Embracing life's second act: Getting older with grace

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Article Seniors Spirituality
Aging gracefully requires the courage to face our burdens, to accept our blessings, and to recreate our lives in new ways.

A few years ago, Erie Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister, a prolific spiritual writer and one of the most prominent, outspoken contemporary American Catholic sisters, decided to finally tackle a book she had wanted to write for a long time. The result, The Gift of Years: Growing Older Gracefully (Blue Bridge), beautifully reflects on the spirituality of later life, which Chittister describes as “the enterprise of embracing the blessings of this time and overcoming the burdens of it.”

Chittister uniquely combines strong advocacy—especially on behalf of women in both church and society—with a contemplative spirituality rooted in the Benedictine tradition. One of her recent projects is “Monasteries of the Heart,” a web-based movement that shares Benedictine spirituality with contemporary seekers. Meanwhile, the Joan Chittister Fund for Prisoners distributes free spirituality materials in 90 prisons.

“There is no such thing as having only one life to live,” Chittister insists. “The fact is that every life is simply a series of lives, each one of them with its own task [and] . . . its own plethora of possibilities.” And for our later period of life, she invites us to discover new ways in which we can live out our responsibility “to give the world back to God a bit better than it was because we were here.”

Aging, Chittister says, is not enough in itself. “Aging well is the real goal of life.”

What led you to write about what you call “growing older gracefully”?

I was actually in my early 40s at the most when I first decided that, someday before I died, I wanted to write a spirituality of aging. I was a social psychologist, and I watched the older sisters in the community and noticed there was something really different about them. Everybody took it for granted that it was because they were older or holier or quieter, or that they had been formed in another period. But that wasn’t it.

I watched them and studied them with a lot of interest. It was always an unfinished work in the back of my head.

What was it that set those older sisters apart?

They ran the gamut from the ultimate holy character to the ultimate powerful woman. The first person I’m thinking of is Sister Pierre. She was this darling little Irish gnome, aged and ageless, and probably had very little education. She was what we called a “house sister.” There was a wisdom to her that made me wonder, “Where did all that wisdom come from?”

We were young and very much into formal education, as was the entire United States in the ’50s and the ’60s. After the Second World War, college populations were booming, and people realized you had to have a college degree if you were going to do anything in life.

But here was Sister Pierre, who had the heart of the whole community in her hand. All she did all day long was bustle around that house, taking care of everybody else. She was just a doll. Sister Pierre showed me the importance of making the distinction between wisdom and knowledge. I don’t think I had the words yet. I was too young myself, but it became clear to me.

On the other hand, there was Sister Theophane—brilliant; not smart, but brilliant—who could do anything, did it amazingly well, and did it very quietly but with a great sense of self. She had been in the community all her life, was clearly head and shoulders above most of the population intellectually, but somehow or other fit well in that community setting. The community recognized who she was and did very well with her.

What point am I making? She didn’t lose her effectiveness, her efficiency, or her intellectual reputation by virtue of her age. Being aged, or aging, did not put her on a shelf in any way whatsoever.

She had been the subprioress of the community and the principal of our girls’ academy—a leader all of her life. Then what did she do? She moved to the center of the slums in Erie, Pennsylvania and began working with African American families. Moved right into that neighborhood, never blinked, simply, with another one of our sisters, moved into this work and into day care for low-income families.

There’s a part of me that says retirement doesn’t have any meaning to nuns, but I would actually argue that it’s a false word for anybody in society. At the same time, I find our religious life can be a phenomenal model of a life that you live to the very end.

How so?

It’s actually built into The Rule of St. Benedict. There is a part of the rule that used to really bother me when I was a young woman. It’s the line that says something like this: Let everyone in the community be given—it doesn’t say a job, but—a responsibility, or something to do, even the elderly.

Now, at age 16 or 18, I said to myself, “This is cruel! This shouldn’t happen. Why would all these older people have to get up every day, no matter how small the job?”

Then I began to understand. The message is a very strong one. They’re useful. They’re important to the group. They have a wisdom and expertise that they bring with them after all those years and from all those organizations.

They move with ease from one service to the community to another. They do them all well, and you begin to realize that the line that states that everyone in the community be given something of value to do is assigned to all of us. We can’t do without one another, nor can this society, although we’re trying to.

