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Thomas Howard on Facing Senescence in Our Own Blithe Era
Senescence: That is not a word that springs to one’s lips in this epoch of Senior Citizens, Golden Agers, and other plucky euphemisms. If one has any tag-ends of information left over from grammar-school days in the 1940s, one might remember the Latin senex. The trouble is, it means old man. I myself arrived in this questionable category some years ago.
The topic is one that may be hurriedly swept under the rug, of course. Or it may be smothered under gay garlands of cosmetics, spas, cruises, bonhomie, exercise classes (I swim), party hats, and so forth. The stark actuality of the business is not one that especially pleases our own era.
Dear Dead Days
Certainly senescence offers “the dear, dead days beyond recall” to our musings. I can remember my mother speaking of memories from “ years ago.” To my small-boy imagination, this evoked Noah’s Flood or the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. “The olden days” always seemed to have been halcyon days, suffused with a golden light that had been discontinued, by God I supposed, just before I was born, never to be mustered up again.
With a certain amount of sheer time for reminiscence now, one trots out all sorts of items. Five-cent Cokes. No cars on the roads (the Depression and the War— the War). Gas for eighteen cents a gallon. One telephone in the house, with a lady on the other end asking, “Number, please?” Hiking in the White Mountains with no other hikers anywhere to be seen.
The nineteenth century almost capsized in great warm marshes of sentiment(alism) about this inevitable decline: “Darling, I am growing old . . . Silver threads among the gold” or “All the world am sad and dreary/ Everywhere I roam/ Still longin’ for the old plantation/ And for the old folks at home.”
Charles Dana Gibson, the vastly fashionable pen-and-ink artist of the 1890s, drew one picture, guaranteed to make you choke up, of a dear old couple on a sofa in front of a low fire, her head on his shoulder, with Cupid behind them trying unavailingly to keep the Grim Reaper, scythe, black hood, and all, from pushing the door open. Not a picture to be found in any AARP publication in our own blithe era.
The Past, then, floods things, at least if one wants it to. I am sure there are brisk souls who never look back.
But then there is The Present. T. S. Eliot speaks of “A time for the evening under lamplight/ (The evening with the photograph album).” There is also, for some of my friends, golf, fishing, shooting, foxhunting, and backgammon. I myself like to walk along “the stern and rockbound coast” near our house.
But when diversions and distractions have done what they can do, then what? Do I want to arrive at the Throne having sought only pastimes? How ought one to live these days richly?
I am always flagged down by the custom, centuries old, in various Mediterranean countries, of the women, upon reaching a certain age, dressing in black—dresses, stockings, Cuban-heeled Oxfords, and, often, babushkas. This seems to me to suggest a realistic outlook, and an acceptance of the particular dignity that age brings with it. I have heard that there is also an element of mourning in it, which itself is very far from being unhealthy. (Loud shouts of horror from all pop-book and TV experts on living affirmatively.)
The main thing, of course, is to receive these days from God, embrace them, give thanks for them, and offer them back to him for his glory, and in behalf of all the others in this mortal life who are old. One may thereby find grace in whatever limitations this state of life brings with it.
I myself am not an expert in this connection, but I do, however, have a small notebook in which I jot fragments that come to me as I say my prayers and mull things over. On one page, I have the heading “Detachment,” a word one comes upon in the writings of the saints. I seem to have broken up the list into three headings, scarcely my own invention, of “The World,” “The Flesh,” and “The Devil.”
When it comes to The World, I can only speak as a man. Men more than women, I suspect, have a form of vanity that attaches them in a particular way to the world. Scripture and Tradition hold up the Blessed Virgin as in some sense the archetype of the mystery of Femininity, always granting that she is also the very type of us all in her attitude to the Divine Will.
Women seem to know in their bones and marrow something about the truth of the matter that men try to find by charging about conquering kingdoms, sailing the seas, running companies, writing philosophy, symphonies, books, articles, and so forth. Women are perfectly able to pursue such accomplishments, but taking the whole of myth and history into consideration, they do not seem to have been quite so hag-ridden on this point as men are.
Under “The World,” then, I have listed the following: the affairs of life—not scuttlebutt here; simply the business of life; enterprises of great pith and moment; one’s own “importance”; society; diversions; travel; influence; acclaim; variety of experience; prestige, even service, forsooth. It is almost impossible for a man to detach his soul from such concerns.
Under “The Flesh” I have the usual: fantasies; pleasures (food, wine, etc.); and amenities.
“The Devil”? Need one dilate here? Unhappily, I do have some specifics which I suppose I may attribute to our Enemy, but which I all too eagerly harbor: vindictiveness; vengefulness; petulance; irascibility; arrogance; fatuity; venality; cravenness; pusillanimity; parsimony of soul; pique; fretfulness; officiousness; acedia (sloth); envy; and an unhappy host of other items.
