Counting the Years with Desert Fathers and Mothers
When I was young, even though I had an excellent imagination, it was way beyond me to picture myself as ever being old. I couldn’t envision getting from young to old, either. How I could get from here to there? How could people ever become different from what they are now? My great aunts, it seemed to me, were born old. Even my mother and father had always been what they always would be: smart, powerful, and absolutely fixed in their unthinking convictions about everything. (Did adults think? Impossible! Adults pronounced.) They were not only immortal. They, like all grown-ups, were immutable.
By the time I was in my 20s I had changed my mind about all sorts of things. I realized, to my dismay, that I would become old, maybe sooner rather than later. As a 26-year-old woman, I was convinced I was already in my prime. Still barely in graduate school, I was already headed downhill. As everyone knew in those days, a woman’s prime was when she was most attractive to look at and most beguiling to men. And that, of course, could only be when she was young, unwrinkled, pliant, and unthreatening both to men and the larger status quo. Intelligence, education, depth of character – these were to be apologized for.
So I was sure that I was well on my way to getting old (by now my imagination was working full time). To me, this meant I could expect to be lumpy and saggy of body and mind, rigid, sour, bossy, helpless, shopping a lot, slow-witted, bored and boring, politically reactionary, totally under the thumb of my husband, living in a cabbage-scented house, dirt-poor, judgmental, pious and repulsive, with gray underwear. As an old woman, I would be of no significance to anybody. Old age meant losing everything. Wherever these convictions – these stereotypes – came from, I found the whole prospect of aging pointless, depressing, and inescapable.
Timely Desert Wisdom
Then, in graduate school I met the abbas and ammas of early monasticism of Egypt and parts beyond, as well as the great masters of the spiritual life of the eastern Christian church of the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries. They immediately began to transform everything for me. Slowly, slowly, as I studied their texts they taught me that my value as a woman came from being a human being created in the image of God, not by winning acceptance from the 1950s and 60s culture around me. At the same time, they convinced me that there is a real trajectory to the Christian life – to human life, rather – summarized in Jesus’ great commandment: we are to spend our lives learning to love God with all our hearts and our neighbors as ourselves. And they convinced me of something else: because this really is our lifetime’s work, it will get easier and better as we grow into that love. This insight was totally contrary to the prevailing conventional view that old age means life gets worse. As Amma Syncletica said:
“In the beginning there are a great many battles and a good deal of suffering for those who are advancing toward God, and afterwards, ineffable joy. It is like those who wish to light a fire: at first they are choked by the smoke and by this means obtain what they seek. … So we must also kindle the divine fire in ourselves through tears and hard work.”1
So aging has not turned out to be anything like I expected, but it is no joke either. Though I am healthy now, I have lived through some serious medical problems since I retired. Though not much of my underwear is gray, I am indeed saggy and will only get worse. In March my mother died at 96, bewildered, hurting, unable to hear to carry on a conversation, and terribly weak. If we live long enough, few of us will be spared all this, and for most of us it might very well be terrible. In a devastatingly real way, aging is truly about loss.
Happily on the other hand, at the age of almost 72, I find myself in a place where the fire is beginning to burn clear. I experience it as an internal place of increasing freedom from, for example, the still lingering expectations of my mother, who once said and meant it, “I don’t care how many books you write, if you don’t keep those baseboards clean, you won’t have a friend in the world!” There’s freedom, too, from the expectations of male colleagues that I be exactly like them or get out of academics where women don’t belong anyway.
Freedom from the compulsion to meet other people’s expectations has allowed me to discover all the things I love to do but had no time or energy for when I was younger. The first floor of our house in the mountains has slowly been filling up with large looms since I retired because, more than anything else, I discovered I wanted to learn to weave, to work with fiber, color, and texture. I am still learning and will be for the rest of my life, but weaving makes me extraordinarily happy. It isn’t only me who has found a new vocation: so many friends I could name who are my age and older are now finding creative expression in wonderful painting or bead work or gorgeous pottery to rival the ancient Egyptians.
This kind of freedom allows me – us – to give up a large portion of the dreadful judgmentalism of others that our culture, and let’s face it, our churches, trained us in. Modern advertising, clubs and cliques, the clothes we wear, preoccupations with weight, what we believe in religion or politics, differences in education, even the food we eat that differs from our neighbors’ – all give us an excuse to separate ourselves from others.
