When do we stop growing? Physically, we start as tiny, helpless babies and actually grow very quickly in our first year, and continue till we start to ‘shoot up’. And then somewhere in our mid-20s we peak. We become aware that we have grown by the obvious outward, physical signs and expansion of the mind. But the growth happens imperceptibly – much of it at night. We cannot actually feel ourselves growing. We may remain one size for most of our adult life, until we suddenly realise with a shock that we have begun to go backwards and to shrink. We were no more aware that this was secretly and slowly happening than a babe is conscious of growing. And then for us the visible signs go into reverse. Osteoporosis sets in and we lose height, and the ageing process leaves us with limitations that may even bring us back to the babyhood stage of helplessness and dependence on carers.
Inwardly however, the growing doesn’t peak - and then surrender to a steady downhill demise.
Spiritual growth is ever-expanding, or will be if it is allowed to.
We must never fall into the trap of thinking that old age is all about diminishment and decay. True, its physical limitations are often hard to bear just as babies can get frustrated at their limitations. But though we may shrink physically, inwardly we can be growing and expanding. In our post-retirement stage of life, (I say ‘post’ because many people are just as busy in retirement as they were in full-time occupation) there is more space for reflection on life’s experiences; more time to extract further potential from them than was possible at the time. As we reflect back, there is always more energy, more enjoyment, more growth in understanding, insight and wisdom to be garnered from a whole life time. We can say with the Psalmist ‘The Lord has set my feet in a large room’ (a spacious place). This is a time of harvesting the fruit of our lives. But we don’t have to wait till the third stage of our life for that, we can look back in gratitude at any age giving thanks for the sheer mercy of God that has enriched life and spared us so much sorrow, heartbreak, shame, exposure of pride, hypocrisy and self-centredness - those things that lurk in our depths and we are thankful are hidden from human eyes. We can discover so much grace in making reflection, gratitude and thanksgiving an habitual practice.
We may deem an elderly person, wizened and shrunken with the years, simply as someone for whom life is declining, memory is becoming unreliable, thinking capacity is on the wane, to whom we hope we may be bringing a little light and joy into his/her life. But in fact, we may be touching a live wire that practically pulsates from them. The outer shell may be wearing thin but there is an inner power charging through them that is awesome.
I watched the TV series of, ‘Call in the Midwife’ and was deeply moved in one of the episodes when Jenny, the nurse, visited an old man to dress his ulcerated legs. His face lit up with joy when she came into his one room flat – which looked an absolute tip. He could scarcely move out if his chair yet he was so full of thanksgiving. ‘What luxury’ he said beaming, ‘What luxury and I have all my family with me’ –meaning the photos of his wife and children who had all died, but at one time this one room had been home to all of them. And still feeling their presence around him, he was so visibly full of inner joy and gratitude, I was almost in tears. His life in all its deprivation simply shone with grace – his web had held together despite the losses, the brokenness and the gaps in his life. And at the centre there was such strength and strange beauty.
One of the greatest aids to the expansion of our soul is to look back with gratitude and wonder at God’s sheer mercy. A favourite phrase of mine from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is: ‘God who is rich in mercy’. And strangely one place where we actually meet his mercy most poignantly is at the point of failure, downfall or disgrace. Spiritually we learn far more from our failures and mistakes than we do from our successes. It’s a very fragile grace indeed, but accepted rightly it can be such a heart-warming and healing part of our growth. It may surprise us later to realise how in his mercy God was ‘growing’ us through life’s crashes. There is, they say, grace in disgrace.
The late Cardinal Bernadin of Chicago was a great and humble prophet of love. He had two deadly fears in his life – the fear of disgrace and the fear of cancer. In his early 50s they both struck. He spent 12 months of unutterable pain when he was falsely accused of some criminal behaviour before he was finally acquitted. His cancer was then discovered and he soon died. But during his final few months, having faced the two great fears of his life, he walked tall, his friends said, elegant and graceful – a free man. Graceful - Full of grace, that in fragility sprang from disgrace. For don’t we all know how the ego prefers anything, just about anything to falling, failing or being shown up? We talk about falling down. Richard Rohr calls it ‘Falling Upwards’.
When we hit rock bottom, there is only up and falling upwards can be such an amazing experience of the God who is rich in mercy, gently and lovingly raising us up.
Sooner or later our response to God’s mercy brings us to a moment where we suddenly see before us the entire tapestry of our life as being all of a piece, transfigured as it were, so that not just the good things but even the bad things (the dark colours) are seen to be equally part of the design, equally necessary for the ultimate completion of the design. And when this moment comes we can even weep tears of gratitude for the most painful and adverse circumstances ... grief and humiliation are revealed to us as part of God’s merciful grace upon our lives.*
So life is a continual growing opportunity - through joy and sorrow, pain and disillusion, failure and success, glory or cruel deprivation. Desmond Tutu once said of Nelson Mandela that he went into prison a very angry young man and came out 27 years later an icon of forgiveness, lacking any bitterness or desire for revenge. What grace had been at work in those years, and how fragile it must have seemed at times? But the transfiguration of his pain and humiliation, deprivation and unjust treatment is summed up in his message to S.A. and indeed to the world, ‘No freedom without forgiveness’. Sometimes as I listened to people telling their appalling stories to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission – revealing the torture, physical, mental and emotional, they and their families had suffered and the sheer cost of forgiveness for such heinous crimes, I used to wonder, where did they get such grace to forgive? It was one of Africa’s greatest lessons to me – this power to forgive. But grace of course is always a gift.
‘When we react to slights and minor injuries as though they are deadly and unassuagable wounds we need to be mindful of those who have suffered the darkest horrors at the hands of others’* and have conquered, through God’s power, both fear and bitterness.
It was sheer grace that enabled women from the Ravensbruck Concentration Camp to write these words: ‘O Lord, remember not only the men and women of good will, but also those of ill will. But do not remember all the suffering they have inflicted on us; remember the fruits we have bought, thanks to this suffering – our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, our courage, our generosity, the greatness of heart which has grown out of all this; and when they come to judgment let all the fruits which we have borne be their forgiveness.’
As with physical growth, we seldom recognise our spiritual growth. Like so much in the natural world, we grow most in darkness. It may not be the darkness of those women who endured such a living hell, and emerged bigger people than they ever knew. Nevertheless, spiritual growth can be experienced as very painful loss – loss of any sense of God’s presence, loss of faith or self-esteem, or loss of one’s own self. But the latter is only the loss of the false self – the superego - and it seems to be a necessary part of an ongoing new birth. These are threshold times when, unbeknown to us, transformation is happening - times that are often referred to as liminal space.
St John of the Cross taught that God has to work in the soul in secret and in darkness. He has to undo our illusions when we are not watching, or as Rowan Williams put it, ‘God happens when we are looking the other way’. We grow in spiritual stature inch by inch, in ways as imperceptible as our growth in early childhood. We don’t understand how the grace is quietly and gently at work but we do know that we can never say, ‘It is finished’.
God doesn’t mind how slow we are as long as we continue to grow. Gregory of Nyssa said in the 4th Century, ‘Sin happens when we refuse to keep growing’. And Thomas Merton said ‘Sin, at its nub, is a refusal to grow’. And we trust that our growing will continue even beyond this life.
We used to pray a lovely prayer for a Sister immediately after she had died. In the belief that she was, as it were, in the ante chamber of Heaven, we prayed:
May the place of waiting be for her refreshment, light, perfect cleansing, endless growth in divine beauty, the face of God transforming her more and more into his likeness.