Lenten Reflection: Imagining Growing Old

Reprinted from The Common Good, no. 27, Easter 2003

For the better part of my life, I have thought of Lent as a season of introspection- a period of soul searching and self-examination, an annual opportunity for a sort of spiritual spring-cleaning. I have looked at Lent as an invitation to recognise my failures and sinfulness – to seek forgiveness – and to form a new resolve to grow deeper in faith – to be more fervent in love – and firmer in hope.

But there is another aspect of this season of Lent that merits consideration. Lent is not merely a time for making a change in my direction – or my mind – or my heart. Lent is a season for putting on the mind and heart of God, which has been made known to us in Jesus. This season is more appropriately observed when navel-gazing is replaced by a God- like selflessness that expands a narrow vision of life, and compels me to look not only at God but also at others – with new eyes – a warmer heart – and with open hands. An outreach group in one parish was helped by a parishioner who had suffered a stroke, which left the right side of his body, numb and useless. So, as a practical issue, he brought several short 2×4 pieces of wood to the group and attached them to their arms and legs with large rubber bands. After a few minutes, they rapidly made the only leap left to them of imagining having to live with unresponsive limbs for the rest of their lives. Perhaps you could let your imaginations carry you into the world of the aged people this Lent. Make a mental picture of the contents of your home. Now decide what would fit in a small apartment or a rest home.

Or perhaps you could thumb through your latest photo album – and imagine how you would feel if you lost all memory of the significant events pictured there, particularly those of recent times. As an experience of being elderly, refrain from using your car for a week – or limit your driving to daylight hours and see how it feels to depend on others for transportation Get out of bed slowly, as though trying to convince stiff joints to move. Lift the coffeepot with both hands because they ache badly and you are afraid you are going to drop the vessel – and, incidentally, ask yourself who is going to hang out the washing. Put a little cotton wool in your ears and try to follow a conversation, or the readings in church. Watch an elderly person fumble to find cash at the checkout counter and slowly put the change away with stiffened fingers, noting the impatience on nearby faces.

But – imagining is not the same as being there. None of us can manage a leap into the human condition like Jesus made. But all of us are capable of a small leap. A few weeks ago at a gathering, I watched a young man approach an elderly woman in a wheelchair. With the easy agility of youth, he dropped to one knee beside her and chatted for several minutes. It made me realise that, like a small child, she always had to look up at the people she talked to – a position some of us would find demeaning. In one graceful movement that young man restored her dignity. Jesus asks us constantly to strain our imaginations – to conceive of a world where all peoples live in peace and no one suffers any kind of want or pain. ‘God’s realm’, we call it. And we know we are charged with bringing it to birth. No human effort – however divinely inspired – begins without the use of human imagination. This a time for directing my eyes and my energies away from myself towards the person and passion of Jesus Christ – and to find there the faces of all my brothers and sisters, whose needs, you and I are called to recognise and serve.

Fr. Tom Power

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