Aging baby boomers arguably don’t want to feel that they are getting old. Marketing surveys show an age cohort desperate to deny the reality of aging bodies. Corporate advertisers quickly respond. They fill the media with products from anti-aging creams, virility-enhancing drugs, to adult diapers all promoting the illusion of continuing youthful vigour for this generation while all the physical evidence suggests otherwise.
Our “perishable body weighs down the soul,” says the Wisdom author. These words, which were long attributed to King Solomon, ring as true now as over two millennia ago. Contemporary Scripture scholars now place the authorship of this text in the Jewish Hellenistic period centuries after Solomon and likely only a century or two prior to the time of Jesus.
We can see in this book the influence of Greek philosophical tradition on Jewish thought. Both have strains pointing toward self-renunciation and detachment from material possessions as a way toward spiritual fulfilment. The “reasoning of mortals is worthless, and our designs are likely to fail.” We can only be saved by the wisdom God imparts.
When my father was the age I am now he had already been in a long-term care facility for a half-dozen years. A body stressed by 70-hour work weeks at his garage and filling station, endless exposure to toxic chemicals, summer hours spent in a blazingly hot, tiny aluminum-roofed building he called an office and in the winter freezing in that same un-insulated shed with its single pane windows, wore him down. All his working life he worried about how he could wring enough income out of a declining business in a dying industrial district to support his wife and seven children. The post-war dreams of a decorated veteran had dimmed in the grim and grit of daily toil.
In his last years his faculties slipped from him one by one. The last time I saw him he had just turned 69. Blind, deprived of speech, permanently bedridden, I held his hand as I told of my own dreams and plans. All too soon, when I had to leave, he squeezed my hand. It was the only way he could tell me that he had heard me. I took that weak pressure on my hand as his blessing.
My journey over the next months would take me as far away as I could conceivably get from his nursing home room. Along dusty roads on the fringe of Botswana’s Kalahari Desert, onto the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and into slums surrounding Lusaka, Zambia, I saw other people struggling to realize their dreams and aspirations assisted by Canadian international development agencies like the Mennonite Central Committee and CUSO. While away on my travels under the brilliant Southern Cross stretching out high in Africa’s dark night sky, my father died.
In our second reading we hear Paul writing from prison in the Roman province of Caesarea Maritima (currently northern Israel) to Philemon of Colossae. It was likely around the year 58 during the two years he spent jailed there. Imprisoned also by an aging body and infirmity Paul had come to rely on a runaway slave named Onesimus.
Age and martyrdom would soon claim all the remaining first apostles. Paul asked Philemon to accept Onesimus back no longer as a slave but as a brother. Paul sent his companion away realizing that his own dreams had to be passed on through these new converts to an emerging Christianity community.
On a recent late June morning fresh off a 36-hour bus ride down from Whitehorse, I made my way over to the Saskatoon senior’s complex where Leo and Helen Kurtenbach live. Oblate Brother Walter DeMong met me downstairs and brought me up to the Kurtenbach apartment. Leo, now 97 years old, enjoyed sharing memories with Walter and me. The word on younger friends and the social justice causes close to our hearts buoyed us.
Age had not dimmed their enthusiasm for life. As the psalmist says, “In every age, O Lord, you have been our refuge.” If we really understand this then “we may shout for joy and gladness all our days.” I left these honoured elders with a light heart and still lighter soul.
Luke’s gospel passage offers two short simple stories. In this passage with the parables of the unfinished tower or army of ten thousand Jesus warns that people cannot share his vision unless they willingly relinquish family, possessions and plans. Without a real spirit of detachment we cannot become full disciples of Christ.
A long time ago a woman of Indian descent shared what was in effect a modern parable with me. Her mother with her last years approaching resolved to lighten the material cord tying her physical being and spirit to her earthly presence. This quiet but intensely devout woman began giving away all her possessions. Item by item she disposed of her personal treasures. Friends, family and even strangers benefited from her resolve. Eventually all she had left were two saris — one for daily wear and one for special occasions.
Time finally came for her life cord to be cut. It was not a thick mooring cable like those tying most of us fast to this earthly port desperately clutching our accumulated wealth and unrealized plans. For her only the finest of threads held her. It could be broken with no more than a last smile.
Better tend to my tether!
Dougherty is co-chair of the Social Justice Committee at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Whitehorse, Yukon.