Spring
 2009

 

 

Two women's reflections on aging

Old Age:
Journey into Simplicity

by Helen M. Luke

Morning Light Press, 1988
 


 
The Gift of Years:
Growing Old Gracefully
by Joan Chittister
Bluebridge Books, 2008

Review by Barbara Kammerlohr

The two books reviewed in this issue are both about the journey we must all make into our our essential self — a journey in which we willingly leave behind the trappings of the ego that seemed so important in youth and our second age. Both authors write of that phase of life that not only increases in importance with age, but — if we are to find peace and grace — requires that we travel alone with only vague directions and a map that at times seems useless. Helen Luke and Joan Chittister lived quite different lives, one Jungian analyst, the other a Benedictine sister. Their conclusions about the importance of old age in human development, however, are remarkably similar.


A short book of 131 pages, Old Age: Journey into Simplicity, is a collection of five essays written by a woman, well into her eighties, who spent her life studying the insights of Carl Jung. Her thesis is that, near life’s end, a point comes when we must choose how to go into our last years, how to approach death. The choice, Luke tells us, is “whether we will let go of the trappings of the ego so that a new man who is the creation of Mercy will be born, or whether we will hold on to the old man."

These essays are not about one’s second journey. I myself, as I write this review, do not yet face that final choice that Luke is writing about; nor do most of my friends. We still possess the creative energy that serves the desires of ego. It is a time of good health and the freedom to choose from many different paths, to explore the fascinating creation of God — a time many describe as the best days of their lives. Gone is the 40-hour-work week and the demands of raising children. The sun gently kisses the colorful days of life’s autumn; the earth and our bodies treat us with kindness and in a gentle manner. We can still do anything we truly desire to do even, though we can no longer do everything we want. The journey Helen Luke writes about arrives in the end of the second journey, or perhaps it is a third journey. It is the time Reb Zalman calls the “late fall” or “winter” of life, a time when we are called upon to relinquish much that we have considered essential. Bodies no longer do our bidding, and we may find ourselves imprisoned in one that can no longer walk, talk, or do many of the essential functions needed for survival. We may be dependent on others for life itself. It is instructive, however, to be aware of positive choices and to make small ones as the days pass. Aging is a gradual process and seems to creep up on one.

 

During her lifetime, Helen Luke was a much- sought-after lecturer, author, and analyst who devoted herself to the insights of Carl Jung. Born in England in 1904, she studied at the Jung Institute in Zurich, then moved to the United States and established an analytical practice with Robert Johnson in Los Angeles. In 1962, she founded the Apple Farm Community in Three Rivers, Michigan, a center for people seeking to discover and appropriate the transforming power of symbols in their lives. In her later years, Helen Luke became to many the very model of the wise old woman. She died at Apple Farm in 1995.

Luke was the author of at least 35 books, ten of which are still available on Amazon.com. Those books include: The Way of Woman: Awakening the Perennial Feminine; Dark Wood to White Rose: Journey and Transformation in Dante’s Divine Comedy; Such Stuff as Dreams Are Made Of; and Woman, Earth and Spirit: The Feminine Symbol and Myth. A few years before her death, she was the subject of a documentary film, A Sense of the Sacred, hosted by Thomas More and including illuminating and inspiring interviews with Luke as well as with friends, colleagues, and admirers such as Dr. Robert Johnson, Peter Brook, and Sir Laurens van der Post.
 

The farm house at Apple Farm Community

Those readers who might be turned off by the thought of reading essays should fear not: Reading this book is more like diving into a fascinating story than plowing through an essay. Luke is the ultimate storyteller, adept at marshalling metaphorical passages from great literature (The Odyssey, King Lear, and The Tempest) to make her points. She retells these stories focusing on the symbols important to a Jungian view of the aging process. Readers with a love of stories similar to my own will find themselves having finished an essay thinking we were reading a story. Amazingly, we also find ourselves understanding how to apply the metaphor to our own situations. There has been no need to read in a disciplined way, concentrating on the arguments of an essay. It came naturally as the suspense of the story grew.

