Tuesday, May 6

A Priestly Point of View: Franciscan Spirituality and Aging

Disclaimer: This article is adapted from a paper written from the point-of-view of a fictional Franciscan priest. Although the young man mentioned in the article exists under another name, everything after the first twenty years of his life is is entirely fiction. This was written in order to illustrate how someone within the Franciscan way of life may handle life and death if faced with a certain amount of time left to live. Is seeks to explore questions such as: what is the connection between Spirituality and Aging? How can this fictional account of the Franciscan priest and the story of the young man provide for further reflection and deeper thought on spirituality, particularly as it develops throughout life? The article is based on interviews with several Franciscan priests, a variety of texts, personal reflections and key readings that can better elucidate the topic at hand. From this point on, we assume the role of the fictional, unnamed Franciscan priest.

As a Franciscan priest in the Roman Catholic Church, I am often called on to take on the role of the shepherd and be there to see the one leaving this life into the arms of the Great Shepherd as they cross the veil to the other side of eternity. In the Franciscan tradition, we hold that all of creation is interconnected. Indeed, when we speak of creation as an “it,” we are not only doing a disservice to God’s creation but also to ourselves – for we are also part of this masterful creation. St. Francis recognized the unity in this creation, and composed the Canticle of Creatures (also known as Brother Sun and Sister Moon or the Canticle of the Sun) toward the end of his life. The last stanza to be composed mentioned Sister Death (or Sister Bodily Death), an acceptance of death as a part of our human existence. However, as St. Paul the Apostle once wrote, we as Christians have power over this bodily death through Christ so that we may say, “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1st Corinthians 15:55; cf. Hosea 13:14).

I have recently learned of the impending passing of Ian Gaskill, aged 87, who has been given six months to live. For the sake of our familiarity, I will henceforth refer to him by his first name, which means “gift of God.” There are a number of concepts relating to Spirituality that are explored by Robert Atchley, PhD of Gerontology at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado in his 2009 work, Spirituality and Aging. When reflecting on the sort of life that Ian has led and where he is at now in his spirituality, several aspects of his spiritual life seemed to agree with the work done by Atchley. As a result, it may be best to first give a bit of my background, talk about Ian’s life and his spiritual journey, refer it back to the work done by Atchley and situate Ian’s spirituality within the five-fold spirituality typology formed by Harold Koenig in his Handbook of Religion and Health. The intention is to explore spirituality and aging in light of various experiences (including Ian’s and my own as a Franciscan priest), detail Atchley’s analysis of spirituality as well as Koenig’s typology and how it relates to Ian, and then explain what this means for an understanding of spirituality an aging in our postmodern world.

As with any individual examining a topic, it is good to reveal my bias and my background going into this. Admittedly, I was not always a Franciscan, and therefore I was not always a Franciscan priest. In actuality, I was raised a “non-denominational” Protestant. My mother had once been Pentecostal and my father an Agnostic until we all became “non-denominational Christians.” Since my childhood, I have had experience attending a Baptist church, a Methodist church, other non-denominational churches, sliding into the New Age cult, studying the defense of the Christian faith (apologetics), learning about the Creation/Evolution debate, learning about the different Christian denominations, reading the religious texts of Muslims, Mormons, Buddhists, Hindus, reading other ancient Christian works, and in my early twenties, I entered the RCIA and became a Catholic, and proceeded to become a Franciscan shortly thereafter. With this in mind, I had gone to Seminary for ten years before I was ordained a Franciscan priest, and after having been a priest for fifteen years, I met Ian, who was in his early forties at the time.

Our subsequent relationship may perhaps be classified as one of “friendship,” but I am almost tempted to refer to it more as a bond developed between a priest and a parishioner, a mutual fondness that grew partly out of having experiences of spiritual wandering in our early years. At the time, Ian had been a Quaker, along with his wife Linda. But after several years of living out the Quaker tradition, he and his wife began seeking for something else. They felt that something was missing in their lives, so Ian turned once more to the Church of England as he had done in his youth (which will be detailed later). He had at first decided to give the Church of England another chance, but instead decided to do a spot of research. He came to understand that the Church of England had once been a part of the Roman Catholic Church, as other denominations had been before they broke off (notably during the Protestant Reformation). He began to look more into the Catholic faith, and from there explored different orders – the Carthusians, Dominicans, Franciscans, Benedictines, Cistercians and others. By the time Ian and I met, he and Linda had decided to look into the Franciscans a bit more – specifically, the Secular Franciscans.
As he aged, he felt that the Franciscan spirit of brotherhood (and sisterhood) along with the connectedness between all of God’s creation made sense to him and summed up the heart of the gospel. In light of his experiences as a child, this worked for Ian. But before I explain more about the Ian’s personal history, it would be pertinent to note what experience I have had with death and dying as a priest. I have been a priest for over sixty years, and have had many experiences with death and dying. In Seminary during my early years, we learned about the grieving process, and later in the 90s when Elizabeth Kubler Ross’ seminal book On Death and Dying was published, many priests read this as a tool to help with those knocking at death’s door. A large portion of my ministry has dealt with pastoral care, so helping families to cope as well as the individual has been a constant throughout my priesthood.