As you look outside of the monastery, how does the larger society deal with retirement?

It can be a real stopper for people. Retirement can be the worst thing that happens to a person in this society, because we tell them, “Here’s your watch. Here’s the banquet. See you around.” Except we don’t ever really care to see you again. In 24 hours, your name is off your door. The drawers are empty. Nobody ever calls to say, “You know, when you had this case, how did you decide it?”

Nobody sits them down and tries to tap into their experience. In our youth-centered society, experience is getting short shrift, and it’s showing in our decision-making. It’s showing in our whole attitude toward the corporate world.

How does it show? If it’s not new, it’s not newsworthy. And if it’s new, you have no criteria for comparison, no criteria for evaluation of any kind. We’ve become a headless society.

What are we losing by shunting retired people aside?

Well, the quick answer is we’re losing their wisdom. What we’re losing is the foundation for comparison. People who have lived through multiple systems can look back and tell you, “This worked, and this worked, and this didn’t work. We should have done more of this, and we did too much of that.”

Of course not all older people are wonderful role models and wisdom figures. Sometimes people seem to turn “sour” in their older age. Where does that come from?

I’m convinced that we don’t become something we weren’t as we get older. We tend to become more of what we’ve always been. “Sour” didn’t come with 60. Sour came with 25 and no capacity to live with anybody else, we’ve all seen that. At the same time, sweet can come with 60, lots of times sensitivity can come with 60. The whole notion of social responsibility can come with 60.

I think that anyone can sour for certain reasons. If people have been sick and in pain all their lives, don’t be surprised if they’re not smiling all the time. If they’ve been misplaced all their lives, and forced to be accountants when they should have been cooks, that can bring out the sour in them. Any kind of distortion of a personality early on—physically, socially, or intellectually—there’s no doubt that sour can come out of that, but it doesn’t come with age.

Are the challenges of retirement and older age different for men and women?

The difference may be narrower now than it used to be. In the more traditional models of the past, women aged internally, and stayed as basically internal creatures. They stayed in what they had always done, and went on to a certain extent.

Men, on the other hand, were often cut off from the home, from their children, from the organization of the house and the family, from the development of the home.

The problem for the man was: What is there then for you, when the outside is cut off, too? What do you go back to? What are your expectations? What is going to happen during the day? What’s happening to the guys I used to bowl with? Or: I hated the office meetings, but by God, at least we all met together. 

Those can be very serious questions for a man. Now they have become equally serious questions for many women, except that women tend to keep social ties that men rarely do. They raise their children with the same people in the park, the same carpooling. They have friends that come out of the system in which they live, and women are great at not losing those friends.

Our community has a housing project for the elderly. Women may not know a person in that building when they move in, but within weeks they have a network because they’re made that way. Somehow or another, women have a consciousness of the social.

I don’t think men have that kind of social consciousness bred into them. Often men tend to build a social network around the sports teams they follow. If anything happens to that, if they move to another place, they lose contact with the rails that used to take them through life.

It is a social issue for us. I think it’s largely overlooked in a man’s life, and he’s supposed to just soldier on. “Yeah, well, I’m out of there now,” but inside, you’ll see a lot of men struggling with that. A lot of men used to turn to fishing or hunting or something, but that’s a bit hard to do on Fifth Avenue.

Helping men realize that when they get up in the morning, they have to join something else to get in touch with people, that is tough. They can sit home on the back porch for a long time.

What’s most important for people to pay attention to as they prepare for retirement?

In preparing for retirement, the most important thing is involvement. I try to tell people, “Don’t wait until the so-called retirement date. Start back here, forming your life within a life. If your life is nothing but your work, you will find this a larger problem as you go on.”

Is that related to the kind of “generativity” you encourage your readers to pursue?

Exactly. Given the nature of our industrialized society, we hear a lot about how we spend all our working lives earning money for when we don’t earn money, but then we don’t know what to do with it, because there’s nothing else we do except earn money during these years.

When you think of the old agricultural schedules, there were so many months a year that you just waited for the seed to lie fallow. It changed your
life, too. Why did agricultural societies have all those feast days? They had them to bring people together; they had them to break life up for outreach.

We have moved so quickly from that kind of society to this “commuter generation” society that there’s very little that fills those gaps. I argue that you just simply have to get yourself involved in other, life-giving things. Don’t get in that rut.

