In his book, Domestic Monastery, Ronald Rolheiser recounts this story:
As a young man, Nikos Kazantzakis, author of Zorba the Greek, once sought spiritual guidance from an old monk named Father Makarios. In his autobiography, he describes a conversation he had with the old monk:
“Do you still wrestle with the devil, Father Makarios?” I asked him. “Not any longer, my child. I have grown old now, and he has grown old with me. He doesn’t have the strength. … I wrestle with God.” “With God!” I exclaimed in astonishment. “And you hope to win?” “I hope to lose, my child. My bones remain with me still, and they continue to resist.”
That took my breath away.
Reading this a few weeks ago reminded me of a remarkable (and convicting) conversation I had with an older retired priest I met when I was volunteering at a nursing home in Hartford, Connecticut back in the late 1980’s. He was at the time retired from parish administration, but not from active ministry. He had chosen to dedicate his energies to ministering in various nursing homes, which he called “wastelands of despair.”
He shared with me that his twofold goal was (1) to search out the families of nursing home residents and convince them of the greatness and gravity of the Fourth Commandment and (2) to help these senior men and women find Christ’s power alive in their present weakness and loneliness, as well as in their past regrets. He said (according to my journal),
A society obsessed with youth, personal freedom and productivity casts the elderly aside at its own peril. Not only is a treasury of wisdom lost, and a debt of gratitude left unpaid, but elderly who are abandoned despair at a time of life when hope should shine brightest. Old age is when spiritual maturing should lead to breakthroughs, like forgiving, trusting God or letting go of past fears, hurts and regrets.
But without a family or friends to join that struggle at the end, those breakthroughs can’t happen, and what should have become an opportunity for reconciling, or a softening one’s hard edges, or an opportunity a final surrender to God becomes despair. And that’s not only for the elderly, but for the young whom God has called to join the old in what they used to call the “final agony” at the end of life. Sanctifying for all.
I think that one of the many reasons egoism is exploding in our culture is because it’s more and more unfettered by those who once held the ego at bay … As we insulate the old from the young, the elderly no longer hold a claim on young egos, just as the tens of millions of babies being aborted in the womb no longer hold that same claim on their parents.
…I tell all youth ministers again and again: reconnect your youth with their elders! It will save them all…