With this in mind, I should also note that although I have known Ian for around forty years, we had only met around the time he and his wife were looking into becoming Secular Franciscans, and have occasionally run into each other over the years. But it was only recently that he and his wife were in my area when it was discovered that he would only have six months to live, so that a friendship has only begun to develop now as he draws closer to the Kingdom of God. I have therefore learned his story only quite recently, but his is a story that deserves to be told, particularly as it relates to spirituality and aging, and how others may understand it in light of Ian’s experiences.

Ian was born into a middle-class British family, and none of his family was religious. On Sundays, he and his family would go out into the woods and forests and explore, taking a picnic basket with them. When he entered into college, it came as no surprise that he went for his degree in environmental studies. As a young man, he could name the birds, the shrubs, the trees and all that was in the woods around London. During his time at the university, he joined CND (The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament), and questions began to plague his mind – “why do I care so much about saving this planet?” Shortly thereafter, he had interactions with the Hindu faith – who told him that the earth was “sacred,” learned more about Buddhism through a Buddhist meditation group, and became friends with a Sikh. Around this time, he saw a vicar from the Church of England on TV. He went to speak to this vicar, who considered his spiritual search to be meaningless, and asked Ian if he believed in Jesus Christ - and having felt misunderstood, Ian left the church feeling dejected. Never in his life, he confided in me, had he felt so rejected by another human being.

One day he met Linda, who was a Quaker. The two married in a Quaker Centre and moved to an ecological commune in Sweden where they did research on acid rain’s effect in that country. Linda and Ian Gaskill lived in their Swedish commune for many years, but eventually travelled around to do research in Germany, Ireland, Southern India (particularly among the Mukkavar people, whose central focus is the sea) back to England, and finally, they moved to the United States. It was around this time that Ian and Linda began their spiritual search once more. Not content with the Quaker way of life, as aforementioned, they had looked into the Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church, different religious orders, and eventually discovered the Franciscans. It was in the life of St. Francis that they saw a fellow comrade and ecologist. In fact, St. Francis is often considered the first ecologist of sorts, and is the patron saint of the environment. They fell in love with the Franciscan traditions and learned of the Secular Franciscans, and after several years they had gone through RCIA and then become members of the Franciscan community. Although both Linda and Ian felt that this fit their lifestyles perfectly, it meant a lot more to Ian, given his childhood experiences among the woods of London and his connection to and love of nature.

As a result of this spiritual and religious shift, the life of the Gaskills has remained centered on nature but it has taken on a more religious and structured spirituality. When I learned that Ian had six months to live, I began to think on how I may approach him, be present to him, share in the love of Christ with a fellow brother and minister to him. I therefore consulted my book on Pastoral Care of the Sick, which noted:
"The sick should be encouraged to pray when they are alone or with their families, friends, or those who care for them. Their prayer should be drawn primarily from Scripture. The sick person and others may help to plan the celebration, for example, by choosing the prayers and readings. Those making these choices should keep in mind the condition of the sick person" (70). 

"The minister should encourage the sick person to offer his or her sufferings in union with Christ and to join in prayer for the Church and the world. Some examples of particular intentions which may be suggested to the sick person are: for peace in the world; for a deepening of the life of the Spirit in the local Church; for the pope and the bishops; for people suffering in a particular disaster" (72).

The above provides the individual with something to do, a role to play in the Body of Christ, a participatory action even when they may feel immobile. This is why we encourage others to pray. As a priest, it is with great care, prayer and humility that you would approach such a situation. In Seminary, you are cautioned to avoid clich├ęs such as “you will be with God soon.” This may seem as if it would be a comfort, but in reality it fails to comfort. Why? The person is about to lose everything they have ever known and held dear and are faced with the end of their human life. Even if they believe in an afterlife, it is something they have never experienced before, and the uncertain or unexplored often makes humans nervous. We may consider that the best sort of ministry you can have with someone who is knocking at death’s door is a ministry of presence. Instead of coming in with religious answers, you allow the other person to speak – to tell their story. Just being present to the other person is a great help, particularly since their feeling of loneliness grows. Certainly, Anointing, Eucharist and Reconciliation may be a part of all of this. I must point out, however, that the term that many know as “Last Rights” is actually a misnomer, it is actually the Anointing of the Sick and one does not need to be dying to receive it.  So although the sacraments are important, a ministry of presence is the sort of thing that can mean the world to someone else.

