Penny Thornton is both inspired and challenged by a new book on ageing.
[New City Magazine – 2015]
It would be easy to think that this book by Carol Ann Smith and Eugene F Merz is aimed at people who have already reached their advanced years. Yet we are all ageing (or ‘aging’ as the American authors write) and as I passed some of life’s significant milestones I realised I was drawn by the book’s offer of ‘a faith perspective for reflecting on the experience of ageing, drawing especially upon the wisdom of St Ignatius of Loyola’.
I should have known, of course, that not even Ignatian wisdom is imparted lightly, and I found this was not a book I could zip through in order to emerge, transformed, in a matter of hours. It demands time, thought and reflection. It asks awkward questions and, worse, leaves space in which to answer them. My early resolve to work methodically through from start to finish, answering each point as it arose, failed as the issues become more challenging. I resorted to skimming and felt I was cheating. Eventually, I realised that if the aim of reading the book was to deepen my relationship with God I would have to take it slowly, and let the book, and my honest responses to it, dictate the pace.
‘Moments to Remember’ is constructed in four sections, each containing numerous suggestions for reflection as well as Bible quotes, poems and meditations. An overview of the interior changes we may encounter as we age is followed by an introduction to four key elements of the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola: memory, imagination, conversational prayer or ‘colloquy,’ and ‘discernment’ or attentiveness to the action of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Part III adopts the seasons as a parable for our journey through life, and invites us to use the tools described in the previous section to reflect on different aspects in the cycle of our own life. Finally, suggestions are made for sharing the insights gained as part of a wider conversation with others.
Memories of the past and dreams – or anxieties – for the future can be both positive and negative. This book invites us to look at them without fear or regret in order to reach a greater understanding of God’s work in our lives, and thus to live with ever-increasing gratitude and hope. It provides many resources for those who are interested in the reflective side of the spiritual life: not least, a beautiful collection of poems and meditations by well-known authors such as Manley Hopkins, de Chardin and Kierkergard, and more modern writers such as Irene Zimmerman and Patrick Purnell. It offers a variety of explorations into the process of ageing and, for those interested in the more deeply contemplative methods of St Ignatius, an accessible introduction to his ideas and a practical structure for trying them out.
There is much more than can be absorbed in one reading, and this book could be a companion through many different stages of life. I will certainly return to it, and perhaps next time I will be brave enough to answer some of those trickier questions.