Yesterday I had the opportunity to visit a retirement center. It was a very pleasant experience. The retirement center is affiliated with my own Quaker tradition, so in many ways I felt right at home. I was there to offer a few words about Quaker spirituality and I always enjoy doing that. It is fun to talk about yourself. Since I am a Quaker, to talk about Quaker spirituality is a chance to talk about myself.
Over the years I have visited countless retirement centers in my work. Typically, they are quite nice places. Although they are similar to nursing homes, they are not the same. Most people don’t go into nursing homes until they are sick or incapacitated. Nursing homes are often not quite as nice. Few people probably are willingly there.
Retirement centers, on the other hand, are normally populated by people who chose to be there. Of course, it means most of the folks are of such age that they know they need to be somewhere where they will receive life care. No one who is sixteen moves into a retirement center. I do find many of the folks who live in retirement centers to be relatively content and still engaged with life.
That’s when it began to dawn on me. There really are different ways people cope with the accumulating years. I began to think about the process of getting older---the process of aging. I saw it in a new light. The people surrounding me in this retirement center were giving me a new lease on getting older. I am grateful to them for some new thoughts.
A key distinction came to me. I distinguish getting older from what I want to call sacred aging. We all get older. Even my grandchildren are getting older! The good news for them is, they have a long way to go before they are old. I am much closer to being “old.” But I don’t mind. As I see it, getting older is a given. If you don’t get old, that means you have died! I am in no hurry for that, so getting older is not a problem.
What the folks at the retirement center taught me was an alternative to getting older. They showed me something about the process of sacred aging. I want to associate this idea with spirituality. Getting older is clearly a biological process. Getting older can also be an emotional issue. But sacred aging is a spiritual process. Let me try to detail how I understand sacred aging.
Basic to the idea of sacred aging is the recognition and acceptance that you are getting older. You cannot reverse the physiology of getting older. Sacred aging recognizes that truth and accepts it. The second aspect of sacred aging is the recognition of the centrality of the Spirit. Of course, they are many ways to talk about the Spirit. For many people, the Spirit is God. I am ok with that association. For others the Spirit is just that---some kind of universal Spirit. This Spirit is perceived to be more in the world---permeating all aspects of our world. I am ok with that view of the Spirit, too.
The key to sacred aging is to recognize that each one of us is an intricate part of God or that Spirit. In Buddhist spirituality we would say that we are already home. We don’t have to go home. Sacred aging is the process of realizing we already are at home. We don’t have to die to get there. Sacred aging allows us to relax. In effect, we can loosen our grip on life and live deeply in the Spirit.
Our younger years often are so busy and preoccupying that living deeply in the Spirit is harder to do. Our older years often leave a little more time to practice this deep living in the Spirit. Let’s look a little more closely to how we might practice deep living in the Spirit.
The first step is simple, but not easy to take. This is the step of awareness. To live deeply in the Spirit asks us to be aware of the Spirit in which we already live. To become aware is to walk through the door of superficiality and enter more and more deeply into the Spirit. It is clear to me how much of our culture pulls us away from depth and coaxes us to live on the surface of life. Without awareness we are stuck on the surface.
The second step of practicing deep living in the Spirit has to do with contemplative living. I offer a basic definition of contemplative living by saying it is living with a sense of awe and wonder. It is a stance in life that is content with what is. The contemplative is full of gratitude. The contemplative is a caring person who is always ready to show compassion to those in the world needing heartfelt attention. It is the Spirit that fuels the contemplative.
Sacred aging means I know all this and am willing to begin engaging the process to sacred aging. Getting older is a given; sacred aging is a choice. I know what I am going to choose. I thank the gracious, wise folks at the retirement center for becoming my teachers. As I get older, I am choosing sacred aging.