Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Memento Mori--Thoughts on Growing Old

Old Nun, M. Bassetto (1611)
from Wikimedia Commons
"Do not go gentle into that good night.
Old age should burn and rave at close of day; 
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. 
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night."
--Dylan Thomas
“You are old, Father William,” the young man said,“And your hair has become very white;And yet you incessantly stand on your head –Do you think, at your age, it is right?”“In my youth,” Father William replied to his son“I feared it might injure the brain;But, now that I’m perfectly sure I have none,Why, I do it again and again.”   Lewis Carroll

Final perseverance is the doctrine that wins the eternal victory in small things as in great” Muriel Spark, Memento Mori


Old people, it is said, love to talk about their aches and pains.  I've forborne doing that, but as I look back on my recent 86th birthday, it struck me that it might be therapeutic to do so, and perhaps put my signs of senility into a more encompassing picture.

We have a 16 year old Shih-Tzu (112 in dog years) who suddenly is showing his age.  His tail, instead of being an arch over his back, now droops more and more;  he limps, favoring the two legs that are probably arthritic.    Although he has navigated well as a blind dog for these past three years over a large yard and cluttered rooms, he now seems to bump into objects more and more, and without the sound of our voices to guide, will hesitate--as if to ponder "where am I and what am I doing here?".

His bark is still imperious as he asks to be let out or in, so his spirit seems to be good, despite the drooping tail.   (My wife contends that he has racial memories of being a pampered pet in the household of the Chinese Empress and condescends to stay with us round-eyed peasants.)  But as he climbs onto his pillow to make himself comfortable, there are little whines of unhappiness and aches.  Although his appetite is quite good, albeit selective, he has grown quite scrawny in his old age--ribs and backbone are conspicuous.  (That's one attribute of old age I wish I would emulate.)

It strikes us that he won't  be with us much longer, but we will never want to "put him down" as long as he is not in pain, even though it's clear that taking care of him will involve more and more work, some of it messy.    And here comes the point of comparison.  I myself am noticing a slow-down.   Yard work that a few years ago I did  to work up a sweat, I now find hard to do without breaking for a rest every five minutes.    As a point of pride and for cardio-vascular workouts, I used to avoid elevators.   Now it's seldom that I go up or down stairs except in our home, and then I plan errands to minimize trips between floors.


But I too, do not want to "be put down", even when what seems to be still working--my  mind--becomes as decrepit as my body.    And I see signs of what could happen  when  I attend  Masses held in the chapel of a local nursing home, managed by an order of Catholic Nuns.  The Nursing Home is also a rehab center for patients with Alzheimer's and other senile mental disorders.   Many of the elderly nuns are there,  either for physical rehab, nursing care, or Alzheimer's.

There are about 10 to 15 of us non-patients (including some still active nuns) who attend Mass there on a semi-regular, twice-a-week basis,    We sit in chairs along the back and one of the side walls.    The main part of the room is empty to hold the 10 to 15 wheel-chairs in phalanx rows, with four or five patients in wheel chairs against the other side wall.   There are a few chairs in the room for friends and relatives of the patients, to sit with wheel chairs.   Two or three attendants and nuns sit along the back wall.   No one rises or kneels during the Mass--it would be a hurtful reminder to those in the wheel chairs who cannot do so.  As is usual in Catholic Churches, one sits in a customary place.

During Mass I occasionally hear one of the patients (usually not one of the nuns) making a comment--"that's beautiful", "praise God", "where's my watch", "thank you Father".  As the priest makes his rounds handing out Holy Communion to each of us, visitors and patients, I look up and see some of the patients sleeping; the priest or EMOHC (a nun) will gently nudge the patient and slip a small portion of the Host into her mouth.

One of the nuns celebrated her 82nd anniversary in the Order a few weeks ago and her 100th birthday a week later.  She is alert and usually not one of those sleeping as Holy Communion is given out.   I see another nun, sleeping during the Mass; her hands are folded in prayer, but she seems oblivious to all that goes on around her, even when asked to receive the Host.   I recall some five or six years ago--she was sharp, witty, alert, managing a large enterprise for the order.   What are her interior thoughts now, I wonder?  Her hands are folded in prayer--does that posture mirror an interior devotion?

Which direction will I take--will the mind in exterior behavior go;  will there still be an interior self to contemplate and pray?


“If I had my life to live over again, I would form the habit of nightly composing myself to thoughts of death. I would practice, as it were, the remembrance of death. There is not another practice which so intensifies life. Death, when it approaches, ought not to take one by surprise. It should be part of the full expectancy of life.”
Muriel Spark, Memento Mori
Recall the Ash Wednesday injunction as we are ashed: "Remember man, thou art dust and unto dust thou shall return".    The Latin motto, "Memento Mori"(remember that you have to die) was important in Medieval times for those pursuing an ascetic discipline, to hone their thoughts to the hereafter.

I recall this as the title of a wonderful novel by Muriel Spark about forethoughts of death and how they enhance life.   In the novel a group of elderly people--arty and social types--receive occasional phone calls (before the days of cell phones) "remember you must die".    Their lives go on, perturbed somewhat by the calls, but not exceedingly so.    They do confront death, in different ways, however.   Whence the quote at the beginning of this section.   At the end of the novel it is not clear who has been sending the phone messages--perhaps God?

So, as we grow old we contemplate that "undiscovered country".   We hope we are made strong by faith; that by faith even though imperfect, we will find that our Lord, in His infinite capacity for forgiveness, will not look too harshly on our sins.

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