Turning 70—what a thought! And yet here I am on that very threshold. In fact, though, a friend pointed out to me that having celebrated my 69th birthday, I had already begun my 70th year. Rita’s explanation came as something of a double whammy, like having to deal with reaching 70 twice. She was one of four friends with whom I spoke—three lay people and one Jesuit. All have gone well beyond their 70th year, and were willing to share their thoughts on the subject of that and later milestones of aging.
Rita had been the secretary in my former parish in Washington, D.C. She herself has now entered her 80’s. But how had she felt when she became 70? “My health was still good,” she said, “so it was really a matter of thinking about what to do for the rest of my life—not in terms of another career, naturally, but in the sense of what would be useful and in accord with God’s will.” Rita had retired from government service years before, and in her “retirement” served full time at St. Aloysius as an unpaid worker. Besides the wish to serve, turning 70 also brought with it a desire to weed out thoughts and deeds that were not in accord with Christ’s teaching. “Eleven years later, I’m still working on that part!” she said with a laugh when we spoke. As for the 80’s, on which she has now embarked, these represent what she referred to as the last stage, “so it’s not a matter of looking ahead, but rather of living from day to day.”
Another friend and parishioner from my St. Aloysius days is an African American woman named Mary. She has been at St. Aloysius for 42 years and holds pillar-of-the-church status in terms of service—not only as a eucharistic minister, but also as a member of the socials and benefits committee. At 76, she centers her life around her faith—as is true of Rita and the others with whom I spoke. “When you’re young,” she observed, “you take things for granted, but now I lean on the Lord more and more, and believe he is with me all the time. I ask him to show me the way.” Her life has been anything but easy. As a mother and now a grand- and great-grandmother, Mary has lived through the loss of several children under harsh inner-city conditions. “I asked God for the strength to go on, and to be able to accept those losses,” she said. Materially, too, she has known struggles. “There have been times when I didn’t know where our meals would come from.” Prayer fills her days. “The first thing I do every morning is to be thankful for life itself.” Gratitude thus stands out as an integral part of her daily prayer.
The third person who shared his thoughts was a Jesuit, Tom. At 84, his activity so impressed one group of sisters with whom he has worked that they bestowed on him the title of “over-achieving octogenarian.” When asked how he had felt on reaching 70 all those years ago, he could say only, “I wasn’t thinking in terms of being old, but just continuing the ministry I was in—writing, retreat work and spiritual direction.” The writing has slackened off, but he continues with the latter two activities, along with others that bear testimony to an unusually strong constitution. This past spring, for instance, he accompanied a pilgrimage group visiting holy sites in France.
Tom pointed out, though, that being 70 or 80 inevitably carries different consequences for different people. “Some still play tennis, while others may be dealing with Alzheimer’s.” What is important, he observed, is “to be content with the life God has given you, and grateful for it—but at the same time, to be willing to stay within the radar screen.” By the latter he meant that “if from 70 on you see that you’re ready to be called home, be prepared to tighten your seat belt when the pilot announces that the descent has begun.”
Tom also spoke of finding other benefits as he moved into his 80’s—awareness of shortcomings, for example. These, he said, had made themselves better known to him over the past years as he was brought into closer touch with some of the darker aspects within himself, like envy and a tendency to disparage others. Growing awareness of these has led in turn to what he described as coming to compunction. “Sadness over the past can be a source of desolation, but it can also bring home the goodness and mercy of God, and one’s own need for God’s forgiveness, which can in turn become a source of consolation.”
How should one prepare for the end of life on earth? Tom once gave me a card with a prayer-reflection by Pedro Arrupe, S.J., the former superior general of the Jesuits. It was written after a stroke left him largely disabled: “More than ever I find myself in the hands of God. This is what I have wanted all my life from my youth. But now,” the prayer continues, “there is a difference; the initiative is entirely with God. It is indeed a profound spiritual experience to know and feel myself so totally in God’s hands.”
The final person with whom I spoke was Frank, another over-achieving octogenarian. A longtime Catholic Worker, he knew and worked with Dorothy Day, the co-founder with Peter Maurin of the Catholic Worker movement in New York City. Frank is not only there every day at the editorial office at Mary House on East Third Street, he also attends Mass daily and on weekends at the Jesuit church around the corner on Second Avenue, where Dorothy worshiped in her last years until her death in 1980. Thinking about his age, Frank spoke of wanting to live more in the present and of cultivating a positive attitude. “I just don’t have the energy to sustain angers and guilt—I forget them,” he said, “and try to let go of the little annoyances we have in our daily lives. So we might have messed up this or that,” he continued, adding: “there’s always the next hour.” All he asks, he continued, is to be allowed “to hang around long enough to clean up the messes I’ve made here.” If we have done wrong, “we simply have to ask forgiveness and move on,” he observed.
In the stories of all four friends, the implicit themes of gratitude and faith came up again and again as dominant factors—gratitude and faith based on an enduring trust in a merciful and loving God. As Rita put it, faith is what brings her through the rough parts of life. Her daily prayer accordingly includes the words of St. Francis de Sales: “Have no fear of what tomorrow may bring. The same loving God who cares for you today will take care of you tomorrow and every day. He will either shield you from suffering or give you unfailing strength to bear it.” Graham Greene had his own take on turning 70. In his autobiography, A Sort of Life (1971), he wrote, “One starts at the age of seventy to live on borrowed time.”
Rita, Mary, Tom and Frank have already “borrowed” quite a bit of time. Grateful for it, they have used it well and remain peaceful in the knowledge that sooner or later they will be meeting the generous lender face to face.