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Aging as a Natural Monastery by Jane Thibault

Jane Marie Thibault (1996), Aging as a Natural Monastery, Aging & Spirituality: Newsletter of ASA’s Forum on Religion, Spirituality & Aging. VIII (3), 5.

An increasing number of my days are spent encouraging and accompanying adults on their spiritual journeys. When I was first invited to engage in spiritual “companioning” and counseling with elders, I had a traditional paradigm of spiritual growth in mind. I had been trained experientially and cognitively from an early age in Carmelite spirituality, specifically through studying the works of John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila and my own experience of Carmelite spiritual direction. Later I added Benedictine and Ignatian concepts and James Fowler’s theories of stages of faith development. I was oriented to a linear approach to developmental stages of faith and spiritual growth and was rather dogmatic in my thinking that the spiritual life “should” be a lifelong process of increasing awareness and experience of the transcendent within and without, culminating in a specific, ongoing sense of union with God in later life. Colleagues joked that I was trying to “make mystics out of out people” and I retorted with, “Why not? Can you think of anything more exciting to look forward to?”

With that thought in mind I began and intense search for elderly mystics. I wanted to see how mysticism “played out” in later life. I was sure I would find many models among aged monks, nuns, and devout lay people of all faiths. I wanted to hear the stories of their inner experiences and understand the influences on and patterns of their development.

What I found was at first very disappointing. Not one person told of experiencing those phenomena described in the classic literature on mysticism, such as the sense of luminousness, a deeper sense of reality and meaning, a feeling of “oneness” with God or reality. In addition, most of the people I interviewed did not seem to be able to relate to the words I used. For example, the question, “have you ever had what you felt was an experience of God’s nearness?” met, more often than not, with blank stares. I could not understand these responses and the seeming lack of “mystical” signs and symptoms in people for whom the spiritual had played a large and significant part in their lives. In addition, there seemed to be a concreteness to their spirituality that even seemed “anti-mystical,” if there were such a thing. What had happened to these people—had they not grown into the later stages of mystical development as described in the literature? Were there no elderly mystics? Was mysticism an obsolete concept in the final years of the 20th century?

Disappointed, I went back for a second look, this time throwing away my preconceived notions of what constituted “mysticism” in later life—or any other time of life. What I found was far more refreshing that visions and ecstasies and profound, isolated experiences of union with God. What I discovered were people who had ceased reflecting on themselves and even on God, but who definitely had the Zen-like ability to enter into an experience of the immediate moment. For these people, all of life was present to them in what the late theologian Karl Rahner termed “everyday mysticism.” For these people, late life had become a kind of “natural monastery,” where all the changes that the young rail against and describe as losses and diminishments had become opportunities to clear away the obstacles to experiencing and appreciating each moment with its own special beauty and/or pain. It was as if life had been stripped down to its barest essentials, so that the real could shine through and be appreciated, even if the real involved pain and suffering.

One of the primary reasons that young people choose to live in monasteries—even in this day and age—is to act on a desire to strip their lives of as many external obstacles to God as possible. Their lives are deliberately physically circumscribed, with emphasis on minimizing rather than maximizing outer experience. To do this, hey practice forms of self-denial that include simplification of lifestyle and relinquishment of ownership of (and concern for) may things. This is thought to free them from hectic, everyday harassments so they can contemplate and experience transcendent reality that shines through natural things, simplicity of lifestyle, deep presence to one another, solitude and quiet.

In a very real sense the experience of old age, especially frail elderhood, is an experience of living monastically. Solitary life in one’s own home or common life in a nursing home is an experience of winnowing, of paring down to the barest essentials. One 90-year old woman shared her life with me in these words:

I really don’t think about God very much any more, even though I used to. In the past my spiritual life was very complicated, and a distinct compartment of my life as a whole. I was always wondering if I were pleasing God, always concerned that I wasn’t doing God’s will “just right,” always thinking that I was not quite good enough. As I look back on it now, I realize that what was important to me was how I was performing for God. The emphasis was really always on me and what I was doing, even though I thought it was on God.

Now, in my very old age, I’ve given up all of that performing stuff—probably because I don’t have the energy for it any longer. I can’t do much any more and I can’t even think much, either; I forget a great deal. Now all I can do is look out at my little world—my house and cats and my dog and the people who bathe me and bring me food and the sky and everything, and I just spend my time loving them. I just look at it all and I love it. Even though my eyesight is bad, in my mind’s eye I see everything. It is all so very beautiful, even the bad things somehow get washed in the beauty of everything. I am so grateful for it all, grateful for all of my life, even the little things like—please excuse me—being able to have a bowel movement. Am I neglecting God because I don’t think about him much anymore? I don’t think so. Somehow, I feel that my looking and loving is enough for God—that that’s all God ever really wanted from me in the first place, to love what he gave me. Don’t you think so?

Jane Thibault (1993). A Deepening Love Affair” The Gift of God in Later Life. Nashville, TN: Upper Room Books, p.95).

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