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Still Praying? Simeon and Anna: Exploring Spirituality in Ageing – G. Keyes

December 23, 2018

SPOlder Christians have a significant contribution to make to our understanding of God but it might be difficult for other age groups to hear this wisdom. This study includes observations from older Christians and reflections on ageing from Scripture and Christian tradition, and offers a series of signposts which will open eyes to how older Christians see God.


Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World still wins devotion, as it did when it was first painted. It is deeply personal, but leaves little space for social con­cerns. Its sentimentality and lack of realism is often criticized. The original is in Keble College, Oxford. A later version in St Paul’s Cathedral hangs with unintentional irony near to the tomb of the poet, John Donne. The violence of Donne’s more aggressive God contrasts with Christ’s politely tentative knocking in Hunt’s picture. Both describe aspects of the full range of images of God being encountered by older Christians.

 In liturgy and private prayer, older people may experience prob­lems in finding new, more comfortable and pain free postures. They will have progressively less energy and concentration and be unable to see and hear as well as before in public worship. Many find the use of the senses in prayer, especially touch, compensates to a degree for these losses. Silence, as in some healing services, is valued, but worship can lack enough of this dimension. For some, familiar landmarks are missing. Services are too long and too wordy. Surprisingly, others see the importance of maintaining a creative balance between formality and informality in their prayer, both public and private. New patterns of worship become more accept­able, especially when seen on programmes like Songs of Praise. Many older people become less formal and leave behind inherited ways of worship and prayer; ‘it is still vital to keep a balance between creativity in prayer and the maintenance of a routine. Church-go­ing and prayer must be maintained so as to have something to fall back on in bad times, or as a basis for greater creativity at others.’

Pastoral neglect. Clergy and other ministers are expected by older people to be holy and prayerful, but are repeatedly reported to fail to go beyond the trivial when visiting. Older people are disap­pointed, feeling that tea, cake and church news are no substitute for talk about God. They are reluctant to initiate spiritual topics in the company of ‘experts.’

Loneliness is coped with better by those who pray. If human fear of self-giving leading to isolation is at the heart of loneliness, then prayer gives the sense of ‘never being on your own.

Misuse of the ‘power-house of prayer’ concept. The concept is generally rejected by older Christians or at best viewed with ambivalence. The idea that ‘older people can always pray’ allows other age-groups, even ministers, to burden them with prayer lists and requests. The rest of the church is not often not particularly prayerful, yet assumes that those with ‘time on their hands’ will pray for them! Many older Christians are great people of prayer, but membership of prayer circles for housebound former members, such as The Mothers’ Union offers,-needs careful selection if those who still find prayer difficult are not to feel unnecessarily guilty.

Christian adult education for older people is needed to overcome unhelpful distortions or emotionally charged emphases in earlier teaching, especially confirmation courses (with a stress on fasting before communion, imaging God as transcendent only). This can help by extending an understanding of what prayer is and by dis­covering pathways in prayer appropriate to the ageing process.

 It is easy to question God angrily about the mess he is making of giving us the gift of a more simple life! What sense or meaning is there in disability, strokes or painful, long-drawn-out conditions? Dementia can rob a family of a much loved personality, making her a stranger in her own home. Bereavement disrupts just when a couple’s life is freer from responsibilities, with more scope for enjoyment together. The ageing process can produce a tactical withdrawal from reality, and a preference to look back in nostalgia. Many older people wrestle on in isolating darkness, reluctant to share with others what they are going through. They are like modern Jacobs who, at the end of his middle age, came face to face with God.

 Older people looking back at their lives can see much changing for the worse, or not changing for the better! This can give a sense of hopelessness around intercession—why bother? What is the point? If older people are also perhaps looking forward to the future with anxiety or fear of illness and death, this can be paralysing to praying for others. In contrast, praying with honesty can enrich the whole community.

 In retirement, an Anglican reader-was concerned that his waning energy and concentration was changing how he prayed. He said he felt guilty about no longer being able to use the Office and other formal prayer. With a twinkle in his eye, he recalled the phrase ‘excused boots’ for sore feet from his Army days, and hoped God would not reject his plea of being ‘excused prayer’! In fact he was still very much a prayerful person, but needed reassurance that the ageing process had resulted in more spontaneous, short and personal praying which still counts with God.

Reflection 5: Eli, a Surprising Midwife for the Voice of God

This meditation has been used both with individuals and groups. It is designed to help the review process for all ages, but its use of imagina­tion may not suit everyone. The setting is the Temple. A large candle burns. The Rublev icon of the Trinity, its angels suggestive of the Ark in the Temple, might be used as a focal point, but its symbolism needs explanation. Pine incense cones burning around the room evoke the atmosphere of the Temple. Music (such as Taize) plays and then fades into silence.

Read 1 Samuel 3.4b-10. The Lord dwells here. Samuel is his servant and Eli the priest sleeps in an ante-chamber nearby, but he has become a marginal figure. He is losing both his physical sight and his insight into the ways of God. Samuel deals with the practicalities of their daily life. In the evening he closes the doors and puts out all lights except the great lamp of the Presence, which gradually burns away and leaves only darkness. Sometimes Samuel is very homesick. One day he heard ‘Eli is not just physically blind. He fails to see his sons getting rich from God’s work — always with a greedy eye for the Temple women and the best portions of the sacrifices.’

 That night the young Samuel sinks deeper into the darkness of his thoughts and the shadows of the Temple, but remains awake. The voice calls his name, J… Sh mu’el…Sh mu’el! Eli must need help. Samuel runs to see…They find they need each other. The voice of God could not be heard by Samuel and understood for what it was unless interpreted by the vacillating and weak Eli. The voice of God sounds to Samuel so like the voice of Eli. But surely not Eli with his lack of resolve to put right the obvious abuses of power through which his own sons flour­ish? Eli, who has lost his own grip on the will of God and prefers to lie low hoping that somehow the storm clouds predicted for him will pass by? This is beyond belief.

 Reflection 6: Now has God Called You?

(May be used as a conclusion to Reflection 5 or as a separate exercise.) For some, it may be directly hearing a voice. For others, it is in the beauty of creation or worship, reading his word, or music. He calls too in incidents in ordinary life, the way things unfold or, of course, a rich catalogue of people. Who have these been for you? Who was like feeble Eli in your life? Think especially of those people through whom God has spoken, and speaks, in your life, perhaps many years ago now. They were neither good nor bad. Some may have lived completely hopeless lives which were almost beyond their control. Their inability to do much about this did not stop God from using them for you as long as they were prepared to point beyond themselves to God. Through them, God transforms second-hand religion into seeing him face to face. Caught up in the web of their weakness, having failed their own ideals and ceased being people of vision, God still speaks through them.

Like Eli and Samuel, youth often needs age and experience to interpret the ways of God, even when his ‘midwife’ is deeply compromised. No parent in her right mind would entrust a child to the parenting of inef­fectual and vacillating Eli, for he was the weak head of a dysfunctional family in a disintegrating nation, hiding beneath his sons’ corrupt use of his power. Yet he gave spiritual birth to the young Samuel, who in his turn became the greatest of prophets.

Pause to give God thanks for these people in your lives. The figure of Eli should convince older people that to have an exemplary or holy lifestyle is not necessary to be used by God. Modern elders should not debar themselves from talking about God with the young for not being holy, good or wise enough!

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