But my topic is old age, and detachment. Manifestly, our lifelong struggle is to fight against anything in such lists that is sinful. But most of the items under “The World” are neutral in themselves, becoming the occasions for sin only when we grasp after them.
But in old age, most of those things draw away from us. There are, of course, some happy men whose eminence grows and grows the older they get. For most of us, any eminence we may ever have supposed we enjoyed calms itself down.
Which brings me to another page in my notebook. I seem to have written down the following sequence: “Set your affection on things above . . . Now we see through a glass darkly . . . This slight momentary affliction . . . Cast thy burden upon the Lord . . .” and so forth. The effort at work here was merely that of trying to gain a sharpening in focus, from our world to the World to Come, as the Creed puts it.
It is an appropriate set of considerations during the days when my allotted time is dwindling. I myself have passed my threescore years and ten. I am aware that the time even of infants is dwindling: but things take on starker colors when you are old.
Old age may of course bring with it a certain increase in dignity and venerability, if I act my age and am not foolishly trying to appear forever young. And there are luxuries and privileges that hitherto eluded one, most notably time. If one still has one’s spouse, this part of life is rich in ways hardly dreamed of during the years of hurly-burly. There is also, for some, the maturity and marriage of one’s children, and hence the joy of grandchildren. Reading Beatrix Potter to small tots is one of my life’s crowning pleasures.
But there are other visitants to one’s old age. Ignominy, for one thing: to find oneself shuffling along hospital corridors in a johnny, going from X-ray to MRI to blood work to physical therapy, has a way of calling into question what is commonly recommended to us as self-esteem. T. S. Eliot notes the fear, in old age, of “belonging to others”—to nurses, for example, and therapists and technicians and orderlies and the transport people, not to mention doctors. I scarcely need to descant on the details here.
Then there is, often, solitude or silence. I myself am fortunate, so far, in having a very great lady as my wife, and she is in good health and spirits as I write. What more can a man ask? But still, there are small periods of reflection in one’s study.
One’s mind reverts on rare occasions to the days crowded with students, assistants, audiences, friends, and all the boards, committees, symposia, and travel that bundled one along in the academic world. A man could live forever in that bustle. But things do quiet down. What do my reveries run to? Repining will hardly do: It is one of the most effective ways of banishing the virtue of hope. But then, what did one hope for?
The psalmists and saints keep telling us to seek the Face of God, or to desire the courts of the Lord. Eliot, again, speaks of the people who are “distracted from distraction by distraction.” It could be that while I am “old and full of years,” as the Old Testament was pleased to call it, I am being given the chance, long held at bay by responsibilities or distractions, to think on the Four Last Things now and again, along with the pleasures reserved for old age.
The Last Days
I made another list in this connection, at which readers may be pardoned for letting a sigh escape. What do I do these days? It’s all very dim, from one point of view. Morning ablutions; breakfast; morning prayer; Mass; tea with my wife; email; Lectio Divina; the rosary; walk; reading; evening prayer. Et cetera. Quite dim.
But I cannot pretend that I do not enjoy this sort of schedule. Readers are not to suppose, however, that this aggressively Catholic program sets me amongst the higher echelons of souls. One takes on all of that by way of some gesture towards “holy living and holy dying,” as Jeremy Taylor will have it.
It is not that one takes up the hair shirt or the lash. God be thanked for family and friends and food and wine and hilarity.
One last list, scarcely my own. The twilight of one’s life, surely, ought to illumine one’s path towards the attitudes of which the saints speak: resignation; re-collection; renunciation; detachment; silence; waiting; patience; withdrawal; simplicity; stillness; contentedness.
Some of these attitudes are exacted from us willy-nilly, in these latter years. The trick here is to learn to embrace such necessities with some effort towards gratitude. I speak as one who sees the syllabus, but has barely matriculated.
So. Shall I fend off the silence with unremitting hours of television? It seems to work for some people. Or will I chafe against the requirement of patience by—well, by chafing? Shall I forfeit the great treasure offered by detachment by snatching at the ignis fatuus of pleasures that belong to the years that are now past?
It is to be most sedulously urged here that all of this exists in the region of aspiration for me, not of achievement. I lay down my quill here to return to the business.
Thomas Howard taught for many years at St. John's Seminary College, the Roman Catholic seminary of the archdiocese of Boston. Among his many works are the books Christ the tiger, Evangelical Is Not Enough, Lead Kindly Light, On Being Catholic, and The Secret of New York Revealed, and a videotape series of 13 lectures on "The Treasures of Catholicism" (all from Ignatius Press).