24Jul High time for Elder Wisdom. Sean O Conaill

High Time for ‘Elder Wisdom’

At a time when specialists in elder care in the UK are advocating the installation of CCTV in every room in every care home (to prevent elder abuse by poorly paid, poorly trained and poorly motivated care workers) all churches should be paying far more attention to the Judeo-Christian ‘wisdom’ tradition. This sees wisdom – deep holistic understanding – not as the accumulation of knowledge but as the insight that can come from prayer when undergoing the trials of life – and therefore as life’s triumph and proper culmination, the veritable gateway into ‘eternal life’.

Not even the ‘United Nations Principles for Older Persons’ use the word ‘wisdom’. The dominant theme of these UN principles is the care the elderly should get from the young. Nowhere is there evidence of an understanding that younger people may ever themselves be in need of elder care, encouragement and compassion, and that the fruit of life experience can and should be an ability to provide that.

And meanwhile of course there is a growing plague of depression (beginning now in the teens), a prevailing fear of death and a scorning of the possibility of any fruitful meaning to the phrase ‘eternal life’ – the very reason that the elderly are generally treated not only as ‘past it’ and in need of warehousing but maybe even in need of ‘assisted dying’.

How many ACP members have been seriously trained in an understanding of the universal spiritual journey, undergone by e.g. Augustine of Hippo, Ignatius Loyola, Francis of Assisi and Thomas Merton? For all of these, and many others, genuine spiritual insight was the fruit not of seminary theology but of life experience, and especially of deep life crisis. How many serving clergy were taught to understand the parable of the Prodigal in that light, and to understand the difference between wisdom and knowledge?

If our bishops had been trained to do that would they be seriously pushing that heavy, expensive and sometimes passé last-century compendium of ‘our vast magisterial knowledge’ – the Catechism – as a solution to the problem of ‘adult faith formation’ today? That latter project always sees lay people, even in their old age, as in need of ‘our greater clerical knowledge’ rather than as potential sources of insight and consolation in the life crisis that so many clergy are now themselves facing.

As to the ‘kingdom of God’ – that too has become conflated with ‘heaven in the next life’ and pushed out of all possibility of encounter before death – when clearly for Jesus, for the earliest Christians and for many of the saints it was a ‘this life’ experience, a ‘right now’ possibility.

Just a few weeks ago I heard a priest insisting in chapel that when Jesus said ‘I have come to give you life in abundance’, this too could only happen AFTER death, i.e. ‘in heaven’. That is not clerical wisdom but clerical depression – a sure-fire confirmation of the far greater wisdom of staying in bed at the weekend.

So again I urge all clergy to read Richard Rohr’s ‘Falling Upward’ and to see any deep current personal crisis as the ‘valley of the shadow of death’ where the Lord awaits, truly – in this life. (At 71 I speak from experience of three deeply traumatic life crises, the first beginning at the age of 51 and the latest and worst at age 68.) That stuff you learned in seminary about the kingdom of God – it’s NOT all about ‘the next life’, after death. It’s all about NOW!

And that’s another reason for the ACP to continue urging the ordination of ‘viri probati’. The seminary system was created for the Christendom era, when the church could still offer social advancement and security – too often an escape route from life crisis. Social advancement is a deadly detour around spiritual insight, wisdom – and that is what’s mostly wrong with the clerical church now: it mostly doesn’t understand that what underlies the insatiable desire for social advancement (and ‘consumerism’) is an abiding fear that we lack value as we are – the very ‘original fear’ that Jesus came to confront.

“If you aspire to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for an ordeal … as gold is tested in the fire so are the chosen in the furnace of humiliation.” (Ecclesiasticus / Sirach 2: 1,5)

Nota Bene: there’s nothing there about early-life seminaries, theology degrees or 700-page catechisms. That’s the Judeo-Christian ‘elder wisdom’ tradition. It direly needs to be recovered – right now and right here on this island.

7 Responses

  1. Mary Vallely

    Sean O Conaill has much to teach us himself about wisdom from his own life experience and considerable learning but I am sure that a lot of our older priests have also grown in the wisdom and understanding that comes from empathising with the suffering of their parishoners.

    I agree that we can spend too much time thinking of how to get to the next world of eternal life and it is to the detriment of our own well being and that of our neighbours. That, to me, is poor church teaching. What we are required to do surely is “to act justly, to love tenderly, and follow humbly the way of the Lord.” We should spend less time worrying about what happens after death ( is it not rather selfish to worry so?) and expend our time and energy in doing what Christ himself did and asked us to do. He requested that we follow him, after all.

    It is tragic to think what western civilisation could have learned from many of the peoples they conquered in how to treat its elderly members. However we do have at least one eminent and respected ‘elder,’ Mary Robinson, who quietly and persistently and with integrity speaks out against the abuse of both people and of creation.
    ‘ Today – Love in action ‘ should be our motto and let’s not worry about tomorrow. We have made such a mess of the world. It alarms me when I hear good Christian people seriously believing that this mess is God’s punishing us. How little we understand our Creator and how far most of us are from being wise. Long may Sean and other elders continue to challenge, to teach, to guide AND to listen. Let’s not forget the many young wise people too, especially children, if we could only stop to listen to them.

