The Gift of Years: Growing Older Gracefully by Joan Chittister
Published by BlueBridge, (an imprint of United Tribes Media) NY: 2008
It makes sense that if Mick Jaggar and other aging rockers are still prancing about the stage, then many radical thinkers of the 1960's are clinging tightly to the ideologies that once defined them. This includes their contemporaries in the Church, one of whom is evidently just as absorbed in those inventive ideas that she believes ought to carry their devoted followers to the promised land.
Sister Joan Chittister offers her own sense of pique wrapped in a folksy spiritual tone that has echoes of “Imagine” in every one of its short chapters. The younger generation, she insists, should respect their elders because, well, they're older. Scanning various cultures worldwide that have the sense to consult their local shamans for wisdom and guidance, she notes that these elders have arrived at a “flowering of the spirit,” and shall “determine what truth will be for all of us.” Now, of course if someone had told the young and rebellious Sister Joan this, she would have laughed outright, but now she is old and says the elders must “improve the world through the wisdom based on experience.” It sounds remarkably similar to all the personality-driven exegesis which has plagued the Church for years.
She reminds her peers of their obligation to age well, to disprove the stereotypes about aging, and “make creation a spirit of our spirit.” [Deepak Chopra, call your office.] Remember, the elders have “the sensitivities of the ages,” and “know where every idea has come from. And why.” They will always recognize genocide and holocausts, because they have lived through them. Indeed, they are the very “taproot” of society that we ignore at our peril.
Now, the reader may find this charming considering the details of the author's life. She encourages her fellow elders to color a little outside the lines, after a life of stifling rigidity. “We’ve learned so well how to live the rules of life, we are not so sure how to live its freedoms.” This is odd coming from a woman who has flaunted authority at every level for over fifty years, including the wise shaman-popes, who by her present thesis deserved her respect. She didn’t find their age or the centuries of tradition they defended to hold meaning in her hierarchy of values, but did exactly what she accuses the present generation of younger people of doing—ignoring those very “taproots” of Christian truth. Never mind all that. Now that the author is an elder, everything has a different reference.
What is aging well, according to Sister Joan? Examples are sprinkled throughout almost every chapter, as she reminds the elderly of their responsibility to be “funny, silly and irresponsible,” to stroll and “explore small boutiques, meet new people.” Old age, she confides, brings with it a “giddy sense of possibility,” and after having “suppressed” our thoughts for so long [she wrote that, evidently, with all seriousness] we are now obliged to do one “outrageous” thing a week, to live impetuously, “with an edge, with strength, and with abandon.” Now won't that be a novel thought to her contemporaries who came of age with Woodstock and war protests.
And yet, she knows that there may be readers who find their memories and past choices have become burdensome over the years. Sister Joan begs these melancholy souls to cast aside their regrets, for her truism justifies all: “Only when rules are broken are lessons learned.” Such darkness is a “pathology” to be cast firmly aside: “Regret is, in fact, the sand trap of the soul. It entices us to lust for what never was in the past rather than to bring new energy to our changing present.” Well, maybe. But perhaps these regrets are less about what was missing and more about what was once all too present: sexual permissiveness, neglect of vows, aborted babies, abandonment of legitimate responsibilities, filial impiety or the confusion between authentic love and sham thrills.
Sister is adamant that her readers “refuse to make our memories a burden.” And goodness, with the passage of the years, “there is no one to forgive us any more.”
Here we discover the gaping hole in this consecrated woman's book. There is no God. Surely, the sins of youth were offenses against God as much as they offended one’s neighbors—and He might appreciate some contrition. But page after page reveals her syncretist approach to truth: The Psalmist, the Zen master and Qur’an all lead us to the same truth, which is that religion isn’t a body of knowledge, but “a process of becoming.”
The most revealing thought came mid-way through the increasingly tiresome text. “Now we are beyond the narcissism of youth ... Now we can let our spirits fly. We can do what our souls demand fully human beings do. This is the moment for which we were born.”
The reader needs to veil his eyes from the train wreck of folly. For it becomes obvious that the author has never shed the narcissism of her youth, but only plastered it over with years of indulgence and repackaged it as wisdom of the ages. It’s still all about the defiant soul who is the yardstick of her own impoverished world.
With softer voice and a lighter step, she repeats the mantra: “Nothing eats away at us now. Nothing drives us beyond our grasp now. Nothing is left to us now but ourselves. And, we come to realize, it is enough.”
No regrets, no humility, no real wisdom. She nails down her philosophy by remarking, “The only person who can save me from myself is myself.” A frightening horizon, but consistent from beginning to end. The idol of youthful idealism has simply been swapped for the idol of age, and both heap scorn on the third commandment. Sadly, “the gift of years” has made little impact on this life.