It was my privilege in early December to give an Advent retreat to my Jesuit brothers who reside in Manresa Hall, a Jesuit infirmary care facility on the campus of St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.
As I mentioned to them at the outset, with a reference to the long period of Jesuit training before active ministry, “We’ve spent the first half warming up and the second half wearing out. Now here we are deep in the fourth quarter with so much to be grateful for.”
In preparation for this welcome task of assisting fellow Jesuits in their experience of another Advent, I turned to a small book titled “Reflections of Growing Old,” published in 1963 by the great Jesuit pioneer in interracial justice, liturgical renewal and Catholic journalism, Father John LaFarge.
He was a longtime editor of America magazine and his book appeared just one year before he died at age 83. (I’ll turn 87 in this upcoming year and am happy to have the wisdom of John LaFarge not only to share with others but also for guidance in my own life).
Father LaFarge puts it this way: “Let me express briefly the idea from which this little book was written. It states a personal view, born of experience and faith. I believe that old age is a gift, a very precious gift, not a calamity. Since it is a gift, I thank God for it daily. I can reject this [gift] by bitterness, cowardice and complaint. Or I can accept it by thanksgiving: by faith, hope and love.”
“The great fact of old age,” he continues, “no matter how you look at it, is diminishment in one form or another. I view old age as a time of life which exemplifies in countless ways a great principle of our existence: the principle of growth through diminishment.
“People, especially soil-tilling people, have always understood this principle. Recall that Jesus said in John 12:24, ‘Believe me when I tell you this; a grain of wheat must fall into the ground and die, or else it remains nothing more than a grain of wheat; but if it dies, then it produces much fruit.’
“It is not the grain’s kernel that has been conquered in the struggle with the earthly elements, the part that carries the inner force of indestructible vitality. That which has perished by the rude yet subtle forces of nature has liberated the true and vital kernel that neither wind nor storm nor erosion can nullify. Growth through diminishment is the law of the kingdom.”
Nice thoughts for any time of the year!
When accepted in faith, and united with the passion death, and resurrection of Christ, the diminishment associated with old age can become a powerful source of growth in grace not only for the aging person but especially for those for whom he or she wants to pray.
Jesuit Father Byron is university professor of business and society at St. Joseph’s University, Philadelphia. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.