Middle-Aged and Lovin' It!
This is something I wrote up to put out on facebook to get some attention from former students- to give them a head’s up, and to give them hope for the future- if they give their lives completely over to our Lord. Here goes:
I recently turned 46, and I’m surprised by how good it feels. I spent a lot of time in my youth worried over getting old, picturing middle-age domestication as a kind of spiritual death of hope. Man, did I have that backwards.
I’ve been reading the theologian Garrigou-Lagrange (Pope John Paul II’s teacher). In his book, Everlasting Life, he writes about passions, emotions, reason and will. He nails the subject. I have lived his insights out in my own life. For long stretches, I thought that the way to get the most out of life was to live with “Passion” as the guiding principle; Sort of along the lines of Joseph Campbell’s “Follow your bliss” idea. The problems came as it seemed that my thirst for world travel, for romance and all the rest- well it would never come to an end, there was too much to see and do, always the heart was restless and thinking that I would turn the next corner and find my perfect exotic faraway country and the perfect girl. I found plenty of exotic landscapes and great girls- but nothing stuck. I thought that maybe coming from a childhood with a messy divorce had caused me to have some serious commitment issues and the need to keep going far away from the fatherland. But now I can see that it was a little of that, but a lot more profound. My first forays into religious awakening offered the tools, but I was too inexperienced and unwise to use those tools to maximum positive effect.
So my youth turned into an extended holiday from the real world- or so I thought. But it turns out that the real world is the world God created, and the universe is one where Christ is King. And because this is so, the spirit seeking individual will not be satisfied with a prison-like existence, where a love-less life is pursued and three square meals a day does not equate to happiness. A spirit seeker needs “More, More, More”. But as LaGrange points out, the passions in man and animal are similar, but the animals fill their biological needs and they fall back into contentedness. Man is made differently. We are made for the “Limitless”, but when we pursue emotions and passions as if they were our gods-within, we try to get from them something eternal, something that is limitless. Problem is that they are not ends in themselves, and we put all of our spiritual desires into something that just can’t contain them. So, we supercharge our emotions and passions and they turn against us, against nature, against God. As Lagrange says:
“Passion is not always, but may become keen, vehement, dominating. In man the passions are meant to be ruled and disciplined by reason and will. Thus ruled, they are weapons which defend a great cause. On the contrary, if they remain unruly and undisciplined, they become vices: love becomes gluttony and lust, aversion becomes jealousy and envy, audacity becomes foolhardiness, fear becomes faintheartedness and cowardice…because man’s intellect grasps universal good and man’s will desires that boundless good which is found in God alone. Hence when man’s will does not follow the straight road to God, when man seeks supreme happiness not in God but in creatures, then his concupiscence becomes insatiable, because he has unlimited desires for a good that is limited. “
So in my youth, and in my observations of those in the throes of their youth today, I see this playing itself out in the most obvious ways. We want sexual passion but not boring old-style marriage, we want to party all night and dance and drink, but we don’t find ecstasy in praise and worship of God. Instead of cultivating charismatic religious expressions, and deep solitary contemplation, we are led in masse to night spots and frat houses to drink too much and pursue bodily companionship for the night. Some youth escape this trap or tire of it soon enough and are put right by grace of God, good parenting, or just the fear of getting caught by the odds of potential negative outcomes. The romantic, of course, tries not to be crass, but breaks God’s rules out of narcissism, pride, or just the folly of being young and inexperienced in how Reality works.
So, now I am back where I started this article. Middle-Age: Surprisingly excellent! I have a wife and a little tribe of beautiful young children. I thank God for them because I can’t take credit for how wonderful my life has turned out. Having kiddies around has truly solidified my faith as a Catholic. I am finally a grown man; I have bought in to traditional society, and all the obligations that come from accepting the universal common good as part of my parental duties. I am deeply passionate and more emotional than ever- I have sacrificed nothing in giving over youth for wisdom in believing in God and the Natural Law. I know that even now I could cut out God and try to make my little family into a god to worship- I suppose this is what a loving Atheistic father would have to do. I won’t do that, because I know that my human powers can only take my kids so far- without the bedrock of Christian faith and teachings, there is nothing solid to offer my children beyond my emotional and material love and support- and only while I am here alive on earth. In Christ, I can offer all of my paternal emotional love and then add on such amazing stuff like- prayers for them throughout the day that go through the communion of saints and straight to God Himself. And if I persevere in faith (a faith that is not dead due to lack of loving works on my part), I will go to heaven, and I will be a mighty force for good for my children beyond the temporary grave. Faith, Hope, and Love, these are the foundations of Reality- God is the Ultimate Reality. We oppose His Way to our own destruction and despair. The wages of sin is death- a complete death. I choose life, I choose to say “Death- where is your sting?” This is not to say that my emotions are made unreal, that I don’t/won’t experience a whole range of feelings- some high some low. I do, and I am deeply affected when one of my kids is sick- and when my wife and I lost a child early in one of her pregnancies, we grieved hard, I still cry sometimes, and we have given that child a name- a name I felt inspired to give her while reading the Bible one day before we lost our child- Talitha- it means “Daughter Arise”. I believe God was preparing us for our loss. I believe that we are blessed to mourn, to grieve over personal challenges like being separated physically from someone we love in death- even as we believe it is temporary. I am sad if I have to spend even one evening away from my family. But this is sadness with a difference- I can offer up my emotional challenges and my physical and mental pains- I am Catholic- I get it. It all must go back to God for healing, for nurturing- all of it.
So the folly of youth is thinking too high of oneself, without connecting that self to the God who created and sustains our lives. Yes, we are all immortal, but we leave this side of mortality with only the honor or dishonor we have chosen for our souls. I have a lot to make amends for, but I am only middle-aged, so perhaps I have time enough to get moving on loving more completely. To love is to offer advice to other free-willed persons- if you aren’t moving towards God, you are moving away, there is no stasis in our souls- you can’t tread water spiritually- like in the Ocean there is always movement even when you can’t feel it. Don’t be complaisant about your spiritual destiny, your duties to God, self and others. The obedience of faith is not confining, it is the freedom of finally knowing yourself, and what you were made for- life is not a diversion, it is a mission. I have surrendered to God and realized that the enemy all along was my sinfulness- why do so many of the young get the false notion that it is God or Church that is oppressing them with rules and commandments- when actually these are the shortcuts to true independence- deliverance from Evil. A concept not appreciated by many otherwise thoughtful persons, until one considers the facts of how many innocent lives are harmed and even killed because of human choice, selfishness, cruelty, ambition, aggression and on and on. Evil is real enough, but so too, is Goodness. And Good defeats Evil in the end- I want to be in on that fight! Join me? Yours in Christ, Tim Shipe (timshipe.com).