  2. Ben Francis

    The article suffers from an obvious resort to the use of straw men which results in a number of misrepresentations and exaggerations

    Nobody holds that “genuine spiritual insight was the fruit not of seminary theology.” Nobody proposes “‘our vast magisterial knowledge’ – the Catechism – as a solution to the problem of ‘adult faith formation’ today.” Any acquaintance with the Catechism will show that it goes far beyond “magisterial knowledge.” Nor does anyone he claim that there is a “need of ‘our greater clerical knowledge.’”

    The assertion that the ‘kingdom of God’ … too has become conflated with ‘heaven in the next life’ and pushed out of all possibility of encounter before death is also false. Take Paragraph 541 of the Catechism:

    “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying: ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent, and believe in the gospel.'” “To carry out the will of the Father Christ inaugurated the kingdom of heaven on earth.” Now the Father’s will is “to raise up men to share in his own divine life”. He does this by gathering men around his Son Jesus Christ. This gathering is the Church, “on earth the seed and beginning of that kingdom”.

    It seems to me that the article is an unsuccessful effort to supplant one catechism with another less impressive one – the article itself.

  3. Pádraig McCarthy

    Thanks, Seán. The Kingdom is among us, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear!
    We are close in age.
    You write, “Not even the ‘United Nations Principles for Older Persons’ use the word wisdom.” However, the 2002 INTERNATIONAL PLAN OF ACTION ON AGEING (the “Madrid Plan”) does refer four times to wisdom. In that, Article 10 of the Political Declaration says:
    “The potential of older persons is a powerful basis for future development. This enables society to rely increasingly on the skills, experience and wisdom of older persons, not only to take the lead in their own betterment but also to participate actively in that of society as a whole.”
    Embodying that in political and social structures and policies is another matter, especially if we are not adjudged economically productive.
    We need to be watchful lest, when we or any other person of any age is ill or experiencing disability, or if we are perceived to be unable to participate actively in society, we be categorised as an obstacle to the human rights of others; or perhaps as an unaffordable burden on the taxpayer (as if we had not already been taxpayers ourselves).

  4. Teresa Mee

    2.Ben Francis,why,without any dialogue are you and the Catholic Catechism trying to excommunicate me?

    ‘Now the Father’s will is “to raise up men to share in his own divine life”. He does this by gathering men around his Son Jesus Christ. This gathering is the Church, “on earth the seed and beginning of that kingdom” ‘

    Teresa Mee

  5. Ben Francis

    What does the word “excommunicate” mean?

  6. Nuala O'Driscoll

    I read the writings of Augustine of Hippo, Francis of Assisi, Ignatius of Loyola and everything I could lay my hands on by Thomas Merton. And then I read Mary T Malone. And I woke up.

    Mary T asks ‘Why is there not one reflection in the whole history of Christianity by a mother on the miraculous experience of conceiving, carrying bearing and nourishing a child? Why instead was this miraculous life-giving event regarded for much of our history as sinfully tainted?’

    Women’s spirituality, wisdom, exists in the Church as a powerful undercurrent, a pulse, a heartbeat, closely connected to the rhythm of nature. It is so powerful that the Church fears it and so has kept in check. The Church keeps women’s wisdom, spirituality, women’s life experience in check by excluding, excommunicating and banning them from having any kind of authority or from any kind of decision making within the Church. Pope Benedict could write a whole encyclical on Love without ever mentioning any woman except Mother Teresa.

    An impoverished Church indeed.

  7. Kathleen Faley

    Nuala @6, I have read Mary T. Malone’s trilogy of Women and Christianity so I’m familiar with her writing and I find the quotation you gave above very relevant because it is so personal to women in the deepest core of their hearts, souls and their bodies. What man, whether Pope, Priest or Lay man/Husband can ever know the actual experience of the first movement of a baby in the womb? It is without compare to any other experience because it is the creation of a new life stirring within the womb. I had the privelege of having that experience through four pregnancies and enjoyed the feeling of intimacy with the young life developing within me and the subsequent births when I could meet each one of them face to face. Those once young lives are now grown adults. Women are coming to realise that their life experience is just as important as men’s life experience and also on an equal basis – not as has been up to now – women’s life experience of no importance whatever. They both are complementary and necessary.

    The time is coming when “the last shall be first and the first shall be last” (Matthew20:16).

    Women who have been treated last by the Church for centuries will see the day come when their spirituality and wisdom will be given recognition. In Holy Scripture Wisdom is given female terminology so that proves the need for the strong presence of the female as well as male presence in the Church both working together for the Good of the Church.
    Kathleen Faley