We live in a society that worships youth and tries to avoid aging at all costs. But author Frank J. Cunningham of South Haven greets aging as a blessing. He's the author of Vesper Time: The Spiritual Practice of Growing Older (Orbis Books, 2017).
“The root of this particular project is the awareness that this gift of time we call retirement is really a double-edged sword,” Cunningham says. “On one side we have this grant of leisure and we can make wonderful choices: personal enrichment, serving our community, or just doing fun things, like reading that pile of books we’ve always wanted to read or hanging out with the grandkids. But the other edge of this sword is that this isn’t a phase of life that we can look back on. It’s not a time that we grow out of.”
Instead, Cunningham says, aging is a phase of life that he divides into five parts: memory, intimacy, diminishment, gratitude, and acceptance. It's a spiritual journey that gives us an opportunity to consider the path we've traveled and how we want to conclude that journey as better and wiser beings.
Of memory, Cunningham says: “If we want to understand today, and we want to recast the future, we have to reopen the past. Sometimes that can be a scary experience but it goes back to a sense of resolution and addressing any unfinished business.”
Cunningham says revisiting our memories should prompt forgiveness, not forgetting. Forgiveness is important to our own sense of peace and healing old wounds.
On the topic of intimacy, Cunningham talks about vulnerability and building close relationships, not only with our partners but also with our family and friends, with nature, and with God.
“Intimacy is another way of experiencing God’s love,” he says.
The diminishment that comes with aging involves changing bodies and memories. But Cunningham says it's also about leaving careers behind as well as other roles we've played in our lives. That can be challenging for many people. Cunningham says it's a blessing, though, because with that diminishment we can focus better on higher priorities. And it can be a powerful source of spiritual growth.
For Cunningham, "Gratitude is the mother of all virtues. If we’re not grateful, we’re not happy.”
Finally, if we are lucky, comes acceptance. Cunningham concludes his five aspects of aging with an encompassing acceptance, not only of the lives we have lived but of the next phase to come: a quality end of life. By that he means achieving our better "selves" in life and embracing what is to come in peace.
“You reach a point where you start to shed the accumulations of a lifetime. Experiences are important but things aren’t,” he says. “This part of life is more about looking inward.”
Frank J. Cunningham is a former newspaper and magazine writer and editor; university writing instructor; and the book editor and publisher of Ave Maria Press, at Notre Dame University in Indiana.
Listen to WMUK's Between the Lines every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., 11:55 a.m., and 4:20 p.m.