““decline is inevitable, and it occurs earlier than almost any of us wants to believe. But misery is not inevitable. Accepting the natural cadence of our abilities sets up the possibility of transcendence, because it allows the shifting of attention to higher spiritual and life priorities.” The Atlantic
I am now 60 and only days away from formal Retirement as a Priest in the Episcopal Church. The path along the way has been always engaging, challenging, at some times excruciating at other times exhilarating.
For a year and a half I have been on a slow sabbatical from active ministry in the church. I have no pastoral responsibilities nor any parish that I am responsible to. I continue to exercise priestly ministry as I fill in for the german speaking church in Mexico City which I belong to, and some work in an Episcopal/Anglican Chapel in Oaxaca for periods lasting one to three months. I continue to bury people weekly which is a ministry that I have embraced since I lost a very close friend to suicide some 20 years ago.
I am certainly on a “professional decline”. Something I was not really aware of ten years ago though It had already begun then with tensions and difficulties with the church institutional. As I saw a steady decline in church membership and activity, I too began to pull slowly away from the institution as if it was trying to gasp for air and stay afloat. I was in the same position.
What saved me from a fate greater than death was my new vocation as a Benedictine Monastic in a dispersed community. It was there that I began a regular routine of the Monastic Office, Lectio, Public Service, and networking with both traditional and contemporary monastic communities and models. This new vocation allowed me to refocus my energy mostly spiritual but also vocational in a direction that was independent from parish life and duties, and Diocesan Programs and activities.
This transition professionally has come at a great emotional cost. Letting go of titles, position, influence, responsibility, has taken real spiritual work and discipline. Knowing that this “formal” part of my life is pretty much over, has forced me to take a hard long look at ME. Me the person, me the one who has always responded to God’s call at every step of my journey. Far from an ego boost, it has been an honest and provoking look at this ONE human and spiritual entity that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. I am quickly moving to the farther end of that spectrum with each passing day.
The article I read as of late on professional decline talks about the task ahead as one leaves active professional life to passive professional life. It is about using ones Crystalized intelligence as opposed to fluid intelligence.
“Crystallized intelligence, in contrast, is the ability to use knowledge gained in the past. Think of it as possessing a vast library and understanding how to use it. It is the essence of wisdom. Because crystallized intelligence relies on an accumulating stock of knowledge, it tends to increase through one’s 40s, and does not diminish until very late in life.”
So this is the wisdom I am working on as I move forward into my retirement years.
“Most Eastern philosophy warns that focusing on acquisition leads to attachment and vanity, which derail the search for happiness by obscuring one’s essential nature. As we grow older, we shouldn’t acquire more, but rather strip things away to find our true selves—and thus, peace.”
So much of what I am learning now at this stage of my life is refocusing my energy in a very clear and different direction.
“The antidote to these worldly temptations is Vanaprastha, the third ashrama, whose name comes from two Sanskrit words meaning “retiring” and “into the forest.” This is the stage, usually starting around age 50, in which we purposefully focus less on professional ambition, and become more and more devoted to spirituality, service, and wisdom. This doesn’t mean that you need to stop working when you turn 50—something few people can afford to do—only that your life goals should adjust.”
This has truly been my new “work or job”. A work which takes up many hours of reading, study, reflection, and even activity.
“Vanaprastha is a time for study and training for the last stage of life, Sannyasa, which should be totally dedicated to the fruits of enlightenment. In times past, some Hindu men would leave their family in old age, take holy vows, and spend the rest of their life at the feet of masters, praying and studying. Even if sitting in a cave at age 75 isn’t your ambition, the point should still be clear: As we age, we should resist the conventional lures of success in order to focus on more transcendentally important things.”
What are these more important things at this time of my life? Relationships, Friendships, Public Service, Private Prayer and Reflection, Contemplation, and even Rest. For the first time in my life I am learning even to take naps from time to time that are restful and refreshing even rejuvenating.
Learning to Be more than to Do is a great adventure but also a great challenge. It takes practice and real work cutting out time to be in the Present Moment.
The danger is the constant and innate desire to return to ones old ways of being and doing.
The author in the Atlantic calls it “Psychoprofessional Gravitation”.
“There is a message in this for those of us suffering from the Principle of Psychoprofessional Gravitation. Say you are a hard-charging, type-A lawyer, executive, entrepreneur, or—hypothetically, of course—president of a think tank. From early adulthood to middle age, your foot is on the gas, professionally. Living by your wits—by your fluid intelligence—you seek the material rewards of success, you attain a lot of them, and you are deeply attached to them. But the wisdom of Hindu philosophy—and indeed the wisdom of many philosophical traditions—suggests that you should be prepared to walk away from these rewards before you feel ready. Even if you’re at the height of your professional prestige, you probably need to scale back your career ambitions in order to scale up your metaphysical ones.”
It is funny that when we are young we spend most of our time happily letting go of our youth and inexperience desperately looking for new adventure and growth. This should continue on into old age. But as our life gets longer there is more past than future, and we try to hold on tight to the pleasures and comforts that adult life have brought us.
We continue the pace we are accustomed to, our likes and interests, But we also need to be fed by newness, challenge, growth, and even the youthfulness that surrounds us in our upcoming generations no matter how outdated or updated we may seem to them or them to us.
Again, it is all about a change in focus and energy.
“When the New York Times columnist David Brooks talks about the difference between “résumé virtues” and “eulogy virtues,” he’s effectively putting the ashramas in a practical context. Résumé virtues are professional and oriented toward earthly success. They require comparison with others. Eulogy virtues are ethical and spiritual, and require no comparison. Your eulogy virtues are what you would want people to talk about at your funeral. As in He was kind and deeply spiritual, not He made senior vice president at an astonishingly young age and had a lot of frequent-flier miles.”
So at 60 I am slowly waking up to these “eulogy virtues” in my life. It takes a-lot of hard work and more than anything humility. No longer is there value in my title, my parish known or unknown, my Diocese, my membership on a commission or foundation. My value is based on my own embracing of human and spiritual values that are deeper, long lasting and will even be my legacy after I am gone.
My prayer is that God gives me a few more years to learn my life’s lesson before I have to “graduate” as one of my good friends calls it. And that at my last breath (my graduation day) I may have the vision and ecstasy of St Gertrude the 13 century German Mystic.
“May I breath my last breath, in the protection of your close embrace, with your all power-full KISS! May my soul find herself without delay, there where YOU are, whom no place circumscribes, invisible, living, and exulting, in the full flowering of eternity, world without end.”
Dedicated to Sr Anna Kathleen osb
My novice mentor and guide
Pax ➕Bene Vincent osb
Article Link (The Atlantic)