And it happened that, as the angels departed from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this story that has unfolded, which the Lord has made known to us.” And hastening they went and found both Joseph and Mary, and the baby lying in the manger as well; and seeing them they revealed what they had been told concerning this little child. And everyone who heard was amazed at the the things reported to them by the angels.Luke 2: 15-18
As I was stirring from sleep this first morning of a new year, I was dreaming about and pondering the age I have reached. The dream was not a clear narrative of any kind, but it included the sense of shock to discover that I was now over sixty, and then realizing I am actually ten years older than that. It is difficult to be certain of the nature of the emotion that was evoked in me, but it was something of a combination of amazement and fear. Perhaps it was not totally unlike the experience of Mary described in today’s gospel, an experience that she kept in her heart and pondered. Mary, Joseph, and the Shepherds stood, at this moment, not merely on the cusp of a turned calendar but of a totally new age. There were really no good models or maps for what they were now facing, only the dark knowledge of faith, hope, and love.
Perhaps as we age it is a common experience to be surprised, if not awe-struck, that we, who feel not all that different from what we felt as children, have reached such an advanced age. The starkness I feel at this realization is that so much more of my life is behind me rather than ahead of me, that although blessed with good health and strength, the mystery of my life’s ending is ever closer. For all of that, however, there is also awe in the anticipation of the unknown, of the new life in the details of the unfolding story that remain mysterious to me.
There are many graces in being given length of years, in having reached an age that summons us to a more transcendent view of our life and world. A danger, however, is the danger of playing out in our later years nothing but a repetition of the past. The shepherds have been told the story of the child by the angels that have appeared to them, and, as those angels depart into heaven, the shepherds say to one another that they must go to Bethlehem and see what has happened there. So, they go and see Joseph, Mary, and the infant lying in the manger. They then reveal to Mary and Joseph the story that the angels had told them. Of course, Mary had been told by the angel who her child was and from whom he had come, and we presume that she had told this to Joseph. Yet, what this actually meant in and for their lives they could only learn from life itself.
Of course, in one very real sense, the “new year” we celebrate is but an accident of the calendar. This morning is really no more “new” than yesterday morning. And yet, the turning of the calendar to a new year can remind us that the stories that make up our lives must become ever new; the revelation we have received in our lives must come to be seen anew in every moment of our lives. The story that the angels tell the shepherds is not yet realized, made real in their lives, until they hasten to Bethlehem to witness and engage it. Even the revelation which Mary received from the angel is nuanced and even changed, perhaps, as she hears the story which the shepherds reveal to her and Joseph. Her pondering is, no doubt, a continuing reconfiguration of the story and a further appropriation of its meaning for her life.
Perhaps one of the greatest mistakes, and perhaps we shall eventually discover it to be one of the greatest evils, of our time is how in our culture we tend to segregate ourselves by age. We tend now to have the aged in retirement communities or assisted living, so that the productivity of the younger will not be impeded. In an aging religious community such as mine (at least in the Belgium and the United States), we find ourselves living without the presence of younger members. The result is that far too often we are repeating the same stories, and we are appraising life and world based on those unchanged and unchangeable narratives. Our basic conflicts are essentially the same as 40 years ago, and those dysfunctional ways we have of thinking and being find no significant challenge from differing perspectives. We then come to think that realism is being mired in that closed repetitive cycle.
Because life as mystery and call is threatening to us, we are always tending to refuse and repress our spiritual awareness. The shepherds are awestruck at he message of the angels, but this leads them to make haste to Bethlehem to see how “the story” is being made manifest, is actually being incarnated in the world. Until they engage the mystery and the story with Mary and Joseph and the Child, it cannot come to take on flesh in their lives. In the sharing of the stories, everyone becomes increasingly “amazed.”
As aging brings on physical diminishment, we tend at the bodily level seemingly to return to those states of need and dependency that characterized our childhood and infancy. Paradoxically enough, the wisdom of spirit in old age also must have about it a certain “return” to the awe and wonder of our childhood. Once the young child is able to awaken to the world around it, he or she becomes all eyes and ears. Being something of a tabula rasa, the child takes in all that his or her surroundings have to offer. The child’s receptivity comes, in part, from the fact that he or she has, as yet, no stories or set interpretations. What is “ever ancient” is, for the child, “ever new.” The true wisdom of age is characterized by a return to such an openness, a wisdom gained through the continual experience of realizing what we don’t know.
For all our age and experience, what we know and what all our stories tell us about the truth of things barely scratch the surface. Through revelation, we may even know something of “the end” of the story. Yet, until we make haste into the actual experience of life and world of others, the story is not only incomplete but also potentially misleading. In his latest book Parker Palmer makes this point relative to the importance as we age of the experience of mentoring. Being honest with ourselves, we well might ask who we are to mentor anyone. Yet, as Palmer points out, the experience of mentoring younger persons is not imparting wisdom from on high, but rather an experience of mutuality.
For those of us who have been teachers in a certain style for most of our lives, there is the danger that we never stop playing that role. We insist that the younger keep their place and learn from us. Yet, as the young person so greatly benefits from the stories of the elder, so too do we, the elders, need the stories of the young. Although at this age, my capacity, and sometimes desire, for plunging into the fray are diminished, I need the enthusiasm, energy, and insight of the young to summon me to join them in “getting our hands dirty” by engaging the world’s suffering, ecstasy, and complexity.
To know the promise of newness in this coming year, I must, to the best of my diminishing capacities, join with others, young and old, in engaging the world. Such engagement is how we measure the adequacy of our stories. To rest in them, as if they are complete, is to die the death of repetition until the end. One of the most challenging words of the past year came to me from a much younger friend and co-worker. As we pondered a difficulty that begged for attention and action, he asked if we “cared enough” to do something. To care and to engage the world from that care will always be messy. I find myself constantly tempted by the sense that I am too old to be involved in such messiness. But that is an excuse for not caring. Left to our own devices, our stories get very boring. For every story, no matter its truth or depth, is partial. In ways it corresponds to reality, to the truth of things, and in other ways it does not. For us, the truth only emerges through our hastening to engage what is asked of us as best we can. It requires “hastening” in love and with others to Bethlehem, to that place to which we are being called.
We elders have gifts for the young, but the young are often unaware of the gifts they have for us. They rarely understand, for example, that when they approach an older person for mentoring, they assuage our fear that we’re over the hill and out of the game, that younger folks regard us as irrelevant. Few people in their twenties know the power of saying to someone like me—who’s seen twenty nearly four times—“I want to learn from you.”Parker J. Palmer, On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity and Getting Old, pp. 35-6
The young also bring gifs of energy, vision, and hope that hard experience has stolen from me, often without my knowing it. They soften my cynicism when I see them taking on a problem I regard as intractable, approaching it from a new angle that just might work. “Once more into the breach,“ I think, “as long as I can go with them.”