The Consolations of Old Age

Sean Coghlan S.J.

Quietly, during the past couple of years, almost without my conscious awareness, new ways of looking at life have been forming in my mind. Since these ways of looking at life seem to be leading in a good direction, I feel safe in assuming they come from God. I can only respond by being grateful and by trusting that He will guide me to a calmer, richer and more generous way of living.

I have recently embarked on the sixty fifth year of my life. It is statistically likely that at least three quarters of my days are behind me! By no means does death haunt every moment of my day, but it is beginning to take on the familiar face of someone one meets on the street and with whom one exchanges polite greetings. Death's non threatening appearance over the horizon nudges one into considering how best to live the remaining hours or days or weeks or years.

A second realisation that has dawned on me with gentle force is that things are not always what they seem to be. I have been a baptised Catholic for sixty four years, a Jesuit for forty six years and a priest for thirty two years. Yet, I have to ruefully admit that the driving forces in my life may be as much habit, custom, compulsion, guilt feelings and restlessness as the love of God and my fellowmen and women. Perhaps I am being too hard on myself. However, I sometimes wonder if I have ever allowed myself to risk a real encounter with God or if I have ever responded to Him at a deep level. Am I the classic conventional believer? Do I believe that Christ died for me? If I am play acting and shadow boxing, will He be able to lead me to the real thing? I must trust and hope.

Recently, thanks to an article in the "New Yorker", a tenuously held belief has hardened into something approaching certainty. In an article on Princess Diana, Clive James explored the complexities and ambiguities of the human person. James was well aware of the Princess' failings but saw in a hurt person a certain spiritual beauty accompanying a great physical beauty. I am now more convinced than before that nothing can compare in value with the dignity and the potential beauty and goodness of even the most flawed human being. There is nothing more valuable we can do than to give our full attention to the people we meet as a tribute to whom they are. I imagine that, in so doing, life will become more exciting and enjoyable. In the light of such a belief I may grow in regrets for the people I have hurt, slighted, ignored or "scapegoated", especially those to whom I owe debts based on varying degrees of closeness and obligation.

Much anxiety has been lifted from my shoulders by the growing realisation that it is God who takes and sustains the initiative to "save the world". His love is active and universal. He takes the first step. It is a privilege and a relief to be able to follow in His footsteps as the junior partner in the enterprise. In that enterprise of love and service I can find at least some of the fulfilment I have been seeking for a long time.

Following on the fulfilment is a degree of freedom. I am freer that I used to be. I don't seem to need as many things as I once did Now, in my relative old age and in my growing conviction that the love of God and of one's fellowmen and women is of ultimate importance, I do not feel the need to protect, shield and safeguard myself so much. I am now a little more ready to give up a day in the hills because something important has cropped up. I can promise myself the hills in a few days' time. I can still have my plans to look at my match box collection or to learn a few Chinese characters or to try to translate a few simple Chinese poems into English. But I won't get too frustrated and angry if I can't look or learn or try just now.

I hesitated to put these words on paper lest I fall flat on my face before the ink is dry. Maybe at the first vague hint of a pain in the chest I would be reduced to craven fear. Maybe, when pushed that bit too far, I would lose my temper with the importunate. There is also a superstitious hesitancy to admit that things are going well in case the very next day one falls and breaks a leg on the stairs. But then I decided to risk giving a hostage to fortune and pay homage to God's goodness. I must trust that he won't let me look too much of a fool when the test comes for my welcome but, perhaps, frail euphoria.