold on Monsignor! As they say in our part of the world – ‘You are ‘nobbut a lad’. You have no-way reached the age of being considered elderly, or even ‘getting old’. You must have a very young readership, some of them thinking the World began when they were born only a few years ago. Our children are all heading towards sixty years of age, one of them ran a half marathon race yesterday,13 miles, beating his 29 year old son by more than 5 minutes!

    Now you can guess how ‘old’ his parents are – much older than eighty. (both ‘alive and kicking’) – even if not so much as they were forty years ago. They are ‘up and doing’ early in the morning, attend daily Mass, look after themselves and every evening in their Night Prayers together they thank the Good Lord for all the Blessings they have received, during the day. Most of their friends have ‘moved on’ but the writer and his wife have very many canonised and un-canonised friends in Heaven whom we talk to every day. What a wonderful Doctrine is the ‘Communion of Saints’! Keep battling on Monsignor because, if God so wishes, you have much to do before you ‘move on’. Your greatest work has yet to come.

    May I suggest you hold on to this blog, put it at the bottom of your your archives folder and re-read it every year on your birthday. As the years go by (if the Good Lord spares you), you will consider how premature were your thoughts and experiences.and as an American President once said: You aint seen anything yet!
    No Monsignor, you Aint seen or lived long enough yet.

    May you be blessed with a perpetual youth, maturing as the years go by.
    God bless,
    Frank Swarbrick

  13. When I think of Our Lord dying in the prime of His manhood, I sometimes regret that I don’t have a more perfect, youthful body to offer Him at my death. However, when I was young, I didn’t think that way, so I perhaps it is possible I am growing spiritually.

  14. Thanks for your insight. You put into words more beautifully what I feel. And at 75 it only gets better and I find myself looking more diligently for the Lord. Great blog that I read often.

  15. I have a poem I’d like to share with you, that embodies what you’re saying. Would you contact my email address?

  16. I would love to quote from this in my upcoming book, Embracing the Aging Process.
    May I have permission?
    Here is the quote I am using:
    “As I age, I am less physically able to accomplish things I once did on my own. I now fear heights and can’t climb tall ladders. I have a hard time lifting heavy things without injury. But all this has made me more humble and more appreciative of the help that others can give. Gratitude and a proper sense of interdependence are a gift I have discovered with age. In the gift of age God has helped me be more grateful and connected to others.”
    Thank you –
    Dr. Toni

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