Friday, January 7, 2011
Age-Related Spiritual Abundance
In the Jewish tradition, life-cycle rituals such as becoming Bar or Bat Mitzvah serve as turnstiles, ushering us from youth to adulthood. It may also happen that ritual thrust us forward into the next stage of life, whether we are fully prepared or not.
There is, however, no specific time that ritual identifies to mark the passage from adult middle age into our elder years. Nor do we wake up one morning and say with certainty, “Today is the day I shall become old.” Instead, we recognize in gradual stages the process by which we come into our own as fully mature human beings.
For many of us, this time of life may be accompanied with physical or cognitive changes and challenges. Setbacks to the body can come at any time or age through accident or illness, whereas the full flowering of our awareness — our awakening to wisdom — is earned through years and years of experience and is never attained before its time.
The challenges of aging are not to be underestimated. The smoothly-running, well-trusted body that has been our companion faces an inevitable decline. It is not surprising that age-related depression is frequent among the elderly — we are not wrong to mourn our losses.
But what is truly the primary function of that beloved body? According to Jewish tradition, it is the vessel in which the soul dwells. The soul, or essence, of a human being is eternal. It lives on after the body's demise, not only in the memories and deeds of those it has left behind on the earthly plane, but in the great infinity that is its Creator.
Judaism teaches that ever since G-d breathed life into Adam, the original human being, it has taken three entities to create every person — the father, the mother, and G-d himself.
The divine spark that is the innermost essence of the human being's soul at birth cannot be extinguished by the years we record in this life. I suggest, rather, that our souls advance through the decades of life in a direction counter to the “age-related” decline of the human body.
Indeed, the eternal soul present at our births grows brighter as the years pass, gathering spiritual experience with every breath allotted to us in the course of our days.
If the soul ultimately returns to G-d, does it not make wonderful sense that its divine spark would be enlightened through worldly experience when it comes to dwell in its eternal home?
I sometimes picture our years of earthly life as a time in which the soul grows in brilliance until the physical self can no longer contain its radiance and it returns at last to the sheltering arms of the Divine Parent.
From this perspective, if we approach eldering as a time not of age-related physical decline but of age-related spiritual abundance we can find comfort, strength, and hope to assuage the assault of worldly years on the body.
With a creative outlook on the soul's advance through life, we shift our point of view from a focus on the body's decline to one of embracing the realization that we are all fueled by the ever-evolving power of the soul.
When we do so, we can all claim our elder years as a rich harvest and a comfort, partake of the bounty of the maturing spirit, and delight in the fruits that ripen for us even as our physical existence is challenged.
For, in the end, we all become pure spirit, sheltered under the wings of a wise and compassionate Creator, at rest in our true and everlasting home. And we, along with those whose lives we have touched, will be wiser for the journey.