The spiritual practice of growing older

The spiritual practice of growing olderWhat’s beautiful about Vesper Time is that it doesn’t give spiritual exercises for the journey of aging; it shows how aging itself is a spiritual exercise. Vesper Time opens our eyes to the experience of growing older “in wisdom and in grace” (Luke 2:52).

At Vesper time, the evening of our lives, aging becomes a way of prayer much in the way a retreat, a pilgrimage, helping those in need, or keeping a journal are ways of prayer—windows on God’s grace. When we engage our experience of growing older, we see more clearly God’s love, mercy and favor.

Vespers, or evening prayer, is part of a traditional liturgy that celebrates the day’s progression. We light lamps in anticipation of the dark. What a lovely metaphor for life’s late decades, when the light indeed does fade, as do our capabilities, and we embrace the evening as we are. Frank Cunningham explores the spirituality of our evening through experiences of memory, intimacy, diminishment, acceptance and gratitude.

These are lifelong experiences, but in our Vesper time we know them more deeply. Frank Cunningham, who was 74 when he began the book, tells of a conversation he had with a friend. “What’s the book about?” she asked.

“Aging,” he said, “how it’s a spiritual practice.”

“How’s that?”

“Well,” he said, “there are five experiences—diminishment, acceptance, intimacy, gratitude and… and, uh… umm.” He couldn’t think of the fifth. Of course, it came to him later. “Oh yeah, memory, memory is the one I couldn’t think of!”

Memories shift and change like melting snow as we grow older and there is time to look out the window and reflect, and forgive the cold experiences and find comfort in the warm ones. “Remembrance,” Cunningham writes, “is an entitlement of aging. In a very real sense we don’t have to worry so much about where we’re going, so we can and often do think about where we’ve been. Our experience has earned us a kind of healthy skepticism about our world and its ever-renewing problems and threats. We can acknowledge that what we have done in the past, for better or for worse, was important then. But that was then. Life has become the present moment.”

Vesper time is a time to baptize our memories.

When he began the chapter on intimacy, Cunningham couldn’t come up with a good opening. He was sitting at the kitchen counter doodling and did not need to look beyond where he already was.

“Sue is engrossed in one of her 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzles that always reside on a card table,” he wrote. “Where she gets the patience for those things is beyond me.

“ ‘Tea?’ I ask her.

“ ‘No, thanks. Not now.’ I can peel her an orange, though, she suggests. So I do. It’s one of those small pleasing rituals—a coffee in the morning, a glass of red wine at five in the evening, emptying the dishwasher anytime. How ordinary yet how intimate.”

Vesper Time is filled with ordinary moments that open us to the gracing in our daily lives, the power we can feel in our diminishment, the confidence and fearlessness in accepting the coming night, and the joy that comes from gratitude.

I’m in my 70s and have been a publisher for 50 years. I’ve published many books on aging. Most were about what to do. This one is about what to be. I got a lot more out of it.