Of course reasonably good health is a great blessing while failing health can make old age quite difficult. I am lucky at seventy-seven to be in reasonably good health and I am satisfied that so far these older years can be quite satisfying. Having generally worked hard as priest and bishop for some fifty years I am finding the more relaxed life of retirement a very pleasant experience. I had anticipated that the change would be traumatic – I still await the trauma. Yes, you sometimes miss the more fulfilling aspects of the work – the confirmation days, the joyous baptisms and you can miss too the sharing of the more painful events – illness, death, break-up of marriage.
Above all I don’t miss the stress which was very much part of life as a bishop for the past sixteen years. I can still do bits and pieces of my own. There is more time for golf, hurling and for a new-found interest in gardening. I now find myself examining other people’s gardens, checking on the names of shrubs and flowers which catch my eye. I’m lucky of course that my health is still good enough to allow me to do these things.
It seems to me at this stage that growing old – with the good health proviso – can be a very enjoyable stage of life. I see – with a little envy – the joy grandparents get in their grandchildren. I see in my own town of Ennis the experience of older people in senior citizen clubs such as Probus, choirs, seniors’ golf, card playing etc. Yes of course it will be different when the health deteriorates and when I can’t get around as easily. I am not sure how I will cope at that stage. That will be the time to test that lovely piece at the end of St John’s gospel:
‘When you were young you put on your own belt and walked where you liked; but when you grow old you will stretch out your hands and somebody else will put a belt round you and take you where you would rather not go.’ (Jn.21:18)
Sometimes we experience that sense of someone else leading us where we may not have chosen to go. It can be hard to allow ourselves to be led, to lose our independence. It can be hard to let go. And yet letting go is an essential part of growing old:
Letting go of our children – we have to accept that we cannot run their lives – nor can we impose our values on them.
Letting go of our grandchildren – we can of course enrich their lives with our love but we cannot rear them to our way of thinking. Rearing children is the task and the privilege of parents.
Letting go of our certainties – I have found over the years parents having to let go even of their religious certainties. And neither are we as priests free from similar pressures of letting go or questioning some of the ‘certainties’ which led us into priesthood in the first instance.
The most painful of all must be letting go of a partner, or even a child in death. While as a priest I will never have to endure that pain I can only imagine how difficult it must be. Ultimately all of us are faced with letting go of our own very life. While the idea of letting go of life may seem very frightening my experience of life over the years of being with people who were dying has been quite reassuring. While the initial reaction of people who realised that the end is near was often one of fear they seemed gradually to come to a point where they were satisfied to let go. While we all like to say ‘he/she died peacefully at the end’ I do believe that that is true in practically all the cases.
While letting go is not always easy it seems to me that we don’t have a choice but to try to accept it and acknowledge that it is all in the Lord’s hands. We need to constantly remind ourselves that our God is a loving God, a forgiving God and a compassionate God. And it is against that background of trust and belief in a compassionate loving God that we can let go of our regrets and our past failures.
We need not have regrets about the past as we grow older. Of course we have all failed at times to live up to the ideals that we set out for ourselves in earlier life. That is part of the human condition. I am always uncomfortable with those who think that they have never made mistakes in life. Of course we have made mistakes, of course we have failed at times but our God is a loving and forgiving God, so why should I worry about failures in the past? God loves me as I am – in my older years with all the frailties that come with age.