by NANCY ADAMS
Welcome to the second in the series of bi-monthly blogs, written by Nancy Adams
Blog for August:
Our Autumn Years
Harvest Field or Wasteland?
Generativity vs Stagnation
The Bright Field
I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.
Harvest Field or Wasteland?
More than ten years ago, in October 2008, an ecumenical conference took place in Edinburgh, organized in partnership with Action of Churches Together in Scotland (ACTS) the recently established Faith in Older People Project (FIOP) and the Church in Society Committee of the Scottish Episcopal Church (SEC) (of which I was Convener at that time).
“Old Age: Wasteland or Harvest Field: an ecumenical exploration of the needs of older people and the gifts they bring to the churches” arose out of a shared vision shaped by mutual concern that the spiritual needs of older people in churches were not being nourished in a consistent way nor were their gifts always being recognized or honoured.
Recent research done by FIOP had suggested that, although there were organisations within the denominations that provided services and/or workshops, little specific training on the topic of aging was being offered on any regular basis to clergy, and it appeared that it was mostly lay people who had taken the initiative to participate when there were opportunities to learn more about caring for older people in the churches.
The conference had been set in the context of the Scottish Government’s campaign, ‘See Me not My Age’ and offered as a challenge to leadership within the Scottish Churches and those responsible for the training and education of their ‘flock’ to place the issue of ‘Old Age: Wasteland or Harvest Field?’ at the top of their agenda.
Currently there is a Scottish Government campaign ‘See Me not My Age’. However, old age appears to bring out contradictions in ourselves. We are proud that we live to a greater age but also want to deny that we are growing older persuaded by advertisements that promise we can alter the march of time. Those around us perceive the ageing process and feel anxious about the future.
In considering old age as ‘Wasteland or Harvest Field’ in the life of our churches the ‘See Me’ is very important. We have not always been old and we need to have a sense of self worth firmly instilled in relation to what we have achieved during our lives and to feel proud of successes as well as coming to terms with what we feel we have not done well.
For those who provide care to older people it is sometimes a challenge to find the ‘harvest field’ so it is vital that we work together to enable people to recognise the individual and to minister to their very particular needs
Maureen O’Neill (Development Coordinator of FIOP)
Chaired by Rt Rev Brian Smith, Bishop of Edinburgh of the SEC, the keynote speakers included Rev’d Dr. Albert Jewell, Fr. Gerry Hughes, Margot Macdonald MSP and Professor John Starr. Workshops were led by Dr Harriet Mowat, Mrs Frances Molloy, Mr Ranald Mair, and Rev. Sue Kirkbride assisted by Mary Moffett.
The Conference’s Report (which can be downloaded below) opened with the words “It was a bountiful day of harvest: a gathering together of a remarkable group of 120 people attesting to the truth that old age CAN be a harvest field providing a cornucopia of wisdom.” It was, without a doubt, a cornucopia of wisdom.
I mention this conference, not because it was probably the first major effort on the part of faith communities to bring together health professionals, politicians, researchers, clergy and lay people; all of whom were interested in exploring the challenges to body, mind and spirit inherent in the reality of aging. I mention it because, for me, it was a day of discovery; one of those moments, perhaps, of noticing a‘pearl of great price’.
The person whose contribution I kept returning to in my mind was Margo MacDonald’s. From her own life experience, she shared with us her wisdom about “Three Issues for the Third Age: Grandparenting, Retiral Age, Health and Exercise.” It was what she said about the first of these three issues, in particular, that has remained with me. The essence of what she said was that being a grandparent brought both special rights and responsibilities. She noted that the traditional triangle of shared responsibility (home, church, school) for instilling basic human values in young people today had broken down. Many children did not attend church or Sunday School; at home, many children rarely sit down to a shared family meal; and at school, teachers were under pressure to deliver a curriculum that focussed more on academic achievement than providing life skills and encouraging social responsibility.
