I’m sitting in the heartland of USA a few hundred miles southeast of Chicago and I’m being forced to think about the present election campaign in this country, although locals say they see very few visible signs of the election compared to the last few campaigns. People I talk to are visibly nervous, especially after the Brexit vote in the UK and the voting down of the peace accord in Colombia. Because this country happens to be the reigning superpower in the world this election will have impact around the world. What will happen? Perhaps we should all be nervous.
However, I am not in the USA as a political observer, I am here for a spiritual formation conference hosted by our denominational seminary. We came together to discuss Christian spiritual formation in the context of this culture to be sure, but also as it uniquely relates to various age groups: children, youth, young adults, middle age, and the elderly. The seminar I contributed was on midlife spirituality. I made the comment that we hire specialized people to work with all the other age groups except this one, because this one produces most of those being hired and providing leadership. Of course, this is why the election campaign has focused on the health of both candidates—they are both well beyond midlife! People rightly wonder whether they have the stamina to lead a nation.
My concern in the workshop was not who is leading our churches or our nation; my concern was that the challenge of spiritual growth in midlife is to turn from the exterior life toward the interior life. We have been involved in getting educated, advancing careers, building families, buying houses, serving others, leading nations and churches… now is the time to go deep inside. Our world, especially our western world is primarily extraverted and so the journey inward is sometimes difficult, painful, and counter-intuitive. Going deeper can be uncomfortable, even frightening because it leaves us feeling exposed.
This journey inward often means the integration of death and loss into our spirituality. James Fowler has called midlife the conjunctive stage of faith development because the faith task in this stage of life is to combine, unite or integrate the past circumstances and experiences into our present faith. Perhaps the most difficult thing to integrate is the loss of power and control [ironic then that two 70 year olds are still seeking it]. This can happen in many ways.
It might be coming to terms with unrealized vocational hopes and dreams or the loss of a long-term job through various circumstances beyond personal control. For some it might mean mourning the loss of parents through death or a spouse through divorce or the untimely death of a friend or colleague. It might be the loss of physical strength or dexterity or the loss of health we once took for granted. For still others it might be the “empty nest” or the loss of children in the home as they move on to establish homes of their own.
The key to a growing depth of spirituality in midlife is to stop the busyness of the exterior world in order to reflect. The classic inner disciplines of the Christian life: journaling, fasting, prayer, meditation, silence, solitude, and Sabbath rest can help us.
I cycle through a graveyard on a daily basis on my commute home from work and there I am able to contemplate my mortality for a few minutes. It is not a morbid exercise—it is an appreciation for the gift of life each day. As we move into the second half of life, we become more aware of the reality of our death and the limitations of our mind and body. It can be depressing to look back and see life vigorous and exciting and then to look ahead and see a crumbling body and eventually death. Although there is always a fear of death as we contemplate its mystery there is also a contentedness in realizing that since there is nothing we can do to reverse the journey we can savour and enjoy each moment more fully. Thus, we become more alive in life even as our lives draw closer to death.