On Becoming an Elder

Do not seek the answers which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything! Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then, gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answers. Ranier Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet After a hot morning of trekking in the Sinai Desert I rested in the shelter of a cave. It was October 1995, a month before my 52nd birthday and just a few weeks before our departure from a well-established life in Arizona. We were leaving for a city in North Carolina that I had never visited, a job without pay and a community in which we knew only two people.

As I sat in the cave, I thought about my frustrations with Arizona and America. Then I shouted so loud that my voice echoed off the rock walls, “Why can’t I fix things, why hasn’t my work produced more equitable solutions to the poverty, racism and environmental destruction in my state and nation.”

To this day I cannot say if the response to my arrogant diatribe was truly a voice in the cave, or a dream. But this is what I heard, “You can’t fix it because you are not God. What you are is an elder, part of the Moses generation. The call of your generation is to guide the Joshua generation as it finds its way through the wilderness of today’s culture.

“Your work;” the voice continued, “is not to complete that journey, but to help your progeny find the vision, courage and skills they need to cross the border between this time and a new era. To succeed you must learn new ways of being, leading, and listening. In the end, you might get to the top of the mountain and glimpse the promised land. But you are not going there…that is not your call. It is their call and you must help them prepare for it.”

That experience raised dozens of questions in my mind, and in the typical fashion of an American male I wanted concrete answers. I wanted some structure, clear goals and objectives that could be measured. But on the flight home from Egypt I read the above quotation and I understood: don’t seek the answers, live into the questions. So, I wondered, what is next?

The answer emerged on that flight as I reread Evelyn Underhill’s 1922 book The Life of The Spirit, and The Life of Today: “What is next? The answer simply is: Begin… Do not wait for some grand opportunity, and whilst you are waiting stiffen in the wrong shape. The grand opportunity may not be for us, but for the generation whose path we now prepare.”

I shared all of this with a good friend, and she said it was a clear call to become an elder.  “Who/what are elders?” I wondered. I kept that question alive for a decade before the call to eldership took form in my mind and heart.  Richard Rohr wrote that “Real elders are masters of granting their attention and awareness to other people. They mirror others rather than asking others to mirror them. They listen and see at a deeper level, and they live a generative existence in service of the common good.”

Joan Chittister, in her book The Gift of Years, wrote that the first job of elders is to “come face to face with what it means to age…and to become an elder in society. Life is about becoming more than we are, about being all that we can be. That is the spiritual task of later life.”

A blessing of these years, Chittister wrote, “is the freedom to reach out to others, to do everything we can with everything in life that we have managed to develop over all these years, in both soul and mind for the sake of the rest of the human race…Our legacies are the quality of the lives we leave behind. What we have been will be stamped on the hearts of those who survive us for years to come.”

I understand that this is not a task one generation can accomplish. But what we elders can do is prepare our successor generations for the task of envisioning and building a more just and equitable nation. By sharing insights and ideas––while always being present to the younger generation’s vision––elders can be faithful mirrors that help them deal with the hard truths confronting their future. We can help them find paths around roadblocks, and we can encourage them to keep moving forward to the fulfillment of their dreams. This, I believe, is the spiritual task of our elder years.

















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