THE EAGLE, January 2012
How did you celebrate the dawn of a New Year? The turn of the year has always been an excuse for a terrific party or “knees-up,” especially if you happen to live in Scotland.
The invading Vikings of the 8th and 9th centuries, pagans to a man, came from even further north than Edinburgh. The Winter Solstice, or shortest day of the year, was celebrated with much abandon and Up Helly Aa in the Shetland Islands is still famous for its boozing and boat-burning.
After the Reformation in Scotland, for nearly 400 years the strict Puritan kirk virtually banned Christmas as a festival, viewing it as a Papist Feast. Instead, New Year became the occasion for families and friends to get together. Hence the partying.
In much of Europe, the unlikely fourth-century Pope St. Sylvester still presides over all-night dancing accompanied by fireworks and fortune-telling. In 1960s Germany, one of the weirdest New Year customs started: the ritual screening on TV of a 14-minute British sketch entitled “Dinner for One” – a cultish treat for the discerning, perhaps?
As one gets older, the urge to see in the dawn fades, and many raise a glass well before midnight, silently hoping that perhaps the dismal predictions on climate change, growing poverty, and continued conflict will go away. January 1st – just another year, just another yawn. Same old plod to the office, same old worries – and another year older, to boot!
Nature has kindly arranged for old age to advance relentlessly, yes, but at a gentle pace. One barely notices and has time to adjust. Many prefer to avoid looking their age. There is, of course, nothing intrinsically wrong with trying to put off the inevitable and attempting to look as young as one’s sons and daughters, because these days to be young is all the rage. As if at all costs (some indeed rather painful), the onset of age is something to be ashamed of.
There is nothing new about the cult of Youth. Since about 1960 (and well before, no doubt) Youth has rudely, noisily, and repeatedly been shoved “in your face.” Its cult adorns, allures, placards, and permeates every aspect of life; we aspire to it, imitate it, and envy it. Peter Pan Rules O.K. and fortunes are spent on the nip, tuck, diet, tint, pleat, and pluck. Do we think we can dodge Old Father Time and avoid the sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything Look?
Do we wish to be forever frozen on some Grecian urn like Hebe or Ganymede?
Can it be that we are frightened to die?
Some of the funniest, cleverest, sweetest people are in their eighties and nineties. Bowling about in wheelchairs, the Walking Stick Brigade has a lot to offer. There are heroes among them, too.
Did you hear that, after the disastrous earthquake and tsunami last year, the Japanese Skilled Veterans Corps volunteered to take the place of the young professionals involved in making Fukushima safe? One such hero said:
“We are over 70 years old. The cancer cannot affect us as it will affect you youngsters.
“Let us do your jobs for you – we will die anyway within 20 years.”
The outcome of this heroic offer is unknown to this author, but it is a superb example of not being afraid to embrace suffering, something we tend to shy away from and avoid until it is forced upon us. In Japan, “Respect for the Aged Day” began after the last world war and has been celebrated countrywide every year since 1966. It takes place on one of their delightfully named “Happy Mondays,” the third in September.
(In the U.K. an “Older Person’s Day” was introduced some five years ago but passes unnoticed – not surprisingly with such a clumsy politically-correct title! And our Happy Mondays are called “Bank Holidays” – as befits the nation of shopkeepers.)
The distinguished Blessed Pope John Paul II not only lived to a great age but suffered very publicly. His friend Pope Benedict often quotes him, and referred to his remarkable forbearance and cheerfulness during the last days of his life, clearly in union with the suffering of Our Savior. How extremely difficult that is to do, anyone who has been in great physical pain will tell you. Pain is so very self-centered and all absorbing: to make that act of will that unites it with Christ seems unattainable.
Pope Benedict hinted quite plainly at this when on a sunny Saturday in September 2010, he visited St. Peter’s Residence, a care home run by The Little Sisters of the Poor, for 56 older people in Lambeth, south London. He stayed an hour or so, a brief sojourn in a packed schedule. The event was televised live (as were nearly all the Pope’s engagements), which meant that those enjoying their sunset years at home could also join in this intimate occasion.
The Pope said that he came as a father – and as a brother. “I am,” said the Holy Father, “among my contemporaries.” In his brief address in the care home, the Holy Father referred to the advances in medicine leading to a growing population of elderly people. One recalls that, in days gone by, pneumonia was known as “the old man’s friend.” It was pretty sure to carry him off after the magic age of three score ten. These days, a hefty dose of antibiotics will have him on his feet again in no time – and show me the person who would refuse the dose (or the doctor who would deny it). For better or worse we have circumvented, if that’s the right word, much of what was natural.
The Pope pointed out that the old are a blessing and that it is a privilege and not an act of generosity to look after them. They have much to teach us. Little ones love to listen to stories of the olden days and it behooves us to share our memories and experiences.
It’s difficult to talk about spirituality easily and without sounding “pi” (pious) to any age group. However, we may remember how a well-respected friend, a godmother perhaps, or a priest, saying just the right thing to fire our interest or re-kindle a dormant faith. Older folk shouldn’t shy away from telling youngsters what their faith has meant to them, and how they came by it.
As the Pope said that day, the elderly have time and quiet at their disposal, and “an opportunity to remember in affectionate prayer all those whom we have cherished in this life and to place all that we have personally been and done before the mercy and tenderness of God.” He wished those present “the blessing of a serene passage to the next (life).”
Which reminds one of the Zulu farewell: Hamba kahle, or Uhambe kahle, meaning “Go well.” Go well into this New Year.