The importance of age - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons

The importance of age

Romans 5: 1-5

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1 Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ:

By whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God.

And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience;

And patience, experience; and experience, hope:

And hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us.

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My relationship with my mother, who died many years ago, was always very complicated - we were never particularly close.  And yet there was one thing that I always valued and appreciated about her; which was that she genuinely didn't mind growing older, despite her increasing health problems.  She never wanted to be any age other than the age she was; indeed, I can remember her being quite adamant that she would hate to be young again, with all the unresolved baggage that goes with youth. 

Now that I am myself the proud possessor of a Senior Railcard, I do find her mindset refreshing, particularly in a culture such as ours that has generated whole industries dedicated to the preservation of youth, and the resistance of the ageing process.  But more than that, I am increasingly troubled by the fact that our society's obsession with the young and with youthfulness has been accompanied by an increasing disregard for the wisdom that comes with age and life-experience.  The elderly (whose ranks I am delighted to join), are increasingly perceived as a problem, rather than as an asset to society - which is, of course, the exact reverse of what has been the case throughout most of human history, and is still the case in most traditional cultures.  And the tragedy is that when we feel that society does not value us, we can start to lose the ability to value ourselves. 

Worryingly, one can see these forces at work even in the institutional Church.  When you look at its current strategies for encouraging vocations, and its priorities for mission, they all seem to be about youth - because youth is deemed to represent the future.  Whereas in ministry, in particular, wisdom and life experience count for rather a lot.  I have often reflected that, when I think back to the person I was when I was first ordained, 32 years ago, I now know far less than I thought I knew then - but I do know fewer things in far greater depth - and ultimately those fewer things are the things that truly matter.  Now, of course there are some young people who possess maturity and insight beyond their years, just as there are some elderly people who lack both - but you will get my general point, I'm sure.

And one of the major downsides of our society's obsession with youthfulness and physical fitness, and indeed with the virtues of personal independence and autonomy, is that it produces people who are not well-equipped to deal with the inevitable loss of those things as they grow older.

During my student days, I once went with a friend to visit his aunt, who had retired to a very small terrace house.  Her tiny hallway was dominated by a single, absolutely enormous photograph, far too big for the space it was in.  It was a professional black and white portrait of her, taken 45 years earlier, when she was young, slender, and very beautiful.  And nobody could enter the house without seeing it. 

And why was it there?  It was as if his aunt was saying: 'Don't look at the person you see standing in front of you today:  the person who is four stone heavier, with swollen ankles and grey wispy hair.  This isn't the real me at all: the real me is that young beautiful girl you see in the hallway.  Look at her, not at me.'    And she did indeed seem very sadly lacking in self-worth.  It felt as if her identity had been so bound up in the external appearance of her youth, that once she had lost that, she felt that there was nothing left of her that was of any value.

And you can witness the same kind of thing in people whose sense of self-worth is entirely bound up with what they do - particularly those who are highly successful professionally.  In one of yesterday's papers there was an interview with the former England batsman, Robin Smith, describing how his life descended into alcoholism and suicidal depression when, at the age of 40, Hampshire, the club for whom he had played cricket for 21 years, terminated his contract, and his stellar career was over.  If what you really value about yourself is bound up in how you look, or what you can achieve, or in your physical fitness or aptitude, how do you begin to cope those things begin to slide from your grasp?

The American Franciscan and writer on spirituality, Richard Rohr, describes two phases of human life.  In the first phase, as we grow up and begin to discover the world and learn how to survive within it, we construct an identity for ourselves.  We start to have a sense of how we are significant, of what makes us feel affirmed, and of what success looks like.  Things such as success and security, outward appearance, are all important to our growing sense of self. 

In order to be able to undertake this task appropriately and well, we need to be in a context where there are certain constraints - where there are boundaries, and rules and expectations.  (If you want to see a seriously dysfunctional child, look at one who has grown up in a household where there were no boundaries at all).  That is why societies need traditions, customs, and laws.  They provide us with foundations that enable us to grow up healthily.  Similarly, the kind of religion that accompanies this first phase of life is very much to do with rules and regulations, and 'thou shalt' or 'shalt nots'.  This first phase of life is essential phase, but importantly, it is only the beginning.  To experience fullness of life, we have to move beyond it.

And that means moving into a second phase, where we really can begin to live: where, if you like, we move beyond the container we have constructed, and start to discover the content.  And the journey from one to the other, necessarily requires us to engage with the complexities and contradictions of life, and to experience its costliness at first hand.  Because the movement from the first to the second phase will always entail suffering and loss.  And this is also true within the life of faith: we grow in the likeness of Christ, not by avoiding difficulty, and risk, and sin, and suffering, but by engaging with them, and passing through them and beyond them into true spiritual and emotional maturity. 

And this will bring with it an appropriate dissatisfaction with simplistic and superficial answers.  Both the attraction (and the ultimate flaw) in the simplicity and clear answers offered by fundamentalist religion, is that they can end up locking their adherents into the first phase of life and faith, and preventing them from entering the second.  Treat human beings like children, and they will remain like children.  Back in the fourth century, St Gregory of Nyssa said, 'Sin happens whenever we refuse to keep growing.'

It is instructive to reflect on this morning's Biblical readings in this context.  Speaking of the life of faith in Christ, St Paul in our reading from Romans speaks of a process that takes us from suffering, to endurance, to character, to hope.  If you like, the very process that takes us from the first phase of life into the second.  And note that this is a costly process: it is not a path that tries to explain away suffering, or to avoid it, but one that embraces it. 

And in our Gospel reading, Jesus speaks of the Spirit of Truth that will lead us into all Truth.  Discipleship is emphatically not about the passive acceptance of a bundle of approved religious doctrines, nor a simple code of conduct.  On the contrary, it is a dynamic, and often unpredictable process of discovery - an exciting but risky journey into the unknown; an experience that will constantly challenge our facile assumptions, and subvert our worthy but superficial expectations, but which will, in the end, draw us ever deeper into the heart of God's love.

We are so accustomed to think of ageing as being about nothing but diminishment and loss.  In fact, it is arguably the most important phase of life: the very process of narrowing the scope of what we can do physically, can be the catalyst that prompts us to go deeper, to explore where we are and who we are, in a kind of depth that youth would never have the patience to contemplate.  Paradoxically, there are great riches that can come with age, and only with age.

And this includes our contemplation of a God who is Trinity: a God whom we can know as our Father, who created us by his love - particularly appropriate to note on this, Father's Day.  But a God whom we also know as Son, one who lived on earth as one of us, who knows what it is to struggle and to suffer as we do, and who faces up to darkness and evil with love and self-sacrifice that brought liberation even for his oppressors.  And a God whom we can know as Spirit: a God who is with us, to inspire us, and direct us, and comfort us, and disturb us: a God who is always there surrounding us by his love, and bringing his peace into our hearts.

In the words of today's first reading:

We know that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.  Because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. 

And thanks be to God for that.

Amen.

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