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  • Writer's pictureDebbie Thrower

Second half of life advice

How to sit lightly to life's disappointments is one of the key 'tasks of ageing'. How much easier said than done, though? It was Elizabeth MacKinlay, the Australian researcher and writer, who coined definitions for such tasks, including the ability to 'transcend difficulty, disability and loss' (Elizabeth MacKinlay, Spiritual Growth in the Fourth Stage of Life, Jessica Kingsley, 2006).

More advice on how one actually goes about doing so oneself, or helping others to do so, comes in a slim volume by Margaret Guenther, Toward Holy Ground: Spiritual directions for the second half of life (Cowley Publications, 1995). It was warmly recommended by a colleague, the Revd Michael Jackson, with whom I co-led a day on the spirituality of ageing to a group of spiritual directors in Hampshire (see 2 July's blog post, Journeying and climbing).

Priest Margaret Guenther has been director of the Center for Christian Spirituality of the General Theological Seminary in New York City. She's worked extensively with people in residential care. Quoting the poet T.S. Eliot, she argues that one facet of ageing is learning how to care and not to care: 'to sit still even amid these rocks' ('Ash Wednesday').

Life story

Coming to terms with one's own life story, and the stories of others, is a significant part of the process. Writing about life post-retirement, she says, sometimes, 'The true self has been hidden and neglected for so long that it is withered and scarcely alive.'

Giving examples of people she has known throughout her long ministry, she concludes that, as a society, 'stories of loss… the very frail aged or terminally ill… are often placed carefully out of our sight'. But far from doing this, we should be seeing such men and women as 'icons, mirrors and teachers' from whom we can learn the 'facts of life and mortality'.

Creating safe space

Ministry among the aged calls for 'attentiveness and respect', so as to 'face ourselves and know ourselves'. Practitioners – such as Anna Chaplains – need to 'face the fact of our own mortality, hear the questions of life and death, listen to what is not said and be aware of the great empty places, notice what is being avoided, give gentle permission for candour and create a safe space'.

The value of repetition

The old are notorious for repeating the same stories time and again. But rather than being considered boring, she says, such repetition should be viewed is 'a kind of liturgical reinforcement deepening and enriching the simple narratives. The spirituality of ageing is the spirituality of storytelling .' For the very act of 'telling the story brings the past, present and future together… breathes life into a time of closure and seeming diminishment'.

Spirituality of completion

Margaret Guenther regards her time spent listening to such stories as precious times of being 'invited into sacred space, invited for a little while to be there in the story'. It is 'a spirituality of completion', with 'many struggling with relationships even, or especially, with people long dead, as they work towards wholeness and closure'.

Questions about death

The book's final chapters deal with our questions about death, and life after death. She maintains that it is of paramount importance we remain honest when answering a question such as, 'What will it be like?'

The honest answer is, 'I don't know, but I wonder too.'



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