The piece below is an edited presentation given at a conference to the retired Franciscan Sisters of Allegany at St. Elizabeth Convent/House of Prayer in Tampa, Fla., on the property as the Franciscan Center. The writer describes the need during the journey of life to have courage, to fight feelings of being inconvenient and to find grace.
A cynic once observed that we enter the world full of admiration while we exit full of disappointment. This sounds stark, to be sure, but it is not entirely wrong. We arrive in a family that welcomes us, loves us, nourishes us and encourages us. Our parents and relatives come to admire us as we grow and learn, However, when we do not live up to their expectations and the expectations of others, we become a disappointment to them and even to ourselves.
Generally, these experiences of admiration and disappointment culminate in a mid-life crisis when we realize that we have not accomplished the things we wanted to accomplish professionally and personally. Gradually, we live a cynical life rather than the virtuous life we hoped to live. We realize that we have not accomplished all the things we desired to do, all that we could have done if others had allowed us to do. So, we begin the blame game: others are the cause of our disappointments.
Attaining Wisdom of Age
No one seems to speak about a late life crisis, even though many have had such an experience, strongly or gently, depending on how we have dealt with our mid-life crisis. We begin to play the old tapes even in our dreams without realizing that the tapes are not entirely accurate. This may be like the Nixon tapes, where there are more than 14 minutes missing. Some of the tapes have even been edited in our own minds and hearts. So, memory and fiction join together to create a new life for us. This reminds me of a simple example that most confessors will readily recognize. An elderly woman comes to confession, confesses her sins, expresses sorrow, then adds her sorrow over a sin she committed when she was 17 or 18. One wise, longtime confessor at our church on 31st Street in New York City was known to respond, “God has already forgotten it. You should do the same.” But can she?
In a brilliantly little Lenten book titled Abiding, the author comments “There is no clean slate.” Or, as Jim Harrison writes in The River Swimmer, “We don’t get over anything.” The hurts linger, the regrets grow, the wounds are still there. For the elderly, the question must be: Are they the wounds of the Crucified Christ or those of the Resurrected Christ? A question that demands an answer if we are going to attain the wisdom of age.
We often turn to Scripture for an answer but there are pitfalls even there. The answers there are many and diverse. Take, for example Ecclesiastes 3. There is a time for everything, weeping or dancing, crying or laughing, piling up stones, or throwing them, embracing others or folding our arms. The problem with such an approach is that our hearts are always divided: either we are in a good place or a bad place, either we are warriors or peacemakers.
Facing Feelings of Inconvenience
I believe that the Testament of St. Francis provides us with a better option. We can even call it A Charter for Elderly Living.
In an article some time ago, Joan Acocella observed, “Francis was an inconvenient elder.” By this, she meant that he was the elder of our movement but no longer convenient to have around. We sometimes feel the same way, feeling both elderly and inconvenient. I hear some say that we are warehoused. Well, yes, but we are more than well cared for. We have caregivers who see to our every need, if we are reasonable. One friar I live with often comments that we are in the best welfare system in the world.
In his Testament, Francis, surely feeling that the Movement had gotten away from him, provides us with a model for dealing with our opposing feelings. He writes of lepers and workers, brother and priests, churches and the Word, theologians and hierarchs, some obviously opposed one to another. Yet he is the original Country Priest who sees grace everywhere. He looks for grace in all things and experiences which helps him deal with his own feelings.
There is only one contradiction which I call his Italian moment, because it is more than a bit over-dramatic: sending friars off to prison for not saying the Office properly. In which case all of us should be in prison. Obviously, he was still “on the way,” for this was one experience he had yet to discover grace. This should give those of us who are elderly the courage to continue the journey with all of its coincidences of opposites.
— Fr. Anthony, who served as Provincial Minister from 1987 to 1996, is stationed at St. Anthony Friary in St. Petersburg, Fla. He professed his first vows as a friar in 1960. The previous reflection published in HNP Today, by Gabriel Scarfia, OFM, was titled “Walking with St. Francis in Troubled Times.”
Editor’s note: Friars interested in writing a reflection for HNP Today on a timely topic – a holiday, current event, holy day or other seasonal themes – are invited to contact the HNP Communications Office at email@example.com. Additional reflections by friars can be found on the Spiritual Resources page of HNP.org.
- “Reflection: St. Clare and the Wisdom of Lady Poverty” – Aug. 7, 2018, HNP Today
- “Joe Nangle Honored at Pax Christi Event” – Dec. 6, 2017, HNP Today