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.