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A Biblical Meditation on the Difficulties of Old Age

By Msgr. Charles Pope

Today I would like to discuss the Gospel from last Saturday morning’s daily Mass (25th Week of the Year). For indeed one of the more beautiful passages in the Old Testament is the 12th Chapter of Ecclesiastes. It is a melancholy but soulful meditation on old age. Its poetic imagery is masterful as it draws from the increasingly difficult effects of old age such as hearing loss, fading eyesight, difficulty walking, digestive issues, and even gray hair.

Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come And the years approach of which you will say, I have no pleasure in them; Before the sun is darkened. and the light, and the moon, and the stars, while the clouds return after the rain; When the guardians of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, And the grinders are idle because they are few, and they who look through the windows grow blind; When the doors to the street are shut, and the sound of the mill is low; When one waits for the chirp of a bird, but all the daughters of song are suppressed; And one fears heights, and perils in the street; When the almond tree blooms, and the locust grows sluggish and the caper berry is without effect, Because man goes to his lasting home, and mourners go about the streets; Before the silver cord is snapped and the golden bowl is broken, And the pitcher is shattered at the spring, and the broken pulley falls into the well, And the dust returns to the earth as it once was, and the life breath returns to God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth, all things are vanity! (Ecclesiastes 12:1-8)

And now some commentary on each verse (my comments are in red)

Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come And the years approach of which you will say, I have no pleasure in them;

We are advised to give thanks to God for the vigor of youth because “evil” days will come. Here evil does not mean “sinfully evil.” Rather, it refers to days that are difficult and bad, days that bring challenge and pain.

We might want to be thankful for living in the modern age, because the burdens of old age are far less than they were in ancient times. Consider all the medicines and aids that make aging less difficult: Pain medicines alleviate arthritis; calcium supplements help with osteoporosis; blood pressure medication helps prevent stroke and partial paralysis; motorized scooters increase mobility; eyeglasses and hearing aids improve our ability to interact. In the ancient world, age only brought increasing and cumulative burdens, so that our author says regarding these days, “I have no pleasure in them.”

Before the sun is darkened. and the light, and the moon, and the stars, while the clouds return after the rain;

This is a poignantly poetic description of eyesight going bad. The light darkens, the moon and stars are less visible (perhaps they are blurry), and the clouds of cataracts begin to afflict the elderly.

When the guardians of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, And the grinders are idle because they are few, and they who look through the windows grow blind;

The “guardians of the house” are the arms. They begin to tremble with the tremors common to old age, even without Parkinson’s disease.

The “strong men” are the legs. They are bent, less able to carry the weight of the body. Bent also describes the legs when we are seated, unable to walk.

The “grinders” are the teeth and they are few! We have far better dental health today. In ancient times, it was common for the elderly to have lost many if not most of their teeth. This made it difficult to eat and required food to be mashed.

The image of an elderly person sitting by a window looking out, but able to see less and less, is surely sad, but also vivid. I remember my grandmother in her last years. She could no longer read much because her eyesight was so poor and her mind could not concentrate on the text. So she sat for hours and just looked out the window.

When the doors to the street are shut, and the sound of the mill is low; When one waits for the chirp of a bird, but all the daughters of song are suppressed;

The “doors to the street” are the tightly compressed lips common to the very elderly, especially when teeth are missing. It also depicts how many of the elderly stop talking much. Their mouths seem shut tight.

The sound of the mill may be another reference to chewing. Many of the elderly lose their appetite. One the psalms says regarding the elderly, “I moan like a dove and forget to eat my bread” (Psalm 102:4).

Waiting for the chirp of the birds may be a reference to the silence of the elderly, but it may also be a reference to deafness, as many can no longer hear their singing and chirping, something the young often take for granted.

And one fears heights, and perils in the street; When the almond tree blooms, and the locust grows sluggish and the caper berry is without effect,

Walking is difficult, sometimes treacherous, and requires great effort for many of the elderly. Whereas the young may not think twice about climbing a flight of stairs, the elderly may see them as an insurmountable obstacle.

Perils in the street like loose or upturned stones cause fear because falls for the elderly can be catastrophic. They may also not be able to get up if they fall.

The almond tree blooming is a symbol for gray hair because almond trees had white blooms.

The caper berry had several uses in the ancient world. It was an appetite stimulant, an aphrodisiac, and was also used to treat rheumatism! But in old age, it would seem that the desired effects are hard to come by.

Because man goes to his lasting home, and mourners go about the streets; Before the silver cord is snapped and the golden bowl is broken, And the pitcher is shattered at the spring, and the broken pulley falls into the well, And the dust returns to the earth as it once was, and the life breath returns to God who gave it.

Finally, death comes, as symbolized by the mourners in the street. The silver cord and the golden bowl, symbols of life, are now snapped and broken.

The broken pitcher symbolizes that the body no longer contains the soul.

The pulley, a device used to lift, is now broken, indicating that the body will no longer rise from its place but rather fall into the well of the grave.

And we return to the dust and the soul goes to God.

Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth, all things are vanity!

In the end, all things pass. Nothing remains. Because all things are to pass, they are vain (empty). The physical world is less real than the spiritual world, because the physical passes while the spiritual remains. Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is seated at God’s right hand (Col 1:3).

This chapter from Ecclesiastes is a sad but powerfully beautiful description of old age. I have often shared it with the very elderly and those who are suffering the ill effects of old age. I remember reading it slowly to my father as he lay dying in his hospital room. He could no longer talk much, but as I read it to him I saw him nod and raise his hands as if to say “Amen!” It was almost as if he meant to say, “Somebody understands; God understands.” Perhaps you also know an elderly person who could benefit from this passage. I know that it is sad and that not everyone is in a condition that they can hear such a stark and sad description, but some are in a frame of mind such that they can derive peace from it, as God, through His word, tell them that He knows exactly what they are going through.

This article has been reprinted here by permission of the author after original publication at Community In Mission-http://blog.adw.org/2016/09/biblical-meditation-difficulties-old-age/

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