I know the Roman Catholics and Orthodox insist that what we call the Apocrypha – the texts included in the Greek Old Testament but not in the Hebrew – are just part of the O.T., but they can be quite weird on occasions. At the moment I’m reading through the book Wisdom, which contains some hair-raisingly misogynist ramblings mingled with interesting insights. The other morning, though, I stumbled across something which tied in precisely with the way my mind was moving:
If you have gathered nothing in your youth,
How can you find anything in old age?
A few days before I spent an hour talking to Victor, who’s been involved with the Church all his life but has found it next to impossible even to come into the building since his wife died after a swift descent into dementia a couple of years ago. ‘I just don’t have any faith left’, he explained, ‘I think I still believe in God, but I don’t care. I don’t feel anything.’ A range of physical ailments had worn Victor down as well. I thought of another member of the congregation to whom exactly the same thing happened: ‘church’ was bound up with the wife he spent years looking after, and while he seemed to go through the experience of her death and the immediate period afterwards with great dignity and grace, everything soon collapsed and it took him two years, at least, before he could appear at church again. A couple of days later I spoke to Miriam who, with her husband, were absolute stalwarts of the 8am mass for years. In her case, it wasn’t his death which knocked her sideways, but the experience of physical illness over the last year which has worn her faith down.
Bereavement in older age isn’t a circumstance uniquely disturbing to people’s faith; I’ve recently had conversations with two much younger Christians who have found it in one case hard and in the other plain impossible to take part in public worship since losing someone close to them. Echoing Victor, Cal told me ‘I haven’t lost my faith, but there’s no feeling there’. It’s odd, and sad, that Christians should feel that lacking an emotional response to religion should bar them from church. Isn’t ‘faith’ precisely a matter of carrying on practising religion even when you don’t feel anything? But, in this state, even the quietest and most low-key of church services will still confront you not just perhaps with the loss of a person who was deeply connected with your experience of churchgoing, but also with your own sense of loss and inadequacy at not being able to summon up the feelings you imagine you’re supposed to have: a different sort of bereavement. It can be unbearably hard to face that.
That’s one factor: another is the disruption to routines which may have been followed for decades, routines in which church and loved one formed key elements. You have to be very determined, or your faith to be very definite and protected, for there not to be some sense of collapse, of the pieces of your life falling to the ground and refusing to reassemble in an acceptable new pattern. Why bother? is a perfectly reasonable question to ask: it always is for anyone contemplating religious practice, but, faced with the challenges of age, it’s perhaps harder to answer. The grind of poor health and frailty, the lessening of the comfort which beauty brings (‘the gradual closing of the doors of the senses’, Gladstone said) and perhaps the weakening of the bonds that tie an individual into human society can combine to make a sort of low-level depression entirely understandable.
Accounts of great Christians who struggled with these challenges I find sobering indeed. Trevor Huddleston, mighty campaigner against apartheid, monk, and archbishop, spent his last couple of years being cared for in his old monastery at Mirfield. He’d been a difficult brother and was a worse patient, hating his frailty and venting his anger on those who looked after him. By the end the man who had done such great works for Jesus Christ of Nazareth could barely bring himself to speak his name.
On the other hand, I regularly meet elderly people who are transfigured, whose eyes contain a purity and serenity which is all but angelic, no matter what life may have thrown at them. In them, faith has become a rough stone cut and polished to a jewel-like brilliance. Is the Book of Wisdom right – that there are foundations laid in our younger years that only become obvious as we get older? That we can only find that rough stone when we are young enough to go hunting in the mud and chiselling out the ore, ready for the final work to be done when we are old and face the real test of who we are?
We’re told a great deal at present about preparing for old age financially; we should also prepare spiritually, building up, you might say, a spiritual pension fund. I have to pray – both for myself and those I love – that we will have done enough work to have a spiritually positive old age; and that, if we don’t, bearing in mind that good or bad fortune will form a major part in how these things play out, those who have the task of caring for us will be kind and look beyond our dry and bitter behaviour. Of whom God will be one.