There are few more insightful studies into the spirituality of aging than the late James Hillman’s book The Force of Character. Ironically Hillman was more critical of Christian spirituality than sympathetic to it; yet his brilliant insights into nature’s design and intent offer perspectives on the spirituality of aging that often eclipse what is found in explicitly Christian writings.
Hillman begins this book, a discourse on the nature of aging, with a question: Why would nature design things so that, as humans, just as we reach the pinnacle of our maturity and finally get more of a genuine grip on our lives, our bodies begin to fall apart? Why do we suffer such a bevy of physical ailments as we age? Is this a cruel trick or does nature have a specific intent in mind when it does this? What might nature have in mind when the ailments and physical foibles of age begin to play some havoc with our days and nights?
He answers these questions with a metaphor: The best wines have to be aged and mellowed in cracked old barrels. This image, of course, needs little explication. We all know the difference between a mellow old wine and a tart young one that could still use some maturation. What we don’t grasp as immediately is how that old wine became so mellow, what processes it had to endure to give up the sharp tang of its youth.
Thus, Hillman’s metaphor speaks brilliantly: our physical bodies are the containers within which our souls mellow and mature; and our souls mellow and mature more deeply when our bodies begin to show cracks than they do when we are physically strong and whole, akin to what John Updike wrote after undergoing a death-threatening illness. For Updike, there are some secrets that are hidden from health. For Hillman there is a depth of maturity that is also hidden from health.
With that fundamental insight as his ground, Hillman then goes on in each chapter of the book to take up one aspect of aging, one aspect of the loss of the wholeness of our youth, and show how it is designed to help mellow and mature the soul. And since he is dealing with various lapses in our bodies and our health, we can expect that what follows will be pretty earthy and far from glamorous.
Thus, for instance, he begins one chapter with the question: Why does it happen that, as we age, we find it more difficult to sleep uninterrupted through the night but instead are awakened with the need to go to the bathroom and heed a call of nature? What is nature’s wisdom and intent in that?
Hillman answers with another insightful analogy: in monasteries, monks get up each night while it is still dark and do an exercise they call “vigils.” If you asked them why they don’t do this prayer during the day so as to save themselves getting up in the middle of the night, they would tell you that this particular exercise can only be done at night, in the dark, in the particular mood that the night brings. The night, the dark, and the more sombre angels this brings cannot be artificially replicated during the day, in the light. Light brings a sunnier mood and there are certain things we will not face in the light of day, but only when the dark besets us.
So what happens when our aging bodies make us get up at night to heed nature’s call? We heed nature’s call but then often are unable to fall back into sleep immediately. Instead we lie in our beds trying to will ourselves back to sleep when something unwanted and unintended happens. We receive a visit from the mythical goddess of night, Nyx. And she doesn’t come alone; she brings along her children: unresolved bitterness, lingering grudges, unwanted paranoia, frightening shadows and a bevy of other dark spirits whom we can normally avoid and whom we refuse to face when the lights are on. But now, in the dark, unable to sleep, we must deal with them, and dealing with them, making our peace with Nyx and her children, helps mellow our souls and helps us grow to a deeper maturity.
Monks already know this and so, each night, they schedule a session with the goddess of night. They don’t call it that of course and might even be offended by the reference to their vigil prayer as a visit with this mythical goddess, but their spiritual wisdom mirrors that of nature. Both nature and monks know that a certain work inside the soul can only be done in the darkness of night.
Monks have secrets worth knowing and nature eventually teaches them to us, whether we want the lesson or not. Nature eventually turns us all into monks: our aging bodies eventually become a monastic cell within which our souls deepen, mellow and mature, like wines being seasoned in cracked old barrels.
Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas.