The Carmelite spirit emphasising a life of all-embracing contemplation is a way to help people later in life adjust from ‘doing’ to ‘being’, writes Peter Thomas as he reflects on the Australian Bishop’s social justice statement and the concept of ‘gerotranscendence’.
When the Australian Catholic Bishops released their social justice statement [A Place at the Table: Social justice in an ageing society] last September my mind turned to a remarkable book Contemplative Aging by Dr Edmund Sherman. A Gerontologist by profession and a man in his 80s, Sherman suggests a way of being that has received little attention in many books and papers on ageing, yet adds a different and deeper dimension to complement and strengthen the active, older age promoted in popular media.
Sherman provides a contemplative way of dealing with and transcending many of the physical decrements and emotional losses that are so much part of later life; a Carmelite solution, the ‘contemplative way’.
The bishop’s statement draws our attention to numerous social justice inequities towards those of us that are ageing but also highlights the opportunities and offers us the words of Pope Francis that old age is a vocation. Contemplative Aging builds on this premise that with old age there is less interest in superficial social interaction, and a growing appreciation of solitude as distinct from loneliness. This is all familiar territory for the Christian contemplative!
The Carmelite way which emphasizes a life immersed in the mystery of God acknowledging that contemplation is the experience of God in all the dimensions and stages of life is precisely the teaching of Edmund Sherman’s way of being in later life. Sherman does not specifically mention God as his material is directed to a broad audience but his proposals for achieving contemplative living, particularly his recommended practices, can lead to ‘gerotranscendence’, i.e. harmony and peace even as the body grows tired and frail.
When I was a young man we had in our parish a group of frail, elderly people who were given the ministry of praying for the parish needs. It was a systematized activity which recognized those involved as interceding contemplatives praying in solitude for the long list of parish requirements.
These ageing contemplatives were valued ministerial partners but in addition their role provided them with opportunities for greater indwelling and therefore gave a meaning and experience to their own being in later life.
Dignity and well-being for the elderly, often among the most vulnerable in our society is a core plea in the bishop’s statement. It rightly acknowledges that older people can experience levels of isolation and loneliness that have disastrous effects on their health and well-being. Recommendations are made to address social isolation including the provision of adequate resources.
A Carmelite initiative might very well include 'contemplative ageing' as a way of helping people in later life adjust from ‘doing’ to ‘being’. As Carmelites and those that cherish the Carmelite spirit are already called to a life of all-embracing contemplation it is a natural extension to promote this way of life to people who need to emphasize being rather than having in later life.
Simple mindfulness and meditative practices fused with traditional prayer can lift the spirits of the elderly in three important ways. We feel more connected with the universe and therefore with our Creator; we find greater satisfaction from our inner life and finally we have less fear of death. The bishop’s statement is a must read social justice agenda reinforced by the gospel. 'Contemplative ageing' is a particular Carmelite response, not in opposition to action but alongside it as a package designed to help those of us ageing to live full and rewarding lives.
Peter Thomas is a lay member of the JPIC Commission of the Carmelites in Australia and East Timor.