Ian Brown writes:
I spent a day last week with my father on his birthday - he is 95 now. He still goes to work, still tries to exercise every morning, still plants tomatoes each spring, still plans to harvest his crops each fall.
The crop itself is almost irrelevant: When I see him in the garden, working, using his body, I know he is doing one of the things he loves most. He is not complicated. The garden, the office, work, usefulness, the company of people he admires and who make him laugh and think - those are still his pleasures.
A year ago, he slipped and fell, and spent a few weeks on his back. The accident has made him more cautious, and it meant he couldn't drive any more.
His car had been the great equalizer. He may not have been able to run as fast as others (he played squash until he was 87) or to lift a flagstone as big as the one I can, but in his car he could drive as fast and as far as anyone.
Now, the car is sitting in the garage, and he feels like he is too.
What I have noticed is not his aging - beyond the things one usually notices, such as the translucency of the skin, the scary three-stage catapult trick to get out of the car, the care he takes on steps - so much as his dislike of aging. Last week, he said to me: "I'd rather be dying at 75 than alive at 95."
We had just spent a very pleasant hour, chatting over coffee about his life. He did it with energy. And yet his physical performance shames him.
I wonder if you, Jean, fear the approach of the end of your life or, at least, resent the physical weakening of your body, the way my father does? How do you keep the fear of death at bay? What do you think it is like, and what lies beyond it? (When I was in Trosly, you described your late niece's fear of death, and you mentioned the "place of desire." What is that?)
To me, looking at it from the age of 55 - not that the number means anything, because death approaches when it wants to - getting older looks like a discouraging journey into loneliness. Dying is the ultimate loneliness, the ultimate solitude.
I can't imagine getting older, therefore weaker and lonelier, without resenting it. The slightest health scare makes me anxious and the anxiety makes me cranky and the crankiness makes me feel bitter, even mistreated. And if I feel that way on a bad day, I can't blame my 95-year-old father for feeling worse. Last night, a still-lively 80-year-old gave me his formula for enthusiastically living in the world as you get older: "Active engagement with the future," he said. "That's the secret."
Which sounds right, if your mind hasn't pitched out the window and you still can engage. But if you physically don't have much future left, what motivates you to engage actively in it?
I think of an old pal of mine who died several years ago of bone cancer in his late 70s. He couldn't play golf any more, couldn't move. He hated his decline, and gradually he hated more and more of everything that reminded him of it - the outside, other people, even the sport of golf itself, with which he had to that point had an almost unseemly lifelong affair.
I know how he should have approached aging and the oncoming truck of death: I know that he should have taken to reading, to living in his mind, which is what he had left. But what one should do in the face of the great existential tragedy seems theoretical, especially in a secular age.
Perhaps there are hidden benefits to aging. You no longer need to worry about what you look like; your focus becomes more intense. If there is only a little time left, perhaps you know more how you want to spend it.
How do you think of yourself as you age? How do you accept the inevitable, inexorably advancing weakness and frailty - to say nothing of the randomness with which they arrive - without resenting the loss of what you were as a man, and as a human being?
I hope these questions don't upset you. Please understand that I only ask because I suspect you have good answers.
Jean Vanier replies:
My dear Ian,
I do not feel much older than yesterday. I suppose arriving at 80 is more symbolic than anything else.
I did not feel that old at 76 or 77. ... And now I am 80. I check my date of birth and yes I am 80, no doubt about it, but I do not really feel it.
Of course, I'm taking care. I get up later, go to bed earlier, and sleep after lunch. So I feel pretty well. I feel happy. Yes, happy to be alive, happy to be part of my community and happy to eat every day (when I am not travelling) in my home with Albert and Nathalie (who is blind), with Cariosa (who comes from Pincher Creek, Alta.), with Monique (who speaks very little, but each word is a pearl) and with other people.
I try to live in the present moment, to accept reality as it is - the reality of my body and spirit, the reality of my community, the reality of creation and of our world. Today, it is sunny and cold; yesterday, it was raining and cold. Accept each day, each moment as it comes - the different seasons - and soon it will be spring.
Then there are the seasons of the body. Sooner or later, something will happen to me - an accident, sickness or disease will unfold, or I will just become weaker, slower and unable to read or write, unable to give talks.