What do you see as the most important burdens and blessings related to growing older?

The first blessing, of course, is the opportunity for the creation of the rest of the self, if you’re lucky and have the health. And even if you don’t have full health, look, don’t just say you can’t walk. Find something you can do sitting.

You can’t put the whole burden of the value of your life on the fact that you don’t see as well as you used to. Well, my heart bleeds. Then study Mozart, play music, work with gross muscle mass. There are other ways. You simply just have to grow out of yourself to find them.

That’s the great blessing, because the rest of yourself is waiting to be discovered by you. You’re the only one who can discover it, and you may have 25 years to do it; that’s another whole lifetime. Realizing that can be a great moment.

Now the burden of aging is that you have to keep recreating yourself. You see men—men especially, but now also women—who have always played basketball. Now they are killing their Achilles tendon at the age of 55, because it hasn’t occurred to them that they can’t play basketball the same way anymore. Well, maybe it’s time to take up boccie or something like that.

The task, again, for us is to shape our lives to our circumstances, and to make those circumstances satisfying, as well as creative. There are all sorts of things you could start up and get involved in. I’m still studying Spanish. Now I’m not really sure where I’m ever going to use it, but I love learning it and I go on.

So then the burden in that is...?

That you can no longer do what you used to do and that you must learn to recreate yourself from stage to stage. It’s not a single process. Why is it a burden? Because it taxes you. It has to come from the inside. People can’t come and give you those things. You have to find your interests. You have to be willing to try something and fail at it.

It’s funny how things happen. It’s often men for whom these crossover points in their lives seem to happen serendipitously. They’ll say, “Well, after I retired, somebody asked me if I had any sandpaper and if I could take the top off their table. I had never done that before, but I found out how to do it, and I’ve been doing furniture ever since. I love it.”

Sometimes you just luck into it, but you have to be open to it.

What’s the importance of relationships for seniors?

Mental isolation is perhaps the greatest bereavement of them all—the lack of somebody to talk to. I notice that there’s one very hopeful thing growing up in the country. I bet 50 if not 75 percent of my mail comes from people in book clubs.

For many of them that seems to be the creation of a new social life. They pull 10 to 15 people together. Sometimes they’re women’s groups, sometimes they’re mixed groups. There aren’t too many yet pulled together by men.

That gives them a whole new place to go for good discussion. Also it helps them keep in touch with the political and social issues of the time. It gives them an opening into a national conversation.

I applaud that. I don’t think I could have seen it coming, but I know it’s there now. And as this older generation is now growing into social media, there’s another whole invitation there to form new communities around that.

To become immersed with all these strangers in the same questions, that has to be very, very life-giving. It will affect the society. Those answers will be kept and filter down.

How big of an issue is regret, as people go over their lives and think of things that might have been?

I actually had a bit of an argument with my publisher, who wanted to rearrange the order of the chapters in the book. He said, “You can’t start the book with regret, Joan. Nobody will buy it.”

I strongly disagreed with him. And sure enough, I got plenty of mail from people saying, “The minute I opened the chapter to ‘Regret,’ I knew this was a book I wanted to read.”

Regret is a huge part of life. It’s that coming to peace with the self. More than that, it’s coming to see that not only is there no such thing as a coincidence, there’s no such thing as a mistake. There’s something in that.

I’ve begun to talk a lot now about who God is in an evolutionary world, and what a spirituality of evolution would look like. One of the things I talk about most is that we learn from evolution that there is no such thing as wrong, as a mistake. There’s adaptation, there’s experience, there’s change.

To get where we are today, all of these things were necessary. Whatever happened in your past, it’s a matter of seeing what having it did for you or what not having it demanded of you. You begin to realize that you wouldn’t have gotten to where you are now without it. But wherever you are now, it’s where you need to be. It’s a great discussion.

Are there regrets you have had in your own life?

That’s a good question. I knew at the age of 14 that I wanted to be a writer. I also wanted to go to the convent. Or, to be honest, even at the age of 16, my struggle was, “Am I going to do this?”

I went down to the high school library in the Benedictine girls’ school that I attended to find out how many of the books there were written by a woman. The answer was three!

