A beautiful older woman named Ruth smiles quietly at her pastor. Her body, ravaged by the disease of breast cancer, still displays inner grace and calm. “I have peace about being at the end of my life,” she says. “I just can’t believe I got here so soon.” Funny. I have said the same thing about my children leaving home. It is right in so many ways, but how did the time pass so fast?
Jill Briscoe, a writer and minister tells of her fiftieth birthday. In the middle of a well-deserved personal lament, her husband Stuart asked her, “Jill, were you born at the right time?” Er, yes. “Did you live at the right speed?” Sure. “Then you must be the right age!” Or maybe not. The issue seems to be in the ‘speed’ question. We are too soon old.
A quick look around assures us that we are not alone. Collectively, the population is aging. This, we are told, presents all kinds of problems we are to avoid. Our personal share of such ‘problems’ greets us anew each morning. Yearly, new losses appear, some creeping like gray into our hair but others suddenly cutting into our bodies with pain and immobility.
Even so, life is full of grace. And according to the Scriptures, an older saint is not a problem, but a blessed gift of grace to the church. The gift comes because of the miles traveled, not in spite of them. Perhaps to have experienced more means being able to see more. A saint, according to Psalm 84, is one who has set her heart on pilgrimage – on the journey, the trek. Unlike a tourist who goes to each new destination and demands it be like home, the pilgrim moves fluidly through various situations and submits to the change those experiences bring. Wisdom, perseverance and understanding are discovered along the way, not at any particular stop.
Sadly, I don’t find older women speaking up with their stories and wisdom. It is the young who seem to have the confidence and space to do those things. But the older saint has a treasure that must be shared.
You must speak. Tell us how life looks to you. Tell us what you do with your fears. Tell us how to affirm life, to be earthy and positive and to participate in creation joy. Speak of the moments when God invades your private world. Does your horizon contain such things?
Show us how to see all things through the lens of God’s purposes. We see only today and maybe tomorrow, but we need to hear of forever. Whisper to us of a sure hope in the face of an unsure future. Instruct us about how to handle crushing blows. Women are responsible for so many things, together threatening to crush our identity, yet we feel guilty. Does God ask for more? How is it that His burden is light? Do you know of these mysteries?
Tell us the story of life. As the dusk falls over you, recount your suffering, your loves. It will not make us think you are weak. Uncover the steps you stumbled through after your great losses. Tells us what made you cry. Tell us what tempted you. Let us see your human journey with God.
A round, stern looking, elderly woman in a homemade cotton dress took me aside one night at a retreat I was leading and poured out the story of her husband’s traumatic death in a car/tractor accident ten years earlier. She told me of the large church funeral, the many tributes and casseroles brought and endless visits. We talked and I tried to demonstrate understanding. Then suddenly she stiffened, wrung her hands and looked at me with piercing eyes squirting tears. “You don’t understand anything!” she barked out. “I was so glad when he died! My girls and I suffered so much at his hand.” Then I didn’t have to try and understand as we wept together. The next morning I met her in the hall, laughing. “I have not told that to anyone in ten years since he died,” she whispered. “It feels so wonderful to have it off my soul.”
Dear pilgrim of life, do not become convinced that your story is old and not useful anymore. When the body begins to disappoint and ideas such as usefulness and success seem foolish, then the purposes of God are displayed in new glory. You become a letter, written by Christ.
The Secrets of Older Women
In her Handbook of Pastoral Care for Women, Jeanne Moessner speaks of the pain of older women’s secrets. Dreadful and enduring, experiences such as incest, rape, physical or emotional abuse within a marriage (too often a Christian marriage) and times of desperate deprivation are frequently buried in the unspoken silence of a woman’s heart. These may never have been spoken aloud.
These women are not weak, nor have they lived small lives. In fact it is often quite the opposite. In spite of their secrets, they have raised children, served the community sacrificially, and accomplished remarkable things in their lives.
Is it too much now to deal with the secrets at the end of one’s life? Is it worth the struggle to end the long kept silence? Many women have powerful reasons not to reveal their experience to anyone: too much accumulated grief, too many people to disappoint or effect.
Moessner notes, the secrets of the mother easily become dynamics and secrets expressed throughout the whole family. Rage, depression and low self-esteem are passed from one generation to the next. Generational sin and brokenness is not such a mystery from this perspective.
One older woman talked to me about her longing to write. She wondered aloud what she would write about. I suggested she tell the story of her life. Her immediate response was, “Oh no! I couldn’t do that. My two daughters would read it.” My point was that she should write her life precisely so that her two daughters would read it. Does she think her daughters don’t suffer from the same temptations and wounds? Does she not understand that her story may save their souls?
The possible benefits of secrets being exposed are many, for the woman and for her loved ones, even if the initial revelation propels the family into a ‘tunnel of chaos’ for a time.
Secrets are not to be forced out or prodded for. They must be revealed freely in a safe context. This will happen only if women are first moved into a compassionate relationship with their selves. Self-condemnation and personal shame are the plants that grow over the years, surrounding old boulders of silence.
A dear friend of mine released the story of a long distant pregnancy and abortion in the final year of her life. As her great grief poured out and God’s mercy flowed in, she experienced a remarkable inner healing. I wondered at God’s purposes when she died less than a year later. Her healing was never ‘used’ for the church, never spoken and witnessed to. It was a gift for her soul alone. Could it be that God’s passion for our wellness is really simply all about love? That it is only we who must make it ‘useful.’
As a pastor or friend, be mindful of any moment where an older woman might be cracking open an old story, an ancient wound. You might be in the presence of a divine encounter. Take your shoes off. This is holy ground.
Marilyn Elliott is a member of the Soul Care Collective Steering Committee.