Growing old gracefully

A few years ago, Erie Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister, a prolific spiritual writer and one of the most prominent, outspoken contemporary American Catholic sisters, decided to finally tackle a book she had wanted to write for a long time. The result, The Gift of Years: Growing Older Gracefully (Blue Bridge), beautifully reflects on the spirituality of later life, which Chittister describes as “the enterprise of embracing the blessings of this time and overcoming the burdens of it.”

Chittister uniquely combines strong advocacy—especially on behalf of women in both church and society—with a contemplative spirituality rooted in the Benedictine tradition. One of her recent projects is “Monasteries of the Heart,” a web-based movement that shares Benedictine spirituality with contemporary seekers. Meanwhile, the Joan Chittister Fund for Prisoners distributes free spirituality materials in 90 prisons.

“There is no such thing as having only one life to live,” Chittister insists. “The fact is that every life is simply a series of lives, each one of them with its own task [and] . . . its own plethora of possibilities.” And for our later period of life, she invites us to discover new ways in which we can live out our responsibility “to give the world back to God a bit better than it was because we were here.”

Aging, Chittister says, is not enough in itself. “Aging well is the real goal of life.”

What led you to write about what you call “growing older gracefully”?

I was actually in my early 40s at the most when I first decided that, someday before I died, I wanted to write a spirituality of aging. I was a social psychologist, and I watched the older sisters in the community and noticed there was something really different about them. Everybody took it for granted that it was because they were older or holier or quieter, or that they had been formed in another period. But that wasn’t it.

I watched them and studied them with a lot of interest. It was always an unfinished work in the back of my head. Continue reading

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