The history of aging is a rather interesting and ever-changing topic. In ancient times, some cultures would consider the aged individual to be “already dead” or in their “sleeping period” (sleep was often used as a euphemism for death in antiquity). For others, old age was a crowning achievement, something to be celebrated and embraced. In early canonical Biblical texts, men lived to be in their 900s (Methuselah was 969 when he died, allegedly), which is also seen in Sumerian King lists and other ancient sources. Within the Biblical corpus, in the post-Flood world, individuals began to live less and less longer – Noah lived to be 950, living for 350 years after the Flood, and there is a progression in the aging from the time of Shem to Abraham - 600 to 175, and even to Moses - at the age of 120 (Deuteronomy 34:7). Moses was actually considerably old for the period he lived in, as he said (via attribution) in Psalm 90:10, "Our days come to seventy years, or eighty, if our strength endures; yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away."
The perception of age, then, has shifted throughout the centuries. If, even by the time that the aforementioned Psalm was written it was the norm to live to 70-80 years of age (perhaps due to nutrition – Jews would not eat pork, for example, which prevented them from getting trichinosis and other diseases), then clearly the average age has not remained constant. The age of 65 is considered “old” by most countries today, particularly in Germany and the United States. But when we think today on elders and the idea of older individuals, it may bring to mind images of an Indian shaman, an older Buddhist monk full of wisdom, the current Pope, a grandfather, among other things. Often age is associated with wisdom – although this is certainly not always the case.
In its connection to spirituality, consider the example of C.S. Lewis. Lewis (known as “Jack” to his friends) began his life praying as a small boy, yet after the death of his mother he practically abandoned his faith. As he grew older and entered into discussions with other learned men such as J.R.R. Tolkien and Roger Green, he began to move from his atheistic point of view into the Christian (Anglican) faith. After the death of his wife, however, he began to question God and his faith overall – until he one day began to use his pain to strengthen his faith. Through the example of Lewis, we can see how someone’s spirituality can change form, content, practice and strength as he or she ages. This is also clearly seen in the lives of men such as St. Augustine, St. Francis, Thomas Merton and many others. Our respect for those who are older than we are ought to be continually borne in mind, and as the ever-increasing older population grows, so too should our understanding, our relationship with them and hopefully lead to a more positive and helpful understanding of aging.