Old Age and the Marist Spirit

From a talk by Fr P Graystone SM   October 2009




In the distant past, when I was a student in the seminary preparing for the Marist priesthood, much of the daily routine could probably be labelled as monastic. For example we normally had our meals in silence. This was just as well, for it was wartime with rationing in full force, and the menu wasn't really conducive to joviality. Usually there was reading of some sort, and when a passage occurred which was humorous, or thought to be so by the brethren, who I might say, were easily amused, there was a fair amount of suppressed laughter. This didn't happen very often, but I remember that it was quite frequent when the reading was about elderly people, especially about old men. Of course we were a very young congregation in those days, - this was true of the whole Society, but especially the community in the Seminary - and I suppose that the few really old men in our ranks stood out much more prominently then than they would today, when we're pretty well all getting on in life. Perhaps later on we might see some significance in this seeming connection between old age and humour but at the moment I only mention it by way of introduction. It's just one of the episodes which occurred to me when planning these few words. One or two quotations which I came across at the same time could also fit in here. One was a definition of old age -the period of life which everyone grumbles about but nobody likes to miss, I suppose that's because the only way of missing it is to die young. And this gem, again about old age from a person who seems to be an enthusiast, 'I recommend that you start it as soon as you possibly can, so that you get the full benefit'. That's an interesting suggestion, because it implies that we have a measure of control over when we begin to be old.

Anyway, it's not my intention to define old age, still less to suggest that it's enjoyable, What I'd like to do is to look at some of its effects, and to enquire if the Marist spirit can help us cope with them. For this purpose I might start by summing up the effects of old age in one word - the word 'diminishment'. When I was putting this paper together, I thought that 1 needed to coin this word diminishment, since I don't think its normally found in dictionaries. But, surprisingly, and perhaps sadly, when I started reading the report of the General Chapter of the Marist Fathers and Brothers, 1 kept coming upon this very word, diminishment. Perhaps this is a sign that our Society itself is getting old. Whatever about that, it seems to me that diminishment is a good word to express the effects of old age. Old age diminishes us. St. John the Baptist summed it up very neatly when, after baptising Jesus, he said, 'He must increase, and I must decreaseí.

John the Baptist, though probably still young himself, is here describing a situation which normally happens to people in later years - the loss of position, of power, of influence. On the one hand Jesus, after his baptism, is commencing his great mission of the redemption of mankind, he must grow in stature and in prominence. John in contrast has prepared the way and has pointed out Christ; he has finished his mission and must now fade into the background, as indeed he now does. What happened to John after the baptism of Jesus happens to us all, if we live long enough, we've got to leave the centre stage and move back into relative obscurity. A diminishment; sometimes a notable wrench. Perhaps the Marist -we're speaking of course of Marists and old age - might be helped to accept this merging into the background by the reflection that Mary, our model, never really left the background. It was where she seemingly belonged, certainly in her earthly life. Throughout the Gospels, whenever she appears itís always in relation to her Son, who invariably holds the centre of attention. When the Magi come they come to greet Jesus, Mary is simply holding him; Simeon in the Temple rejoices to greet the Messiah - only in an aside does he mention Mary. At the marriage at Cana it is the first miracle of Jesus which is the climax of the story, not the intervention of Mary - on Calvary Jesus on the Cross dominates the scene, Mary stands at the foot. Even when Jesus is absent, at Pentecost, Mary is mentioned as one of a number - his mother and his brothers were there. In fact, the more we move from centre to background the more like Mary, at least in this respect, we become. And the more we accept this, in the spirit of Mary (Behold the handmaid of the Lord) the more Marist we become. Perhaps this is the place to say that when we speak of old age diminishing us, we're not speaking in a moral or spiritual sense. Like anything else that comes upon us, in itself it doesn't make us better or worse, in fact, rightly accepted and rightly lived, it can bring us closer to God. We can grow as Christians as well as Marists despite the diminishment.