For instance, Luke takes us back to the time in The Odyssey when a seer foresaw Odysseus’s successful journey home. Few of us remember that he also predicted a second important journey for the hero. Some years after his return, he would take a journey into the inner kingdom — to a place where the residents had heard only rumors about the existence of the sea. There, after sacrificing animals such as the wild boar (a symbol of his masculine powers), he would plant his oar (another important symbol) and return home to journey out no more. Luke made quite a point of the necessity for both Odysseus and the sacrificial animals to come willingly to the ritual — a metaphor on aging that few can miss.

Not all readers of Itineraries will find themselves as fascinated by old age as this reviewer did. One must have come far enough on the second journey to recognize the road signs — those signs that counsel preparation for winter’s arrival and remind one that the end is nearing. A third journey, the one that leads inward and to eternity, approaches. This book is for those who are preparing to make the right choices and deal with, or at least prepare for, this last stage of life. Readers ready to undertake this important task will find guidance in the metaphors and symbols as they contemplate ways to deal with the next stage of life.


The 40 short essays in The Gift of Years: Growing Old Gracefully grow out of Sister Joan Chittister’s belief that the spiritual task of later life is embracing its blessings and overcoming its burdens. “There is a reason for old age,” she writes. Intention is built into every stage of life, and old age is no exception. It is the mental and spiritual attitudes that we bring to our challenges during this time of life that determine who we become as we advance from one age to the next.

“It is time for us to let go of both our fantasies of eternal youth and our fears of getting older, and to find the beauty of what it means to age well. It is time to understand that the last phase of life is not non-life; it is a new stage of life. These older years—reasonably active, mentally alert, experienced and curious, socially important and spiritually significant—are meant to be good years." (p.xi)

In reading the essays, one quickly forgets that the author has spent her life in a religious order. This is not a book about mysticism, the Church, or even prayer. Chittister understands the mental and spiritual attitudes needed for aging well, and they are about getting down to practical business. She understands the pain and joy each attitude brings and quickly shows the reader practical ways of facing the realities of aging in a way that leads to grace, wisdom, and joy instead of pain. Her topics include: regret, fear, joy, transformation, sadness, wisdom, limitations, and many others — total of 40. Each essay closes with a summary of the burden and the blessing of the attitude under discussion.

 

Sister Joan D. Chittister is a member of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, Pennsylvania, where she served as prioress of the community for 12 years. Sister Joan is the founder and current executive director of Benetvision, a resource and research center for contemporary spirituality that is also located in Erie. She is co-chair of the Global Peace Initiative of Women, a UN-sponsored organization of women faith leaders working for peace, especially in the Middle East. She writes a weekly web column for the National Catholic Reporter called "From Where I Stand." She has over 30 books to her credit. They include: The Cry of the Prophet, In My Own Words, Friendship of Women: The Hidden Tradition of Women, Twelve Steps to Inner Freedom, In Search of Belief, and 25 Windows Into the Soul: Praying with the Psalms.
 

 

The essay on Sadness will serve as a good example of how she deals with all topics. First, she explains sadness and its causes. Then, she offers the antidote.

Sadness comes because we

settle into a routine of friends and foods and places and plans and ideas. These things are our identity as well as our pleasure. They say who we are, who we have always been, where we belong and why.

...The cost of [this] familiarity is the angst of loss, the anxiety that comes with feeling more and more alone as the old commonplaces of life disappear… As one thing after another goes, there is our growing awareness that we are becoming a world unto ourselves, whom no one knows anymore.

The life that is gone is the life that shaped us. And what makes us sad is not so much that it isn’t here anymore—it’s the wondering whether what this life formed in us is still here or not. (pp.129-130)

The antidote to such sadness is realizing that life is still here. The old aspirations are still here. There is plenty of unfinished business for us to do. In fact, there is so much to do that we have no time, no right, to be sad. The implication is to get busy with the work you have to do and sadness will disappear.

The book is not meant to be read in one sitting; there is little entertainment here. It is deep, practical advice that takes time, attention, and contemplation to assimilate. Although I have read all the words, I am not finished with it. It may require years of re-reading and thought for integration to occur. I am optimistic, however, that the reward will be a wiser, happier, more graceful older me.