Spirituality for Late Life
A Jesuit for nearly six decades, Father Leo Hombach, S.J., draws on the insights he gained from a near-death experience as he discusses the deeper sense of spirituality we can gain later in life.
Aging brings pain, but also greater freedom
Growing old gracefully is not an easy pursuit, especially in a culture that seems to place a premium on youth. Certainly, Jesuits aren't immune from the growing pains we all continue to experience in later life. As Father Leo J. Hombach, S.J., notes: "As we grow older, we become more and more aware of the fragility of life. We can adapt to the increase of pain in our joints and muscles and the arrival of new ones, and yet we embrace the life that is still there....Things get simpler and we can no longer cling to them and consequently we become freer more and more each day, until we are able to wholeheartedly pray these words of the Suscipe: 'Give me only Your grace and Your love and with this I am rich and desire nothing.' "
Creative expression can rejuvenate the spirit
Celtic spirituality believes in thin places, such as the holy island of Iona, where one can feel especially close to God. Similarly, the second half of life is a time when the veil between the visible and invisible worlds can become transparent.
During this more inward-looking period, many famous artists have had creative breakthroughs: Beethoven’s last quartets are both creatively and spiritually more penetrating than his Opus 18 or middle-period works. Even if we have never explored art or music, this can be a time when creative expression can stretch us spiritually.
Think of your spiritual self as a musician who has learned to play his or her instrument “by the rules.” Aging gives you the freedom to improvise. Building on the sturdy framework of familiar disciplines and practices, seniors can explore their relationship with God in new—and sometimes challenging—ways.
For the seniors at Sacred Heart Jesuit Center in Los Gatos, Calif., the arts provide breakthroughs to new levels of spiritual maturity. Making or appreciating art and music can develop, in Theophan the Recluse’s words, "the mind in the heart.” This can be a very natural progression for anyone who is open to using their imagination in ways that engage the heart and the soul.
In Sacred Heart’s classes on spiritual autobiography, Jesuits find that writing about their journey can itself become an invitation to delve deeper. It takes real courage to step away from the “doing” part of our identity to the “being,” yet our later years provide the space where this courage can take root.
It also provides the time for us to share our reflections and foster close bonds with our fellow travelers. The men at Sacred Heart can appreciate the words of the poet John O’Donohue: "How do we give birth to community? I don't think we do, I don't think we can create or manufacture community, what we have to do is to allow community to emerge. So what kind of conditions must prevail in order for real community to emerge? One of the things we need is to make some clearances for ourselves again, so that we can see the shape of our souls…”
What we're reading:
A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, Parker Palmer
Another Country, Mary Pipher
A Spirituality for Late Life (from the Older Adult Issue Series), Juliana Cooper-Goldenberg
Inventing the Rest of Our Lives: Women in Second Adulthood, Suzanne Levine
I Will Not Die an Unlived Life: Reclaiming Purpose and Passion, Dawna Markova
The Second Half of Life, Angeles Arrien
"There is, after all, something eternal that lies beyond the hand of fate and of all human delusions. And such eternals lie closer to an older person than to a younger one oscillating between fear and hope. For us, there remains the privilege of experiencing beauty and truth in their purest forms..."