Soulful Aging: Ministry through the Stages of Adulthood

03.04.08 | Denver Journal, Richard S. Hess, Pastoral Theology | by Henry C. Simmons | by Jane Wilson

    Dr. Rick Hess' review of, "Soulful Aging: Ministry through the Stages of Adulthood," by Henry C. Simmons and Jane Wilson.

    Henry C. Simmons and Jane Wilson, Soulful Aging: Ministry through the Stages of Adulthood.  Macon: Smyth and Helwys, 2001.  iii+172 pp.  Paperback.  1-57312-346-3. 

    The purpose of this book is to describe the aging process of seniors and to suggest aspects of ministry and means of spiritual growth for and by these members of the church.  Henry and McBean develop Fisher's model to describe six stages, from a continuation of middle age to dying.  As the book examines each of these it does so in the traditional Christian ministry contexts of community, prayer, teaching, proclamation, service, and witness.

    "Extended middle age" is a good term for this period of time marked by a continuation of many physical abilities but a change in circumstances (e.g., retirement).  The note that even "middle age" was a concept that became identified only in the 1960's does not mention that it is only in the second half of the 20th century in the West that the average lifetime age became significantly extended from the early 40's to the late 70's.  This has necessitated such studies as the one offered here.  Prayer is introduced as a highly subjective activity, for the most part not distinguishable from meditation.  Now the importance of self-reflection cannot be over emphasized, especially at this stage of life.  On the other hand, much description of prayer here is unknown in the Bible, where words directed toward a specific God form a common theme.  The "teaching" section of this chapter rightly emphasizes the importance of the family context of old age in the Bible.  More could be said about the extended family as a natural support in which old age can flourish.  The authors' insistence on wisdom as given whenever and wherever God wants could be balanced by the Bible's stress of the fear of the Lord as the beginning of wisdom. 

    Oddly, this chapter's aspectual look at community emphasizes self-awareness (rather than e.g., community awareness).  This is well described in terms of creativity, but it is less clear how a shaman's conversations with spirits in rocks and trees are meant as a model.  The proclamation section stresses our vulnerability and the manner in which this stage of life calls us to accept it and to evaluate its meaning.  The chapter concludes the rationale and outline of a retirement service.  I would want to emphasize a strong sense of God's good creation, of what has gone before, of what is anticipated to come, and of the Christian community as a source of ministry. 

    Chapter 2, "Ready or Not," examines that time of life when one faces the first real, often sudden, changes that age forces one to accept in terms of diminished capacities.  In the first section the writers make an admirable attempt to explore the meaning of eternal life.  A brief examination of Romans yields in this book, although one could benefit more by Paul's writings.  In particular, I miss Augustine's view of eternal life as a relationship with God that draws forth all we were meant to be and thus fulfills our deepest yearnings.  O'Driscoll comments that our recovery of a spirituality includes personal liturgical and relational elements as well as social justice concerns.  It is important to see old age as a journey toward transcendence rather than as life out of order.  The book then turns to consider times of spiritual darkness as opportunities to grow through this challenge.  In summarizing an older study of Paul Maves the authors stress the basic worth of people as children of God and go on to suggest ways in which the church can assist the aging and involve community services. 

    Chapter 3 considers "The New Me" where one comes to terms with the differences of aging and works with them in achieving a status quo that may go on for  years.  The work of Thomas Berry is used to stress the important contribution elders make in the stories they tell; and how these stories reflect change in the society and world. The emphasis of Henry Simmons on dreaming and on the search for meaning and freedom is closely connected with the support and respect due to those in the final stages of life.  Another approach emphasizes how we need to live an interior life with a focus on the present and to recognize that life is a mystery.  To place one's death within the "natural cycle of all living creatures" is true at an observable level; but one should not overlook the Christian understanding that death is the necessary result of sin but it is not the final step.  Christ's resurrection provides the "firstfruits" of this promise to all Christians.

    The fourth phase, "Like It or Not," is characterized by the inability to function physically or mentally and the consequent dependency.  The formation of small men's clubs, composed of Alzheimer's patients and of volunteers, allows for trips and activities of interest to the patients and for the self-fulfillment of service projects.  The discussion on "Winter Grace" culminates with a wonderful symbolism of the Eucharist in which brokenness and death become a means of ministry to others.  This was followed by some wonderful poetry of being with one who had died.  Henry Simmons co-opts St. John of the Cross' concerns with the disciple's felt absence of God in the theme of the dark night of the soul.  He compares this to the dimming of consciousness in the process of dying.  While it is an interesting parallel, St. John of the Cross' comparison works best in the matter of the pursuit of God.  Dr. Elbert Cole's interview concerning his wife Virginia's disease and death begins with one of the most useful insights in the book:  the holding of a family conference at the beginning of the illness.  Where this is possible, it is always the preferred procedure, one that also involves the ill person.  The final section of this chapter attempts to apply process theology to suffering and death.  Characteristic of this approach is the de-historicization of faith.  Thus God suffers as we suffer.  But how much more meaningful is the classic formulation that God in Christ suffers on the Cross and thereby renders intimate and meaningful a human/divine relationship and ultimately holds out meaning and redemption to the suffering of all believers in the reality of the physical resurrection.

    The chapter on "The Rest of Living" considers that last dependent period when our strength fails and we no longer take care of our own human needs.  There are good reflections on anointing as a means of showing value, though the healing of mind and emotions is not stressed (as in James 5).  The next section stresses this part of life's journey as being rather than feverish doing.  The middle sections of this chapter are very important with their stress on allowing the divine life of the Savior to grow within oneself and on the felt importance of meditative prayer.  Death is apart of life and carries with it its own sense of life.  The ongoing Jewish concern of ministry, here through prayer and fasting, exemplifies powerful spiritual ministries and graces that remain and can flourish at this time of life. 

    The final section considers dying, the last stage of this journey.  The writers stress contemplative prayer, sometimes with an aid such as a palm cross, but most often accompanied by nothing except one's own self-reflection before God.  I appreciated the honesty of loneliness and even abandonment by God, which can be felt at this time.  Perhaps an appreciation of this time and its experiences as part of the fight of faith, as the last great struggle, may balance the emphasis on the passive.  It is good to end with a reflection on the light of God. 

    On the whole, the book makes a fine introduction into the area of senior pastoral care.  I recommend it.

    Richard S. Hess
    Earl S. Kalland Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages
    Denver Seminary
    February 2008

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