If I’m going to run the race, I want to finish well. As soon as the end is in sight, I want to push myself even harder and faster until my feet cross the finish line. Truth be told, I’m no runner. I’m more of a walking, hiking, stroller-pushing, anything but running type. However, I think “running the race” is such a perfect analogy for our lives here on Earth… to not give in to distractions that will make us lose focus, to give it everything we’ve got, to finish well. The prize that I aim to win is no blue ribbon. It is heaven.
Can I be “for real” with you? All of us are going to die some day. Most of us will grow old. Growing old means our bodies may become less mobile and less obedient to our will. You may find yourself struggling to thrust your body out of bed in the morning or you might have a hard time folding your joints in half when getting in and out of a vehicle. Games like Twister and Limbo could be deadly and you may actually find yourself purchasing LifeCall, the product notorious for the catchphrase “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!”
As we age, we will likely experience more aches and pains, and perhaps even intense physical suffering. These are not necessarily easy things to embrace. I’m in my late twenties now, so I’m not exactly elderly yet. “Spring chicken” you say? Well, not quite. Sometimes my body doesn’t do what I tell it to do, sometimes I have unexpected aches and pains, and I even found out at my last visit to the eye doctor that I have the beginning signs of macular degeneration (which apparently is something that only people over the age of 50 are supposed to have to worry about- yowza!) Thankfully, as Catholics, we recognize the beauty of suffering and its redemptive quality. Physical pain can be both beneficial for our own souls as well as the souls of others. How beautiful! How beautiful that Christ could turn the torture device of the cross into a means of saving our souls and opening the gates of heaven to us!
There are few things in this world which make my heart ache more than the sight of an elderly person overcome by loneliness and fear, sorrowfully waiting until death arrives. Likewise, there are few things which propel my soul heavenward more than the sight of an elderly person living life to the full despite, or perhaps because of, their suffering. Can you think of an elderly person in your life who lifts up your spirits? Someone who lives with great joy despite rejection, illness, and other hardships? I don’t know about you, but these are the people, who I think are running “so as to win”. They are living with joy until the very end. They are giving it all they’ve got until their tired, old feet pound across the finish line. That’s who I want to be when I grow up. I want to be a wrinkly-falling-apart-happy-old-lady, filled with the joy of the Lord and the knowledge that I gave this race all I had.
I’d like to give you two concrete examples of what I’m talking about… one from the public realm and one from my family:
1) Blessed Pope John Paul II
This holy man showed us by example how to age with peace and joy. Though he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, he continued to love and serve Christ and the Church to the full. If I may borrow Pope Benedict XVI’s words from his homily at the ceremony in which Pope John Paul II was beatified, “Then too, there was his witness in suffering: the Lord gradually stripped him of everything, yet he remained ever a “rock”, as Christ desired. His profound humility, grounded in close union with Christ, enabled him to continue to lead the Church and to give to the world a message which became all the more eloquent as his physical strength declined. In this way he lived out in an extraordinary way the vocation of every priest and bishop to become completely one with Jesus, whom he daily receives and offers in the Eucharist”.
For a brief overview of the life of John Paul II and how he embraced the will of God with joy and enthusiasm, I highly recommend the movie Pope John Paul II with Jon Voight and Cary Elwes.
2) My grandfather
My Papa cares for his Alzheimer’s stricken wife, my grandmother, with immense joy and love. Alzheimer’s, as many of you may already know, is a progressive degenerative disorder of the brain. My grandmother is in the final stages of this disease. Comparable to the care required by an infant, she is totally dependent on the care which my grandfather provides. Day in and day out for over fifteen years he has tended to her at home, even finding joy in brushing her hair and occasionally putting a bit of lipstick on her lips. I have never heard him complain. On the contrary, he often smiles and jokes about how much fun they’re having together.
Less than two weeks ago, my grandfather was diagnosed with prostate cancer. It is still uncertain if it has spread outside of the prostate and what his exact treatment will be. Do you want to venture a guess what his most heartfelt wish is? He doesn’t want to die before my grandmother because he simply wants to be able to care for my grandmother until the end of her life. I wish I could express to you in words the character of this man- both the tremendous strength and the deep tenderness with which he loves. He has given me a great example to live by in so many ways- faithful, lifelong marriage; embracing life; and aging with grace and joy. Please pray with me that if it is God’s will, he will be able to care for my grandmother until her very last breath.
When I am a shriveled up old lady swaying in my rocking chair reflecting on days past, I hope that I can honestly say that I embraced life, with all of its crosses and victories. Rather than be self-absorbed in pain and suffering, I want to continue to love and serve the Lord and those around me with all of my heart. Should I need a reminder of these goals forty years down the road in the midst of my pain, let me write myself a friendly little reminder- “Note to self: Age with joy!”
“I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life…” Henry David Thoreau
Feel free to comment/answer below: Can you think of an elderly person in your life who lifts up your spirits? Someone who lives with great joy despite rejection, illness, and other hardships?