Published November 12, 2009
Oh, how I moped around, how I whined, how I felt sorry for myself. It was only when my aunt, who is 26 years older than me, pointed out the blinding light of the obvious, that I came to my senses. There really are worse things.
Fortunately, neither of us could see into the future, when one mere tooth would seem ridiculous compared with the rest of the bodily annoyances I would face. Talk about worse things: the line up included pneumonia, chicken pox and then cancer.
As the years continue to roll on, it is clear there will be more of these bodily adventures. Aging is inevitable, but the attitudes associated with it vary greatly. And unless we come up with a way to face the inevitable diminishments that come with aging, we face a much larger danger than bearing farewell to a tooth.
And that danger is losing our joy.
Joy is an essential ingredient to Catholicism. Unlike many of our Protestant brethren, we Catholics believe that creation is good, and this world is meant to be enjoyed. Catholics are allowed to delight in nature, to dance and to drink (in moderation), and to celebrate life.
But at some point in our journey, the first wrinkle appears, then the gray hair—and soon the whole ball of yarn starts to slowly unravel. Some people spend their time in denial, wearing themselves out at the gym, while others shell out big bucks on plastic surgery. But these are temporary fixes that neglect the heart of the matter, which is spiritual.
In truth, the suffering connected with aging is part of the cross. Jesus said to deny ourselves, take up our crosses and follow him. Jesus died at 33, but he faced much more horrendous suffering than any of us can imagine—and without the benefit of painkillers. Compared with his suffering, our crosses start to dwindle in size.
And, of course, it’s not just older people who suffer physically. Southern writer Flannery O’Connor was diagnosed with lupus when she was just 25 and suffered from rashes, facial swelling and deteriorating bones until she died at 39. And yet throughout it all, she didn’t lose her abiding joyfulness.
You see, she believed in something called passive diminishments, a concept that came from Jesuit writer Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. These are the things that happen to us that we cannot change. And graciously accepting ill fortune, whether it is disease, old age or accident, is part of the journey to holiness.
Flannery also realized that her faith could give meaning to her suffering because Catholics have a practice called “offering it up.” This means that our suffering—whether it comes from heart disease, cancer or the myriad other things that break down our bodies—can be turned to good if we offer it to God for someone else’s benefit.
This concept is modeled on Christ himself, who offered his suffering and death on the cross for our salvation. As we model ourselves on Christ, we can consciously offer our suffering as a prayer to God, perhaps for a poor soul in purgatory, for someone in our family who has left the Catholic Church, or for a million-and-one other intentions.
“Offering it up” gives meaning to our suffering. Through this prayer a person who is paralyzed, a person in a wheelchair, a person who is bedridden, a person who is homebound—and, yes, a person grappling with the first realization of aging—can still take part in the greatest of life’s dramas, connecting us mystically with Jesus Christ.
That drama, of course, reveals why we are on earth in the first place—to find our way to the Lord and to help others find theirs. And when you look at it this way, my aunt really was right. There are much worse things than aging, and the greatest of all is losing sight of the love that shines forth from the cross.
Lorraine Murray’s latest books are “Abbess of Andalusia,” a spiritual biography of Flannery O’Connor, and “Death in the Choir,” a mystery set in Decatur. Artwork is by Jef Murray. The Murrays are parishioners at St. Thomas More in Decatur. Readers may e-mail them at email@example.com.