Whereas she felt that older people had grown up with a sense of communal responsibility for each other, she suggested that many young people view life primarily through the lens of the individual, partly because that is what they see reflected around them. Her invitation to older people was to consider spending quality time with younger people whenever the opportunity presented itself; or even better, to initiate those precious relationships that could make such a difference: a difference not only to the child but it might also be a gift to that child’s parent(s) who might be struggling simply to make ends meet. She named this as the most important gift she could offer back into society in the autumn years of her life.
Prophets of a Future Not Our Own
This is what we are about:
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted,
knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects
beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a
sense of liberation in realising that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning,
a step along the way, an opportunity for
God's grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but
that is the difference between the
master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders,
ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.
(Written by Bishop Ken Untener of Saginaw for a homily by Cardinal John Dearden in 1979, but often attributed to Archbishop Oscar Romero and called The Romero Prayer)
The wisdom shared during that day invited me to reflect more deeply on the treasure that lies in the breadth of experience and depth of understanding residing within so many people living in the second half of their lives. It led me on to explore why some people chose to continue to plant and nurture seeds intentionally for the sake of a future not their own. Margo MacDonald’s reflections came back to me a few years later when I came across the work of Erik Erikson.
Generativity vs Stagnation
In 1950, Erik Erikson, the developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst proposed a theory that we all move through eight predictable stages of growth and development; each presents a challenge and requires holding the tension between a negative and positive outcome. By resolving the challenge, he suggests that we then acquire specific life-stage virtues, and we can then move on to the next stage. Maturity is about being willing to go on growing through every stage of life until the human spiritual compass has been honed to a fine point.
In our early Autumn Years, we are invited to hold the tension between generativity and stagnation. These years define the Care Stage of middle life, when we are challenged to move beyond our own personal interests towards being more concerned for younger generations; willing to take on a caring role and contributing to the development of others. Erikson viewed generativity as one of the principle tasks of the second half of life, with a focus on the adult’s role ‘in establishing and guiding the next generation.’
For many in their Autumn Years of life, this may be taken as an invitation to engage in one form of ‘conscious eldering’. But guiding the next generation needs to be done with gentleness and grace; with humility not hubris; through gracious listening, kindness and respect. Making the space and taking the time to listen graciously to younger people can be life changing for them. By encouraging them to voice their concerns and fears and to articulate their hopes and dreams, the younger girl or boy, woman or man, might come to know affirmation, self respect and respect for others; experience and be able to return kindness and generosity; learn to question, have opinions, listen to others, and be able, if necessary, to change that opinion.
Between 1902 and 1908 Rainer Maria Rilke was in correspondence with Franz Xaver Kappus, a 19-year old officer cadet who had sought his advice. The ten letters sent to him by Rilke were compiled by the young man in 1929 after Rilke died. They were published as “Letters to a Young Poet.” This excerpt from one of them could just as easily have been written for the young people of 2019:
... have patience with everything unresolved in your heart
and to try to love the questions themselves
as if they were locked rooms or books written
in a very foreign language.
Don't search for the answers,
which could not be given to you now,
because you would not be able to live them.
And the point is, to live everything.
Live the questions now.
Rilke lived to be only 51 years old, but his poetry and letters hold astounding wisdom for people of all ages, not least those of us in the Autumn Years of our lives. This closing poem speaks to that stage of life where the tension is being held between Harvest Field or Wasteland; between generativity or stagnation.
All will come again
All will come again into its strength:
the fields undivided, the waters undammed,
the trees towering and the walls built low.
And in the valleys, people as strong and varied as the land.
And no churches
where God is imprisoned and lamented
like a trapped and wounded animal.
The houses welcoming all who knock
and a sense of boundless offering in all relations,
and in you and me.
No yearning for an afterlife,
no looking beyond,
no belittling of death,
but only longing for what belongs to us
and serving earth,
lest we remain unused.
Ranier Maria Rilke
From Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy