Upon turning 70 years old last week, one of our friars took the opportunity at mass to share some words of wisdom and a beautiful prayer about what the experience of getting “old” is like. Using the words of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, he said something to effect of, “as the body begins to break and weaken, filling up with holes, one finds room for God they never had before.” It was from the heart, insightful, and highly appropriate.
Or so I thought.
After concluding mass, a parishioner approached him, agitated at what he had said. “You’re not old! I’m 78 and I still do so much. Do you think I’m old?!” While the friar was simply using the word as an objective category, “someone who is closer to death than baptism,” as he said, the parishioner took the word to have an offensive undertone: something that is “old” is less-capable, out-of-date, and undesirable.
It’s a situation that I have been in many times in my life as a friar. Being the “youngest” friar in the province, I learned very quickly that what I considered “young” and “old” was often not what others did, and that using such words was to be done with extreme caution, if ever at all. Despite being a senior citizen, 65 was not “old” to a 70-year-old. Despite being the average age of death, 75 was not “old” to an 80-year-old, and so on. Depending on who I’m talking to, someone who is 40, 50, even 60 can be considered “young,” and you don’t dare call them otherwise.
You can guess what that frame of reference does to someone in my position. At 27-years-old, having entered at 22, I am the youngest professed friar in our province… and can never forget it. “Oh my God you’re so young!” is a phrase I hear from parishioners and friars alike on a regular basis. For five years, it has been my “minority status,” the underrepresented category in our Order and Church that defines me, making me the unofficial spokesperson, expert, and representative for all things youthful. Because the friars are aging in this country, I am and probably will be “young” in this line of work far longer than if I were to do anything else.
Which is fine. Hooray. Outside of the occasional question of my maturity, being “young” is a great thing. It’s the reason that 78-year-olds still think of themselves that way and refuse to use the word “old.” It’s the reason that Bob Dylan and Alphaville sung songs about it, why we have so much nostalgia for our youth, why it takes some people a decade to move on after college. Being “young” is what we want and being “old” is terrible. Right?
What I want to suggest in this post, and why I have the words “young” and “old” in quotes throughout this whole post, is that these words are generic terms that do not adequately reflect the human experience nor do they point us to what is really important.
As someone who has been branded with the title of “young” over the past five years, I can’t help but recognize the irony of the fact that I have come to recognize my own age and mortality in that same time period. At 22, when I became the “youngest in the province,” I played my last ever competitive baseball game. I reached an age in which the best of something was behind me. At 24, being the “youngest novice in the country,” I tore my shoulder and was told that I would have to begin exercising in a different way. I became physically unable to do something I once could. At 27, as parishioners can’t believe that I’m old enough to be a friar, I notice that the small cut on my face from shaving has become a permanent scar, the stray and occasional grey hair has become a dozen fixed features of my scalp, and my one eye sags a little bit when I smile. My body is shifting from growth to decline. Despite being so “young,” I can’t help but feel “old” compared to how I used to be.
Am I “old” then? Aren’t I still “young”? The obvious answer is that these terms are meant to be relative and only make sense in comparison to something else: I am old compared to the students at Immaculata Elementary School but quite young compared to my formators and provincial leadership. But I don’t think that is what offends people at church or drives people to want to be “forever young.” No, the problem is that we associate being “young” with life, vibrancy, and potential whereas we associate being “old” with weakness, decay, and the past. Despite the fact that youth comes with its tremendous detriments (immaturity, doubt, lack of experience) and that increased age comes with its tremendous benefits (wisdom, confidence, identity), we somehow only remember the things we used to do but now can’t, rather than all of the things we couldn’t do but now can.
Why such pessimism? I can’t speak for everyone, but I have a theory for most: we fear our own death more than we think. With everything that changes, diminishes, gets weaker, or disappears, we are reminded that there will come a day when we are a shadow of the person we once were; with everything that we lose, we are reminded that there will come a day when we lose it all. The little things we lose—the color of our hair, the quickness of our mind, the strength in our step—do not bother us in themselves. Who cares about a few grey hairs? It’s what they represent that gets us. Loss. Diminishment. Irrelevancy. Death.
That’s the problem with the categories we use: no matter the age, we all experience death and loss. It’s not a binary system in which one goes from “young” to “old” overnight, from a period of growth to decline as if we’re two different people. No matter the age, we are all confronted with the fact that the past is gone, that what we once knew and loved will not last forever. All things must come to an end.
So to speak.
While all of us have an innate fear of the unknown, difficulty handling loss, and uneasiness about death, we as Christians know at our very core that death is not the end, that loss is not the final note. It is precisely from death that we receive new life; it is from our pain, loss, and weakness that we find relief, gain more than we had, and know that Christ is strong in us. In an ultimate sense, we know that we our death from this world will be made new with the resurrection and we will rise with Christ on the last day.
But it’s more than that and sooner than that. With every loss that we experience throughout our years, there is the sadness of saying goodbye to something we loved, but also room to welcome something new to love. Leaving college was sad… but starting a career is exciting. Not being able to play baseball anymore was devastating… but taking up a new hobby of golf is invigorating. Saying goodbye to the people we love is tragic… but finding the time and need to love others in their place is a life-giving opportunity. With every loss comes new life. It is in that understanding that I understand very clearly what my Franciscan brother meant to share at mass last week: sometimes, in the weak moments when all we seem to know are the holes of what used to be, we find that we have more room for God’s work than we ever had before. I tell you, that is a lesson to learn, no matter the age.