An aged man is but a paltry thing . . . Unless . . .

Sermon preached at Temple Balsall Heritage Weekend by The Rt Revd Richard Harries, Bishop of Oxford.
Sunday 12th September 2004

For some of us, including myself, the subject of ageing has ceased to be of purely theoretical interest. To use the jargon, it has become of existential concern. It is me who is slowing up, stiffening up, needing bits repaired here and put right there. And I find myself in a bit of a dilemma. I have a wonderful vision of ageing to share with you: but I'm not sure my body, that is, me, is ready to go along with it.

The vision is contained in the verse from which the title of my sermon is taken, a verse by W B Yeats.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress

"An aged man is a paltry thing, a tattered coat upon a stick". It's a vivid picture. An old man is no better than a scarecrow. A stick in the ground with some rags thrown over it. "Unless soul clap its hands and sing and louder sing for every tatter in its mortal dress". An aged man is nothing unless, says Yeats, we are able to rejoice as we get old and rejoice even more with every step of ageing.

It's an amazing vision and one which stands in sharp contrast to our familiar western model. The assumption in our culture is that life is a process of physical growth, followed by physical decline. The seven ages of man in Shakespeare ending in shrunken shank and slippered pantaloon. The alternative to this is a vision of life as a process of growth in the whole person, emotional and spiritual as well physical, followed by further growth of a personal and spiritual kind, as we decline physically. Further, as Yeats challenges us to consider, that personal and spiritual growth, being directly related to the decline in our physical powers, "Soul louder sing for every tatter in its mortal dress".

This is a vision shared by the Roman Catholic priest Teilhard de Chardin. He believed that first we have to utilise all the forces of growth in life but then, no less, we have to use the forces of what he called diminishment. Here is a prayer he wrote

Now that I have found the joy of utilising all forms of growth to make you, or to let you, grow in me, grant that I may willingly consent to this last phace of communion in the course of which I shall possess you by diminishing in you.

When the signs of age begin to mark my body (and still more when they touch my mind); and when the ill that is to finish me or carry me off strikes from without or is born within me; when the painful moment comes in which I suddenly awake to the fact that I'm ill or growing old . . . in all those dark moments, O God, grant that I may understand that it is you (provided only me faith is strong enough) who are painfully penetrating the fibres of my being in order to penetrate the very marrow of my substance and bear me away within yourself.

This, as I say, is a wonderful vision: but every fibre of our being reacts against it. If we get a headache we seek pain relief. If something is wrong with us we go to a doctor in order to be made better. If we fall sick we struggle to get well again. We want to be healthy and hate things that get us down, even common coughs and colds.

I remember talking a few years ago to an aged Methodist minister. He was honest enough to say that though as a Christian he had prepared for death now in his late 80s when he ought to feel ready for it, he desperately didn't want to go. He still relished life. It's a view very well captured in the famous verse by Dylan Thomas on the death of his father "Do not go gentle into that goodnight, rage rage against the dying of the light." Nor is this an unbiblical view. On the contrary, death in the bible is more often that not seen as an enemy.

So perhaps we should try to prolong life as long as possible? With modern medical techniques we might be able to extend life indefinitely. With stem cell therapy the different organs and cells in our body will be able to be renewed. Genetic modification of the embryo might reverse the present genetic programme for ageing and dying. There has been a conference in London this week on anti-ageing which predicts that there will be a lifespan of 130 years in the next half century or so, with the possibility extending life indefinitely. Should we therefore welcome and encourage this development? To some extent it is inevitable. People will go on having longer lives simply because of the improvement in all kinds of medical techniques. But do we want to actively and aggressively pursue the possibility of prolonging life indefinitely, perhaps becoming immortal on this earth?

Here I come back to the fact that nature has actually programmed us for ageing and death. That is a fundamental feature of our genetic make-up. I certainly don't think we should simply accept nature as it is, just because it is there. It is our human vocation to interact creatively with the natural order and manipulate nature for human well being. Scientific medicine is based on that premise. But that said, it is important to recognise the wisdom which is inherent in nature, the nature that through millions of years of evolution has brought us here to be the people that we are now. The fact that God has made us as part of a natural order in which there is a decline as well as growth, death as well as life is perhaps to be interpreted as part of divide providence, as part of God's good plan for us. Austin Farrer wrote

Man's destiny consists of two parts: first we live and then we die. In the eyes of God our dying is not simply negative, it is an immensely important and salutary thing; by living we become ourselves, by dying we become Gods if, that is, we know how to die; if we so die that everything we have become in our living is handed back to God who gave us life, for him to refashion and use according to his pleasure.

God desires that we should grow, live, expand, enrich our minds and our imaginations, become splendid creatures. He also desires that we should die, should be crucified on the cross of Christ Jesus, should surrender all we have and are to him; and he desires that we should die that death spiritually before we die it physically.

I began by saying I have a wonderful vision of ageing to share with you but that my whole being rebelled against it. For I want health, full and lasting health, not diminution, decline and eventually death. I want my capacities, physical and mental. I don't like the thought of them wearing out. I think that rebellion has a point, for God wants us to have all the health and strength that there is going.

That is very much the view of the Hebrew scriptures, the Christian Old Testament. We should resist any premature resignation to things as they are. Struggle against the forces of diminishment is part of what it means to be a human being. That said it is simply a fact of life that old age does slow us up. Some of the things we once did we can do no longer and this does provide an opportunity to develop in new ways.

Let me give a rather basic personal example. I loved tennis. I found it difficult to imagine a life without it. But hip trouble stopped that and I haven't played for a number of years now. Needing exercise I got my son to teach me to swim properly. I have always enjoyed swimming but found it a rather exhausting business. He taught me to swim with a proper style, so that I could swim decent distances with some pleasure.

So it is we can develop in new ways, not primarily perhaps in physical ways but in terms of our essential person. As our outer life slows down our inner life can become more important and enriched. As we cease to be able to do some things, we can learn to do others; develop different kinds of relationship with one another and with God, perhaps relationships of greater sensitivity or depth. In all the circumstances of our life, not least in the process of ageing, God is with us, helping us through his grace to develop in new ways, perhaps ways that we never thought of before.

This theme is wonderfully summed in 2 Corinthians 4, 16, where St Paul writes:

Therefore we do not loose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.

The Rt Revd Richard Harries


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