By Katherine Long
When Father John Rose facilitates contemplative aging retreats at Christ the King Retreat House in Syracuse, he doesn’t lecture participants from the front of the room.
“We all sit in a circle, because that’s where the wisdom is,” he said.
Father Rose is the director of spiritual formation at the center and also pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Syracuse. He has facilitated several contemplative aging retreats at the center, and has seen the number of participants swell each time.
Participants have ranged in age from 59 to 92, making it “an extremely rich group in terms of life experience and wisdom.”
The retreats speak to a growing spiritual hunger in older adults. “As we live longer, healthier lives, the ‘age-old’ paradigms of aging no longer fit,” the retreat description reads. “Our experience and wisdom can lead us on an inner journey that awakens us to a vision of aging as a path to a spiritual and psychological maturity.”
What are the steps along that path, and what does it mean to age contemplatively? Father Rose offered some insights from his experiences.
“The spirituality of aging, contemplative aging, is being more conscious of how we age,” Father Rose explained. That can mean focusing on strengths, not limitations; embracing fruitfulness, not productivity; and exploring inner truths, not outer labels.
“I think society may in the past have looked upon it [aging] in terms of limitations of what we can’t do,” Father Rose said. “And certainly there’s some of that, depending on one’s health and mobility — but it’s a journey within rather than a journey outward.”
Perhaps a disability prevents someone from leaving the house, or maybe someone has had to give up his driver’s license. He can pray or read, Father Rose said. Or, perhaps “my eyesight declines. Could that be an invitation for me to look within, develop my spiritual eyesight and to see the inner meaning of things and their spiritual value?” he added.
Age also brings a certain freedom, Father Rose explained. “Sometimes when we’re younger, we feel like we always have to be doing to prove ourselves. But we don’t have to prove ourselves to anybody anymore,” he said. Especially in Western culture, we tend to take our identity from what we do, Father Rose noted. Age allows one to consider “who am I when I can’t do? Who am I really?”
“Our productive years are over — our sexual productive years, perhaps our work productive years,” he said, but productivity is no longer the goal — “it’s about being fruitful.”
Finally, as time marches on, “we’re pretty much stripped of our titles, or our roles, or responsibilities — whether we’re teacher or parent or spouse or whatever our vocation might be — who am I without those titles?” Father Rose mused. Contemplative aging is “getting in touch with our true self, which is the God self as opposed to the false self, which is all of those personas, roles and titles that we have,” he said.
“Our spiritual task is our spiritual development, shaping our soul, becoming less and less of our outer image and more and more of our inner selves,” Father Rose said.
Of course, digging deep is not without challenges.
Working through regrets or unhealed wounds “often involves suffering, but suffering always yields a gift, too. I think suffering gives the gift of compassion. It connects us with this inner part of ourselves. We discover ourselves anew,” Father Rose said.
For those ready to begin exploring this new phase of their lives, Father Rose has a few suggestions.
First, peruse the wealth of resources on bookshelves and online. Many spiritual writers are taking up the topic of aging, Father Rose noted.
Second, “learn from the experience of others,” he said. Just as is done at the retreat house, individuals can gather with a group of elders to share experiences and insights.
Third, consider joining the next contemplative aging retreat (one will be held May 25) or simply come to the retreat house for a visit. Spend some quiet time looking inside, letting go and just being, he advised. With age “there’s more time. Time for me, time for God, time for listening to God,” Father Rose said.
For more information about upcoming retreats and other spiritual resources available at Christ the King Retreat House and Conference Center, visit 500 Brookford Rd. in Syracuse or ctkretreat.com.