To tell you the truth, I do not ponder too much on tomorrow. Live today well. Each season has its beauty. I have the strength for today and hopefully too for tomorrow. Why waste time worrying or even questioning? Write me a letter when I am 86 - I'll tell you then what I feel!
Am I fearful of death? No, I cannot say I am.
Once, when I was in the navy, I fell from a ship into stormy waters roughed up by strong winds. I lost consciousness immediately on hitting the water. As I had a huge lifebelt around me, I was carried far, far away by the winds until I was picked up by a little boat that was sent to save me. As they lifted me from the waters, I regained consciousness.
I could have slipped into life after death without realizing it. Many people die as if they are falling asleep. They wake up in a different world, a world of light, of peace and extreme tenderness.
Do I have fears today? Maybe a fear of emptiness, of a void, of anguish. Today, I have energy - what will it be like when I can do nothing but wait, waiting for a visit or longing for a moment of inner quiet, a peace, a gentle presence of God? I will not fret today about what might happen tomorrow.
Today, I live moments of quiet peace when I am not doing anything - just present to life, to creation and to God. Prayer can be a true place of rest. Prayer can also be a cry of pain and anguish, of loneliness. I suppose that is what I fear most. But I imagine that all will be well when the time comes.
You asked me what will happen as I slip into this other world of light, of peace, of extreme tenderness of life after death. Here is what I believe: I have lived all my life in faith and in trust, so I will continue to live in this faith. I trust in life and in people; I trust in my own heart and spirit; I trust in love, in God, in the struggle to be more loving, more truthful. I trust in creation, the birds, the flowers and the seasons.
Creation is so beautiful - the sun, the moon, the winds, men and women, all are so beautiful when they are looked at with trust and tenderness. So if creation is beautiful, then the conception of children, their births, their growth and even their deaths are beautiful too.
But don't think I live in some Utopia where everything is beautiful. People can be difficult; they can be nasty; they can be led by evil thoughts and acts; they can kill and rape, and so on. I know about all that. But I also believe that in each person, under all the hardness, the hate, the fear and the anguish, there is a little child waiting for the love he or she never had. Human beings are truly beautiful, but so many do not know that they are beautiful.
So what do I believe happens as we slip into this other world of the light of glory? Yes, it will be a wonderful moment of peace, of joy and ecstasy of love, a fulfilment of love. We have arrived at last. It will be more wonderful than anything we could have imagined.
Then there will be a moment of pain. We shall see so clearly how and when during our time on Earth we have hurt and wounded life, our own life and the lives of others. It will be a moment of pain, of deep sorrow.
But then, very quickly (on the other side, time is not the same - no minutes, hours, days, years and so on - all is one and in one; how to explain this new time, I don't know), yes, very quickly, there will be a feeling of being loved as we are with all our brokenness and dirt and mess.
Then we shall weep for joy - no tears, no eyes, but we shall weep for joy for we are loved as we are, with all that we have done to wound life in our past on Earth - and we shall see too all that we have done in love to foster life.
Then we shall enter the place of desire, an immense desire not just to see God, but to be enfolded in God, to drink God, to be loved by God. Desire is a beautiful and wonderful reality. It is the opposite of depression. In depression, there is no desire.
The place of desire is beautiful, but painful too, because we do not have that which we desire so ardently. A desire unfulfilled is an intense waiting - yes, to wait with such immense desire is very painful and can be anguished. This desire, however, purifies and cleanses us, preparing us for the meeting with the Infinite.
And then one day (though there are no days, no years in that new world), the veil is torn, our deepest desire is fulfilled and we are One. Suddenly we discover who we are in God: Life flowing in us and through us, giving and receiving life like a beautiful kiss. All is in us and I am in all. Everything becomes song, laughter, a wedding feast with God and all - my God and I.
It is so wonderful, unspeakably, unbelievably wonderful, to dance and laugh and drink the fullness of life, of love, of beauty with all those we have loved and are now influent. Everything is now accomplished.
Today, we are on Earth, in a land of shadows and sometimes of darkness, but one thing we know: Our hearts, so often wounded, are beautiful. They are made for love. There are times when we feel guilty, angry or depressed, and we blame others. But maybe at some moment a little light comes into our hearts and we begin to hope, to believe.
Let us wait then for this new world we have glimpsed. Let us prepare for it each day through loving others, walking in faith and becoming men and women of peace. Heaven is heaven - a feast of joy, prolonged as we continue to help and walk with those who are still struggling on their journey.