The Age of Mortality
Age is relative. When primary school students were asked, “What’s a good age for marriage?” one respondent thought fifty was the right age to tie the knot because people had eliminated all the “excitements” from their system by then. Another student evidently felt it took far longer to get rid of excitements: Her suggested age for matrimony? Eighty-four.
Likewise, the answer to “What age is old?” also depends on the age of the respondent. For example, a nationwide survey of baby boomers no longer thought fifty was “old.” Rather, the median age they suggested was seventy-nine. (Disclaimer: The respondents were turning fifty during the year of the survey!) In a similar poll by the Pew Research Center, more than half of the respondents under thirty thought people were old before age sixty, but the respondents sixty-five and older declared that people weren’t old until they turned seventy-five.
What age is old for me, having lived through sixty-one spins of the globe? Numerically, I’m undecided. However, if “you’re only as old as you feel,” then I risk the danger of feeling old age prematurely—not because of a significant decline in health, but primarily because I’m sort of surrounded by a “culture of death.”
Consider my signs and surroundings: These days, I read the obituaries with greater interest than when I was in my invincible youth—and I’m startled by the growing number of my contemporaries among the entries. Also, after the death of my parents a few years ago, I was confronted by my own mortality, realizing my generation is next in the queue. Moreover, I live in a community of thirty priests and brothers, the majority of whom are retired and in need of full-time nursing care. For most of these confreres in their eighties and nineties, it’s the penultimate assignment before they’re laid to rest in a cemetery on the same property. Our burials are so frequent, the local funeral home gives us its group rate.
Memento mori! More than ever, I’m constantly reminded that death is inevitable in all things—including many aspects of organized religion, the Catholic Church, and religious life. My mantra to cope in this culture of death? “The bad news is, nothing lasts forever. The good news is nothing lasts forever. The best news is Jesus with us forever, until the end of time” (see Matthew 28:20)!
Theodore Roosevelt wrote, “Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” Ministry is a worthwhile endeavor, even if it, too, is transitory. Kristine Malins, a medical missionary, describes this paradox of ministerial life: “Ours is the pain of constantly pitching our tent and folding it up again, of befriending strangers and bidding them goodbye, of pouring our heart and soul into a project others have begun and still others will finish….We need to make the most of occasions when we gather by the roadside to break bread together and compare directions.”
Meanwhile, reports of my premature aging are greatly exacerbated. My need for full-time nursing care may come in due time. Until then, I hope to get a few more excitements out of my system before appearing in the obituaries and securing a spot in the cemetery.