WelCom July 2018:
It happened a few years ago at Mass, with a light comment from a reader. She said that all the grey heads in the pews looked like a field of dandelions in late summer. A parishioner sighed, ‘Where are our young people?’ and another man joked that maybe the elderly were catching up with their insurance policies. The first two disagreed by politely changing the subject and I lost an opportunity to present another view, which didn’t matter because suddenly, the subject had become so deep I was no longer sure of words. How do we put language to mystery? For mystery it is, the way faith comes to maturity in the gospel of our lives and is at its deepest, richest, sweetest, in our senior years.
Not that it wasn’t meaningful when were young. It was. But in our youth, faith was mainly about belief in a system, and obedience to a code of ideals given to us for guidance. Images of God met the simplicity of life experience, God, Jesus and a Spirit like a sacred breath, the Trinity we met at church each Sunday. We believed that God spoke the words of Scripture, that Jesus fed us with his body and blood in the Eucharist and that the Holy Spirit came to live in us at Baptism, and we believed these things because people told us to believe them. Some of us connected the beliefs to a stirring of the heart and a hunger for something just beyond our reach. Some of us rebelled against the rules or were overcome by fear of rebellion. Some of us became just plain bored and looked for other things to do on a Sunday morning.
Most of today’s faithful mass-goers, have at some youthful stage, been through this ‘nest-leaving’ syndrome. Learning to fly is an important step towards internalising faith. It is the discovery of God in a wider world. It is the unwrapping of the first layer of the gift.
If the first layer is a certain amount of youthful rebellion, what is the second? Perhaps it can be recognised as restlessness, a constant search for meaning. Many will do what we could call a Religious OE, exploring other religions, reading philosophy, trying meditation techniques, tasting here and there for whatever is sweet to the heart. Those who experiment with sex and drugs are also looking for spiritual experience. There is a growing awareness of an inner hunger – although it may not be consciously associated with matters spiritual. The unwrapping of the second layer concerns a movement towards defining the God-space in our lives.
The third layer usually involves finding meaning through a breadth of life experience. The searcher has become busy and responsible – career, family, financial commitments – and life is beginning to connect with those ideals that seemed old-fashioned a decade ago. For many families, the week is so busy that Sunday is the only day for drives, picnics, beach, visits, but parents will still make an effort to bring a young family to Mass. It is more than a duty. What happens during that hour on Sunday morning connects with the week. Worship is less about God’s law and more about God’s love, and it is not merely external statement. It is an internal discovery and it is difficult to put into words other than ‘sacrament’ and ‘mystery’. The unwrapping of the third layer brings the discovery that the journey to God lies in oneself and what the Church offers is a series of maps and sacred food for that journey.
The fourth layer is unfolded in slow time and it brings us very close to the ultimate gift. This comes naturally in the senior years, in retirement when there is time to savour the wisdom of life experience and see how beautifully it connects with the wisdom of the Church. It is a time of knowing that all the years have been held by God, no matter what we thought at the time, and every part of the journey, light and shade, was valuable. We let go of judgemental attitudes, feel comfortable with imperfection in ourselves, in others and in the Church. There are moments when everyone and everything seem to glow with beauty, moments when something as simple as a leaf held in the hand, brings exquisite pleasure. The physical discomforts of ageing are balanced by the strength of inner peace and an awareness that there is nothing outside of God. External belief has become inner knowledge.
So there they are at Mass, the senior majority in the company of Jesus and Mary and all the saints. We observe them holding out time-worn hands in gratitude. The fifth layer will not be unwrapped for them until the final transition but they already know what it is. It’s what we are born for – the Love that welcomes us home.