As part of our ongoing series, The Soul of Aging, we’re talking with area faith leaders for their perspective on the spiritual challenges of aging. This month, Mary Jacobs spoke Benny Barrett, a Eucharistic minister and lay leader at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church in Dallas.
Are there any spiritual challenges that older people typically encounter?
First, there is the temptation for us to despair. The limitations of age can cause us to lose hope. I had one friend at church who would tell me, “I hate being old, I want the Lord to just go ahead and take me.” This sounds pious, but it is not. It is a form of despair.
Second, we must learn to be what I call “an elder of blessing.” Many older persons, even Christians, end up cursing people, saying things like “Young people today are terrible” or “Parents don’t do their job.” I try my best to especially encourage younger people. I can remind them that their present moment and situation isn’t everything, and that life goes on.
Our American secular society is youth-oriented. Does the Catholic faith offer another way of looking at aging?
Yes, we saw many young people turning to older people after 9/11 and asking about how they survived Pearl Harbor and WWII. Scripture applauds the grey hairs among us. We are to be wisdom people. Wisdom isn’t the same as knowing things; it means knowing things in perspective.
From your experience and the teachings of the Catholic faith, are there ways that people can or should prepare for the end of life?
Yes, we are to have a sober view of our mortality. We are to pray for a “good death” which doesn’t mean dying with ease or no pain but dying with courage and encouraging and loving those we leave behind. When I was facing a doubtful outcome, I prayed that God would give me the strength to witness to my sons what it means to be courageous. I think there is also the practical side. Is my estate in order? Have I cleaned house, literally simplifying what those who love me will have to deal with? Have I made plans to leave some of my remaining wealth to the Church and its mission? Have I communicated my last things (such as funeral plans ) to my loved ones and not burdened them with this?
What does it mean to “age gracefully”?
It means that as we grow older we are to be kinder, gentler, less demanding, less critical, less judgmental. It is to practice the cardinal virtues, especially faith, hope, and love.
Getting older often involves loss. As a Catholic and a Christian, how do you handle that spiritually?
The hardest for me has become losing friends. Almost all my mentors have passed away. Loss means letting go, and what is old age but learning that “the things of earth shall grow strangely dim, in the light of his beauty and grace”?
I also learned an insight from a very wise older psychiatrist. His theory is that in the last stages of life, God uses our body to finish off our souls. So I see all those physical challenges as mentors that teach me what I have yet to learn.