One of them was a volume of poetry by “A Nun from Stanbrook.” And the other two were Jane Eyre and a Willa Cather book. I remember standing there, saying to myself, “I don’t care if my name’s on it. I just want to write it.” The very fact that it was possible for a nun to write was enough for me. I clung to that.

Even then, however, what I wanted to do was write fiction. And that never happened, and I used to regret that fact. There were years when I said to myself, “I should be writing my novel now.” I had this great urgency. I look back now, and, frankly, I really have no delusions of grandeur. I did not miss writing the great American novel. I’ve done just fine.

Your spirituality books have inspired many people. What has changed for you in your own spiritual outlook over the last 50 years or so?

The biggest and healthiest thing, as far as I’m concerned, is that we grew up spiritually. There was a deep spiritual narcissism that we thought was “deep spiritual piety.” What it really meant was, “My life is all about me and my next life.” The rest of the world could go to hell in a handbasket, but that didn’t matter all that much if you prayed your rosary, if you went to daily Mass, and if you sat by yourself and read your devotional book.

The big shift that has happened is that we have realized that you can’t be a truly holy person if you are not following in the footsteps of the Jesus who walked from Galilee to Jerusalem healing, raising people from the dead, contesting with the Pharisees all the way.

It’s this whole notion that the fully spiritually alive person is the socially alive spiritual person in the society in which they live. What that means is that we bring our souls to fullness of life in the way we live our lives. That’s the major change in my spirituality.

I was raised in the period of private devotions and moved into the period of liberation theology and an awareness of social sin, and a corresponding awareness of social responsibility. It changes your life completely and totally. It deepens your understanding of Jesus.

The piety that we were learning had nothing to do with the Jesus we were following. We didn’t even know it was schizophrenic. It was really two completely different approaches to the world, and one had lost contact with the other.

As a young woman I entered a Benedictine convent to live behind a wall. What were we expecting that we were going to be doing? This so-called “great hidden life” we were being called to was in fact so hidden that it was completely out of touch and with no sense of responsibility for anything except what it did on its own small piece of land.

In fact, I and my cohort missed the entire Korean War. As novices and scholastics, the only time we were allowed to see a newspaper was when we wrapped the garbage. I used to read the headlines quickly as I was putting in the coffee grounds to see what was going on.

When we got into the time of the Second Vatican Council and committed to our own renewal, I looked back and realized what infantile spirituality we had gotten trapped in. That’s what I would call the difference.

Do dogmas and doctrines become less important for people in their older lives?

Yes. In the first place, I don’t know how many people actually sit around studying dogma and doctrine. I have this funny suspicion that it’ll be hard to get a crowd going.

The spiritual life is not built on the intellectualization of the faith. It is rooted in the following of Christ. It is rooted in the gospels. It is rooted in this scriptural model of life as a template for my own.

The older you get, the more meaningful that becomes. We’re down to essentials now. We don’t have time for the little stuff. If I had to define my faith, the dogma of the Assumption of Mary is not where I would start.

I just think you grow into Jesus, and that eventually you grow into God. That means that you put down a lot of the trappings of religion, too.

In that context you’ve talked about learning to “trust the universe.”  What do you mean by that?

No matter how long Galileo and Copernicus have been around, the fact of the matter is that we grew up in a period when we, nevertheless, understood ourselves as the highest of all creatures. That God had no interest in anything but me. That was really important.

Then, all of a sudden, we find ourselves in a world where, in my lifetime, the first ever picture of the Earth was taken from outer space. Everything up to that time was an artist’s speculation.

That “Blue Marble,” that little mass twirling in that big, black nowhere, it just changed the human psyche. You went from being the only thing to being a grain of sand in the universe. There is no quicker antidote for arrogance that I know than that particular picture.

Now, if you’re out there, and this thing is still going in the orbit where, as far as we know, it always went, then the universe has got to be friendly. Something, some magnetism, some energy, some power is keeping this whole thing from smashing everything to pieces.

When you get that far, you begin to trust an awful lot of stuff you never trusted before. There has to be a reason. There has to be a fiery, flaming, fantastically beautiful endpoint to all of this that you don’t know but you breathe. You just breathe it, and that’s enough.

This article appeared in the August 2014 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 79, No. 8, pages 18-22).

Image: Flickr photo cc by VinothChandar