Old Age

A little girl was declaring to her grandmother how embarrassed she was because of the freckles on her face. The old woman smilingly reassured her, telling her that freckles are so beautiful that she desired to have freckles when she was a little girl.

The girl was surprised. The grandma, to reinforce her case, asked, “Just tell me one thing that’s prettier than freckles.” And as the little girl peered into the old woman’s ripened face, softly she confessed, “Wrinkles”.

Freckles, wrinkles, whatever… old age can be beautiful. We live in an age of sweeping demographic change. If projections prove true, by the year 2050, the population of older persons will be larger than the population of children under 14!

Old age normally means physical ailments, loneliness, a sense of marginalization. In a world which values productivity so highly, elderly people are often deemed unproductive and, indeed, are too often considered a burden to others.

The Church begs to differ. The numerous institutes for old people run by religious sisters are already an authoritative statement. Even though the Church strongly believes that the place of the elderly is within their families, since many families cannot or do not want to do it, the Church maintains worldwide over 12,000 nursing homes for the aged. Catholic universities and hospitals have been pioneers in research in gerontology and in designing palliative care.

Its view of aging is deeply rooted in Biblical tradition. In the Old Testament, a long life is seen as one of the signs of God’s presence among his people (Isaiah 65:20).

Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Tobit, Eleazar… all appear in the Scriptures when they are old. Even the New Testament starts its story by introducing us to an elderly married couple, Elizabeth and Zechariah, the parents of John the Baptist. When in accordance with the Law, Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to redeem him as their first-born son, it is the aged Simeon and an eighty-four year old widow who rejoice in the Lord for His faithfulness.

In his old age, Pope John Paul II wanted to share his own personal experience with the elderly in a Letter he wrote. It is a very beautiful letter in which he shares how old age is “the final stage of human maturity and a sign of God’s blessing.” It is part of the journey.

“Saint Ephrem the Syrian liked to compare our life to the fingers of a hand, both to emphasize that its length is no more than a span, and to indicate that each phase of life, like the different fingers, has its particular character.”

Yes, old age has its own benefits. It is a time of simplicity and contemplation; “as Saint Jerome observes, with the quieting of the passions, old age increases wisdom, and brings more mature counsels.”

I remember coming across this beautiful paragraph in the book ‘Chicken Soup for the Soul’. “The question is asked, “Is there anything more beautiful in life than a boy and a girl clasping clean hands and pure hearts in the path of marriage? Can there be anything more beautiful than young love?”

“And the answer is given. “Yes, there is a more beautiful thing. It is the spectacle of an old man and an old woman finishing their journey together on that path. Their hands are gnarled, but still clasped; their faces are seamed, but still radiant; their hearts are physically bowed and tired, but still strong with love and devotion for one another. Yes, there is a more beautiful thing than young love. Old love.”

Being on the threshold of eternity, old age forces a person to look towards infinity. The question that always lingered in the mind of Matthew was whether anybody can really see God. He asked his parents, his teachers, his sister but no one gave him any real answer.

Until one day he was playing with his old grandfather. Again he asked his question whether anyone has ever seen God.

The old man did not even turn his head. A long time passed before he quietly answered, “Matthew…” Lengthy pause. And then he added, “Son, it’s getting so I can’t see anything else.”

The quality of our old age will depend on our perception of faith. “Beautiful people are acts of nature,” it has been said, “but beautiful old people are works of art.” I know, my mother is now 85 and she is a work of art.

(c) Fr. Pius Sammut, OCD. Permission is hereby granted for any non-commercial use, provided that the content is unaltered from its original state, if this copyright notice is included.