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I have been an old soul well before my time. But as I entered the third third of life, I realized the unlikelihood of living a “fourth third”. I came face to face with a question Henri Nouwen posed as he aged: “Did becoming older bring me closer to Jesus?” (In the Name of Jesus).

I’m in the right time zone to explore new questions

John Piper asks, “What will it mean to live those final years for the glory of God? How will we live them in such a way as to show that Christ is our highest Treasure?” (Rethinking Retirement: Finishing Life for the Glory of Christ). Piper’s questions aren’t unique to aging, but there is now an urgency to answer them correctly or else one is subject to what Craig Gay writes,

Only the affluent, after all, can ‘afford’ to locate all of their aspirations in ‘this world.’

Mortgaged to the World?

Kierkegaard reinforces this: 

What is called the secular mentality consists simply of such men who, so to speak, mortgage themselves to the world. They use their capacities, amass money, carry on secular enterprises, calculate shrewdly, etc., perhaps make a name in history, but themselves they are not; spiritually speaking, they have no self, no self for whose sake they could venture everything, no self before God – however self- seeking they are otherwise.

Being mortgaged to the world is seen in the massive migration of retiring baby boomers to golf resorts and vacation properties fulfilling some distorted sense of entitlement. It discloses how seamless the transition can be from a vibrant purpose to frightening boredom, getting on with the daily crossword puzzles and measuring time with coffee spoons. Many experienced this ahead of time during the pandemic: a ghastly vision of what life can be after one’s occupational life.

The Third Age cannot be Postponed

So it is important to understand, as Paul Tournier did, the major turning point into the “third age”:

The further on we go, the more we see time as a diminishing capital. Moreover, it’s running out goes on at an ever-quickening pace… The older one becomes, the shorter the years ahead seem to be, even though there remain yet twenty years, such a long, long time in the eyes of a child. And this takes place just at the time when our strength is diminishing, the time when we must gradually give up doing many things which, a little while before, we did with such ease.” (The Seasons of Life).

Since decline and diminishing capital are tandem truths of aging, Tournier would want us to “learn to grow old,” and to “locate the second turning point [not] at the moment of retirement, in the evening of life, but in its high noon – the moment of greatest deployment, when a [person] is devoted entirely to his work, with all his ability and all his will” (Learning to Grow Old).  

Enter the School of Detachment

The reality is: I find myself – not at the second half of life – but at the second major turning point of life. Tournier identifies this stage as a turning point of detachment. Old age is often spoken of as a school of detachment which ought to prepare us for death. For all that, we must distinguish between detachment from things – and – detachment from persons. However detached we may be from things, death remains a harsh wrench because it brutally ruptures the bonds that attach us to people, bonds which become even stronger with old age.

Death is indeed the moment of truth which upsets all our vain categories. This is the hour when a man looks at his life and seeks to decipher the enigma of its worth. This is the hour when he can do so in serenity, far more than in the midst of adulthood’s warfare [where] every account of one’s life is deformed, unbalanced by conscious or unconscious value-judgments” (Seasons of Life).

The Role of a Spiritual Elder in Disenchanted Times

As an elder himself – a sage in his late 90’s, James Houston has said “the role of elders today is to enlarge spiritual vision, being devoted to prayer, living in the face of death, as a living curriculum of the Christian life” (Living Elders in a Dying Church). A spiritual elder is a mentor who helps articulate the unique living curriculum of the Christian life in such a way as to draw others into a prayer and worship life with God. One writer suggested that we “use the diminishments of old age as part of the spiritual curriculum” to evoke full humanhood by being schooled in the art of humility and self acceptance, and surrendering to our human limitations” (From Age-ing to Sage-ing).

Curriculum of the Spiritual Life is Prayerful

Dietrich Bonhoeffer suggests the curriculum of the Christian life is prayerful: 

…we need to seek out [people] who are able to help us, who know something about prayer. If one among us who is able to pray would only take the other along in his prayer, if we could pray along with him, then we could be helped!…

If he takes us with him in his prayer, if he lets us accompany him on his way to God and teaches us to pray, then we are free from the agony of prayerlessness. But that is precisely what Jesus Christ wants to do. He wants to pray with us and to have us pray with Him… (Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible).

Spiritual eldership is not just being devoted to praying, but to modelling and mentoring prayer with others, accompanying others as we learn to pray. If we learn to pray by praying, it is even more true that we learn to pray by praying together.

The long Arc of a Short Life

It is precisely by this aging, declining, and diminishing that the spiritual elder can mentor others to understand who we are in Christ. In Christian faith we are invited into the inherently relational nature of being human – for this emerges from the nature and relational shape of the God in whose image we were created; a Trinitarian God who is Himself constituted by relationships.

The curriculum of deciphering the enigma of our worth is found in the long arc of a short life: we are never more our true selves than when we are most in Christ Jesus.  And it will take all our lives to discover this.

Excerpts were taken from a paper I wrote in 2013 for a course I took at Regent College with Dr. James Houston: Living Elders in a Dying Church. This was seminal in defining my “seconding turning point.”