CHESHIRE – Have you ever thought of your later years as the richest spiritual time of your life?
Amy Ekeh and Ruth Mulhern are both convinced that they can be if you embrace the aging process and recognize the graces that come with it, adopt an open and optimistic attitude about life, surrender to God and strive to deepen your faith, reflect on what truly matters to you and leave a spiritual legacy for others (see sidebar).
In fact, the later years can be a time of dynamic inner growth, a pathway to becoming who we are meant to be.
That’s what the two speakers told 32 attendees of a thought-provoking morning reflection titled “The Spiritual Adventure of Our Later Years” at St. Bridget Parish Center.
Though not yet 40 years old herself, Mrs. Ekeh, who earned a Master of Arts degree in theology and teaches Scripture in the Archdiocese of Hartford’s Catholic Bible School, admits she is beginning to feel her own age and said that it’s never too soon to think about what lies ahead.
Some of the positives include more time, less pressure and more freedom, she said, while the negatives may include a decline in health and the death of friends and loved ones.
“We need to accept aging as part of our human journey, and part of God’s plan,” Mrs. Ekeh said. But the question becomes, “Where is the meaning in aging?”
Choice is key
Retired registered nurse Ruth Mulhern, who spent much of her career in hospice work, believes strongly in the power of choosing one’s response to life’s changes. When she was in her 20s, she was told by hospice residents to treasure life and to “hope to grow old,” sentiments which have given her a unique appreciation for aging.
“As a nurse, I get hooked on the physical changes,” Mrs. Mulhern admitted. However, a decline in health can bring its own graces. For instance, a decline in pulmonary and cardiac reserves can provide opportunities to stop and just breathe and experience the present, she said. A decline in vision or hearing can allow a person to block out the world’s noise and focus the mind’s eye.
Retirement can cause people to lose their place in the world, or help them realize they are now the matriarchs or patriarchs of their families.
A move to assisted living, senior housing or living with one’s children can be traumatic or be perceived as a welcome change.
“There’s a give and take, a plus and minus, in everything you endure,” Mrs. Mulhern pointed out. “All provide options for extraordinary sadness and extraordinary delight – all depending on how you cope with it.”
Aging is several things
In the end, aging is a gift, a responsibility, a challenge and a source of unending joy, she said.
“The goal is to determine your purpose in the midst of change,” Mrs. Mulhern stressed. “What you become and the strength you employ is up to you.”
Most important, faith can make a critical difference in how a person interprets the world and perceives his or her journey, Mrs. Mulhern said.
“An optimistic person sees the glass as half full, a pessimistic person sees the glass as half empty and a faithful person sees the glass as overflowing.”
While Mrs. Mulhern focused on accepting the inevitable physical changes of aging and reframing one’s perspective, Mrs. Ekeh stressed the opportunities for deepening one’s faith.
“When we age, we are experiencing a long, slow transfiguration,” Mrs. Ekeh said. “What is the inner change that corresponds to the outer change? Hopefully, we are becoming more like Jesus.”
She said aging can bring physical limitations, “but we can see these limits as a gift, as a time of great grace, as a time to pray, as a time to love others in a particular way.”
According to Mrs. Ekeh, there are three critical components that can help people grow as they age: prayer, service and surrender.
Prayer: “Aging can be a time of intense prayer. Perhaps we have more time to pray but we have to be more intentional about it,” she said. “We can learn more about prayer, find different ways to pray and bring our life experience to prayer, making it deeper and richer.”
Service: Mrs. Ekeh said that her own mother visits for two weeks each year, doing the laundry and cooking. “She uses her time as a gift to serve others,” Mrs. Ekeh explained.
Even those who are physically limited can still offer time or the gift of prayer, call friends and family, write notes, visit the sick, listen to their grandchildren and perform all kinds of charitable work, she said.
Late pope is model
Also, she pointed to Saint Pope John Paul II as an example of someone who aged courageously. “If we are ill, we can offer up our suffering,” Mrs. Ekeh said. “The cross never goes out of style.
Surrender: “Surrender is the essence of the spiritual life. Our will to surrender is what allows God to change us,” Mrs. Ekeh explained. “We cannot surrender unless we trust in God, and surrender is the way we imitate Jesus.”
Even when changes are perceived as positive, some changes may still be painful, Mrs. Ekeh admitted. “Our goal is to actively accept each of these losses with a trust that leads to love.
“There’s a difference between surrendering and giving up,” she stressed.
“Giving up leads to bitterness, but when we willingly surrender, we choose so we are victorious and free.” Think of Jesus on the cross. “What appears to be defeat is victory.”
The idea is to “let go with a spirit of acceptance rather than having things taken away from us,” she explained.
“Surrender is the key that unlocks the mysteries of life, the mystery and reality of living in God’s love.”
Mrs. Ekeh said she frequently turns to the words of Saint Paul, “‘When I am weak, then I am strong.’ When I can no longer rely on myself, I rely on God and that’s when I am strong. Then we have his strength.”
Leaving your spiritual legacy: Sharing your faith in a tangible way
Both Ruth Mulhern and Amy Ekeh recommend that we all leave a spiritual legacy – by sharing from the heart and soul our beliefs and faith in a tangible way.
“Write out your life story, what’s important to you, your favorite Scripture passages and why,” Mrs. Ekeh suggested. “What are your favorite devotions and why? What are your favorite prayers and why? What if your parents had written just two pages like this and left them for you?”
Mrs. Mulhern said she is keeping a collection of items in a box that she has stored in a closet for her children to find someday. She has labeled it “Not for Tag Sale.”
In the box she has included a prayer for each grandchild, a favorite picture of her granddaughter with closed, clasped hands (“When I want to know God is close by, I look at this photo,” she said), an icon of Saint Dismas the good thief, her written understanding of the Catholic faith, copies of favorite articles and an old prayer book. She has tucked the paper items into a blue three-ring binder with clear inserts.
“They might read it, they might throw it out or they might put an item in their pocket,” Mrs. Mulhern said of her grown children.
To help people get started putting together their spiritual legacies, Mrs. Mulhern has drafted the following questions, which she shared in a handout:
– What are your most basic beliefs and how have they given your life meaning?
– Who is God? What has he called you to do in your life? How have you served him and others?
– What are some of your favorite prayers and why?
– What are some of your favorite Scripture verses, quotes, hymns, religious devotions or traditions and why?
– Are there any religious items (rosary, prayer book, Bible, statue or painting) you wish to pass on to someone? Where did you get them and why do they mean so much to you?
– What challenges did you experience in life? How did you overcome failings and imperfections? What sustained you during these times?
– How did your faith and prayer life help you through?
– How long did it take you to realize how important faith is in your life?
— Shelley Wolf