All the same, it does diminish us, in other ways besides the one we've looked at, Not all at once, perhaps, but gradually, and to some extent, irreversibly. There are the little psychological changes which come quite early in the gradual process of ageing. I mean memory lapses, absentmindedness, the tendency to repeat oneself, the proneness to accidents. Of course you don't have to be elderly to be forgetful or absent-minded or clumsy, but, as the saying goes, it certainly helps. And here the element of humour starts to creep in - we're reminded of the suppressed laughter in the refectory in the seminary at the beginning of this paper, and recall such stereotypes as the absent-minded professor or the club bore who forever repeats his funny stories. You're more likely to find them amongst the elderly.

Rather further along the uphill road of later life one encounters the more physical afflictions - the loss of mobility, the short sightedness, the deafness. And with deafness, of course, we're well into the realm of humour if not downright comedy. There are some splendid jokes about deaf people - my favourite is one I often share with Father Michael -the deaf chap who was asked 'Do you like bananas?'. Can you guess the reply? I'll repeat the question. *Do you like bananas? His answer was, 'No, I prefer the old-fashioned nightshirt.* Well, we can all do with a bit of humour and light heartedness, but there is a more depressing side to deafness, It isolates people, and instead of sympathy it tends to provoke impatience -people very understandably resent having to repeat and raise their voices.

In fact it can be something of a humiliation. And the same can be said of all these pitfalls, all these problems which I mentioned, both the psychological ones and the physical ones, They form a series of humiliations, getting more frequent and more pronounced the older one gets. Well, its quite a while since we mentioned the Marist spirit, but you've already sensed that this where it makes its re-entry,

I remember a saying in our noviciate, (Its strange how reflecting on old age seems to take us back to the days of our youth). The saying was:- 'Humiliation is the road to humility'. Humility, of course, is very much a Marist virtue. 'Hidden and unknown' was one of the Founder's watchwords. And if humiliation helps to make us humble, then it must be of interest to the Marist, But of course its not an automatic process. Humiliations don't have to make us humble. They can cause resentment. Or depression. Or frustration and impatience. So they have to be accepted, calmly, patiently, even cheerfully,. Your Kingdom come. Be it done unto me according to your word. You have to be prepared to join in the laughter, if it causes mirth, not to take yourself too seriously. Swallow your pride - almost literally. All this is humbling, so at least it provides a setting within which the Marist spirit can grow, and conversely, it is a burden which can be greatly lightened by accepting it in the Marist spirit.

Perhaps! might move a few steps away from my remit and add here that if you're a priest as well as a Marist, or if, like many others you have an affection for that wonderful prayer of the Church which priests say daily, you will find there much that will help you in later life. Sometimes from the Psalms of David, as for example these imploring verses 'Now that 1 am old and grey-headed, do not reject me, O Lord; when my strength fails, do not forsake me'; or in complete contrast, from those same psalms, these encouraging words, 'The just will flourish like the palm tree in the courts of the Lord, still bearing fruit when they are old, still full of sap, still green'.  Or from the new Testament - the song of Simeon, recited every day in the office, 'At last, all powerful Master, you give leave to your servant to go in peace, according to your promise, for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared for all nations'.

Or perhaps - and here, I'm afraid, I step completely outside the remit given me -perhaps you are neither priest nor Marist; simply a Christian, entering the realm of what we call second childhood, of forgetfuless and inadequacy and general helplessness. A bit of a joke to the world at large, but a state which, rightly understood, can reveal to us a new and wonderful approach to God - giving us a claim on the Fatherhood of God just like the claim which our first childhood gave us on our earthly parents - a state which makes us realise why Jesus so constantly calls God our Heavenly Father instead of Lord or Master and wants us to approach him as little children,. But that's another story - or perhaps itís the same story told in a different way. But its not one that I'm going to tell now, In fact, this is where ray story ends, for today; my ramblings are a fair example of the effects of old age, and let me conclude by thanking you for your patience in listening to them.