COMMENTARY: Life on the will-call line: retirement spirituality

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c. 1999 Religion News Service

(Eugene Kennedy, a longtime observer of the Roman Catholic Church, is professor emeritus of psychology at Loyola University in Chicago and author most recently of”My Brother Joseph,”published by St. Martin’s Press.)

UNDATED _ Recently, both The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times published special sections on the golden-hued Nirvana of American culture, retirement. This means the post-work period has moved from being a gentle pasture to a thriving industry.

The articles in these supplements have covered almost every aspect of these supposed leisure years, especially the financial realities embroidered on the pillow propped on many a Sunbelt couch:”Retirement Means More Husband and Less Money.” Choices of locale in which to pass the late innings of life are extensively charted. Should it be Arizona, Florida, or, in a developing trend, close to where you have lived most of your life?

They leave out much of the illuminating human element, however. What we remember from a trip, for example, may not be the great edifice, such as St. Peter’s in Rome, but some quickly passing moment on a side street when, through a glass darkly, we glimpse a mother cooking for her family, a child practicing the violin in an empty room, or some other scene that tells us of Italian life and of our own at the same time.

Many newly retired couples, for example, have, since their honeymoons, seldom been alone together for a full day. Suddenly encountering each other all day long generates unexpected reactions and demands unanticipated adjustments.

This is a prime example of the homely human detail that is not foreshadowed in most retirement folios. For, if everything from utility vehicles to Viagra is explicitly analyzed for prospective retirees, their spiritual and religious needs are universally ignored or are deemed unmentionable.

The closest these reviews get to spirituality and religion is found in their frequent meditations _ what else can you call them? _ on the availability of the green pastures of golf. In their sunny subdivision.”In my Father’s House there are many mansions”is translated into”This town has a golf course for every pocketbook.”Golf, which I wrote about recently as one of America’s sacramental substitutes, is also an all-purpose conversation subject. Along with medications, it is discussed in the closest approximation human experience offers to the liturgical intonation,”world without end, Amen.” But if there is lots of conversation about golf, there is also profound wonder about deeper things. Nobody retires from life itself. The rising and falling beat of existence, like the sound of far off traffic, is always there.

Beneath and in between the myriad activities of retirees, their spiritual concerns can be read easily in their faces. Watch as they pause in any chat to gaze into an unfocused distance.

Writ large are not the unalloyed delights of the Golden Years but their concerns and anxieties.

That they have lived past 65 only means that the pages of these people’s date books have grown ragged from their engagements with every human mystery _ from sorrow to delight.

Hardly any of them are free from worries about sick relatives, their spouse, perhaps, or for their children, grown up and living now in cities half way across the map instead of just across town, inheritors of the common ration of problems of illness or work or marital stresses, and what can we do for them and how is all this affecting the grandchildren?

Listen for the sound that breaks the spell in every technicolor retirement village, the wail of the Emergency Vehicle, the counterpart in today’s Sun Cities of John Donne’s bell that rings sooner or later for everyone. Retirees are reminded by every passing day of their mortality.

They are familiar with such spiritual experiences as Waiting and Expectation that are the themes of Lent and Advent. You can tell by their expressions that they know a lot about the everyday mystery of waiting that baffles and frustrates other generations.

Watch them on the Will-Call lines in drug stores or standing by the gates in airports for the planes that bring their visiting grandchildren.

Reminders of mortality are everywhere, in the advertisements for the goods and services available just this side of the final border crossing. Cataract surgery and estate planning, for example, and hearses as white as the Angel of Death in the fleets of undertakers who, like the citrus merchants, boast on their signs,”We Ship Anywhere.” Retirement is filled with reminders, ironic and otherwise, of life’s fragility on the back nine. The refreshing spiritual reality one soon discovers is that, if they are aware of death, these people are very much alive spiritually. They have come to terms with themselves and they bear the scars of living as military officers do battle ribbons.

The newspaper articles tell them how to remain young. Their hard-bought wisdom lies in the understanding beneath all their activities from attending Early Bird dinners to never yielding their end seat on church pews as they say their prayers. They are willing to be old.


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