With this judgmentalism we hold ourselves apart from other people and regard them as alien or contaminating. There is no greater destroyer of love and positive energy than this. This is why the ancient monks spent their whole lives learning to give this up. Abba Theodore said:
“If you are temperate, do not judge the fornicator, for you would then transgress the law just as much. And he who said ‘do not commit fornication,’ also said, ‘Do not judge.’ ”2
That we human beings are all of equal value to God, subject to mortality, makers of mistakes or worse, internally wounded, sufferers of loss, celebrators of joy – this deep realization comes to me as I age, and it is truly freeing. We need it desperately: it allows so many of us in this stage of life to let go of hurts from our past and forgive our injurers, including our own selves. It is vital to the growth of our love for God. Abba Macarius said:
“If we keep remembering the wrongs [people] have done us, we destroy the power of the remembrance of God.”3
Most profoundly for me, aging has meant learning to recognize and accept for the first time God’s gifts of gratitude and joy, allowing me to be present in my own life. This is gratitude for the very existence of beloved family, for friends and strangers, for former and present teachers, for all that is beautiful and good, for the knowledge that creation itself is where God dwells wholly in us, separately and collectively, and us in God, as Julian of Norwich expresses for us.
This joy allows me to delight in the world and see it as it must really be in God’s sight – trees, flowers, animals, people, earth. This delight has plenty of room for silliness, fun, and pleasure. It makes all things sparkle if we just squint and watch for it out of the corners of our eyes. It does not negate loss and grief and suffering, but I believe it provides confidence that all things belong to God and in God. With this comes the knowledge that nothing and no one is ultimately lost, not ourselves, or our dear ones, or strangers, enemies, or the indifferent. We can’t know how this might happen, but what God has created in love God will bring to completion in love.
Churches are in a pivotal position to help us live through aging with attention and creativity. Here are four suggestions.
First, accept that Christian aging can bring great gifts. It is a time of loss and pain, yes, but what it brings positively is necessary for the thriving of the church.
Second, God’s great gifts of freedom, gratitude, and joy rarely drop in our laps without our cooperation or practice. Congregations can nurture this.
Third, let’s reject the foolish notion that after 65 the spiritual life is meant to be static. The life God gives us is never static. Churches should help us work toward these gifts of God in hope with our whole hearts and teach the importance of being ready to receive them without turning them away.
Fourth, younger members of our congregations need to learn how to expect the gifts that will come to others as well as to themselves in this whole adventure of living our common life in God.
To return to my childhood and those young adult impossible-to-imagine ideas I had about my own aging, how truly different it has turned out to be. Instead, it has really been like this poem, which I call “Lady in Red”:
There is a hydrangea by our front porch,
All in bloom, a lace hydrangea.
Its blossoms are blue,
The outside petals pale and delicate,
The lacy centers quivering with buds
And little hairs, fuzzy parts in a much deeper,
But altogether wonderful color.
Pretty as it is,
The bush leaves me bemused:
It is like nothing I expected
When I bought it five years ago.
It was called “Lady in Red”
And red, even if it was dusty looking, is what it was –
Not pink, or purple, or blue or even white at all.
I was delighted by its color.
It was in the ground one year
Before, I suppose, it had repented
Of whatever made it red.
The next time it bloomed,
It was in a white so virginal
It could have been in a bride’s bouquet.
I could hardly believe it,
But what I believed was irrelevant to
What had happened.
The red was gone,
And it was gone for good.
For the next three years, for whatever reason,
My Lady in Red
Wore nothing but white.
Then, when its new flowers appeared this June,
They were no longer white,
But blue as a little boy’s baby blanket,
Bluer than the sky on a bright morning,
Even bluer than my long-ago bewildered heart.
Nothing stays the same,
And it oughtn’t to, either,
If its basic stuff remains.
I ought to know;
I’m such a hydrangea myself
But with my colors in a different order:
First, a dirty white,
Then long years of crushing blue,
(Not beautiful at all on the bush I was)
At last, in my later years, I find myself turned red,
A long-awaited, unrestrained and happy red,
Still who I am,
But full now of unrepentant joy,
Full of red delight.
Roberta Bondi is professor emerita of church history at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. Her many books include To Love as God Loves: Conversations with the Early Church (Fortress, 1987), In Ordinary Time: Healing the Wounds of the Heart (Abingdon, 1996), and Memories of God: Theological Reflections on a Life (Abingdon, 1995).
1 Syncletica, 1, Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, translated by Benedicta Ward, S.L.G. (Oxford/Mowbray, 1981), pp. 230-1.
2 Theodore of Eleutheropolis, 3, p. 80.
3 Abba Macarius the Great, 36, p. 136.