And I have noticed that as they approach death, on the one hand they require more and more support from others, as their own strength diminishes; while, on the other hand, their personal needs become fewer and simpler. And their perspective on life often changes. While still recalling the past when they enjoyed the vigour of youth, they increasingly look to the future when they hope to enjoy the fullness of life with God in heaven. Increasingly their minds and hearts become set on the things of heaven. I can remember my mother saying, "I've had a long life. I'm ready to go. I hope God will take me soon."
Monday, 24 May 2010
IN OLD PEOPLE
It's often so hard to make time to listen to old people. Our lives are so busy. But it can be very fascinating and very rewarding! It's also very important for them that we should take an interest in their past. Their memories reach far back to times which were very different from our own.
Take my mother, for instance. She lived to be 93 and experienced two world wars. As a child she saw a German zeppelin bombing Hull. She witnessed the development of electricity, radio, TV, computers, flights not only to the other side of the world, but also to the moon and beyond. Rapid developments in medicine have made it possible to cure many diseases. During her lifetime weapons became ever more destructive. Since 1945 we have all lived under the shadow of nuclear warfare.
It's difficult for young people to appreciate the enormous adjustments the elderly have had to make in such a rapidly changing world. Even Peter and I, who are in our late seventies, can remember the tractor replacing the carthorse on the farm.
The young have to take an enormous leap in their imaginations to realise that the elderly were themselves once young. They were strong and vigorous, and,this may come as a shock, passionate. I've found it difficult to imagine a frail old man having been a skillful footballer. or an elderly woman once working in a factory making Lancaster bombers.
In so-called primitive societies the aged are venerated as providing a link with their people's past -a past that has given them their identity, and has shaped not only their present, but also their future. I've found the same can be true in our Dominican communities. In one of our Study Houses there was a frail old priest who was a wonderful asset, even though he could do very little active apostolic work. But he was able to hand on to us young students the traditions of our Order and of our English Province. Such people have fascinating tales to tell of bygone ages, if only we are prepared to listen to them.
Now, numbering myself among the elderly, I know I can become a crashing bore if I constantly repeat the same old stories. But such memories are the repositories of our family and cultural histories. It's a tragedy that these personal recollections should be lost when the elderly die.
The Bible did not make that mistake. It sees remembrance of the past as a vital part in our relationship with God. Story-telling recounts an essential part in salvation history. This reminds us of what God has done for His people in the past. That is seen as pledge for what He would do in the future. This is expressed and celebrated in the liturgy.
Salvation history is enacted not only on the grand scale, but also in the lives of each one of us. As we listen to the aged we learn how God has helped them through the difficulties of a long life, and of the many ways He has blessed them.
Far from being morbid, she was expressing her longing to be with God, and to re-join Dad and our brother Geoff, in heaven. She, like so many others, had experienced God's love and mercy throughout her life. And they had tried to respond with love. For such people of faith death is not seen as a tragedy, but a joyful home-coming. Far reducing them to nothingness, they believe it's the gateway to the fullness of life. They are filled with hope, not despair.
This was brought home to me very powerfully when I had to tell my aged mother that her son, Geoff, had died unexpectedly of a heart attack. Her immediate reaction sprang from the faith which had sustained her throughout her life. That enabled her to draw comfort from the conviction that soon she would be re-united in God with Geoff and with dad, who had died long ago. Of course she grieved. Her tears were an expression of love for her son and for God, to whom she entrusted Geoff. Her grief was filled with a hope, which gave her a deep sense of peace. And instead of my comforting her, she reassured me.
I thank God for the old people I have met. Not only have they taught me the importance of recalling the past, during which God has shown them His mercy and support. Their faith, as they approached death, has inspired me to try to get my own life into perspective. They have reminded me of what is really important.
Now that I've joined their ranks and become old and grey-headed I hope I will be able to hand on to the younger generation the salvation history I have personally experienced. This has given me hope of an eternal future with God. I hope I can do this without becoming a crashing bore!
A final thought. I'm sure you've noticed how well the very young and the aged get on together. Maybe we need to become like little children if we are to span the generation gap and appreciate those who are very old. It is, of course, possible that I'm arguing for a greater appreciation of the aged, now that I've become one of them!
Next week Fr Peter will reflect how we can meet God in Icing on the Cake