In fact, the ministry of presence may be seen as encapsulating much of the role of the priest in the final days of someone’s life. People in their final days often feel lonely and alone, so although one may feel alone in that they cannot have someone else die for them, they can be less lonely by surrounding themselves with others, including the priest. It should be noted that a ministry of presence is something to be desired, yes – but it is also good to ask questions. “What do you feel were the moments in your life that you felt the most alive? Do you see God in these moments?” “What do you think of spirituality? Can you tell me your spiritual journey?” The intention, then, is not to ask leading questions but instead to ask open-ended questions which will allow deeper conversations. It is good to meet the person where they are at, and in Ian’s case I asked what it was he felt he was lacking in the Quaker faith that finally led him to institutional religion. Ian noted that the picnics that he had with his family has Eucharistic connotations; it is essentially a form of table fellowship, and having this fellowship outside, within the context of nature, connected the fellowship with creation. This was sufficient for a long time, but he felt that he was missing a structure to his spirituality.

He has essentially had a spiritual awakening. Ian was not originally religious in his youth but he showed many signs of a deep spirituality: 1) He had a keen love of nature, 2) He had the ability to think and reflect – which is often prized in antiquity, especially in philosophical and mystical circles, 3) He had a narrative that flowed naturally, spiritually, and allows us to see the process of spiritual development on a small scale, 4) He has the ability to relate – to others, to the planet we inhabit, and this gave him a sense of trust as well, 5) Due to his relatability to the planet, he also has a deep care and love of life, especially life on our planet – and part of the transcendental experience is moving and relating to something outside of ourselves, transcending beyond our own person. Ian fits this bill.

Now, as aforementioned, Atchley’s work provides for further analysis of how Ian fits spirituality. According to chapter 1 of his text, “The essence of a fully developed spirituality is an intense aliveness and deep sense of understanding that one intuitively comprehends as having come from a direct, internal link with that mysterious principle that connects all aspects of the universe. As fully awakened spiritual beings, we feel our interconnectedness” (13; emphasis added). Ian can be seen as having a fully developed spirituality, having an intense aliveness in which he recognizes the interconnectedness between all of creation. An example is given by Atchley about a husband and wife who visited the Grand Canyon and were overcome by the grandeur of the creation (17). In this example we see more awe and wonder at creation, which Ian had certainly from his childhood onward.

 In chapter 2 of Atchley’s text, we read about Lars Tornstam’s theory of gerotranscendence. It is a theory that “asserts that spiritual development gradually and steadily increases from middle age onward and results in a shift from a materialistic, role-oriented life philosophy to a transcendent, spiritual perspective in late old age” (33). But we may disagree with this in part, as in Ian’s life, the older he grew, the more religious (in a sense) he became. He grew out of the Quaker faith into Catholicism, specifically the Franciscan branch. However, there is also a sense that Tornstam is correct in Ian’s case, as Franciscan spirituality is often associated with mysticism, primarily due to its focus on interconnectedness with creation. So although part of his spirituality was more structured as he aged, it continued to retain its highly spiritual nature. Another study cited by Atchley comes from Harry R. Moody and David Carroll (1997), in which there are different stages of the soul, a shift from an unconscious to a conscious spiritual life. These stages are seen as the Call, the Search, the Struggle, the Breakthrough and the Return. This is excellently exemplified within the life of Ian Gaskill, and the stages are as follows:
The Call: The person has experiences that indicate a deeper aspect of human existence than previously known. He or she feels drawn to explore this “hidden-in-plain-sight” field of possibility and is attracted, led, or drawn back to this aspect over and over again.

The Search: The person searches inwardly for signs of spiritual experience and also searches for teachers, texts, experiences and practices that can help her or him glimpse spiritual nature. There is a thirst for dwelling in this particular mystery.

The Struggle: The person struggles with letting go of old ways of seeing and behaving, facing doubts and fears of failure, and developing routine practices that create openings for experiences of spiritual connection and transcendence. Spiritual community is often a particularly important support during this stage.

The Breakthrough: The person emerges from the struggle into stunning clarity of spiritual perception and purpose. The person breaks through into new qualities of experience: timelessness and immense space, more accurate perception of “reality,” “lightness of being” – liberation, deep inner silence, stillness and peace, loss of fears about death, a sense of new beginning, feelings of universal love and compassion, and a profound sense that what has happened cannot be captured in words.

The Return: The person who experiences a breakthrough then experiences that life goes on. The new way of being needs to be integrated into daily life, and the person feels a responsibility to give back in return for the amazing gift received. There is no standard form to the return; returns are shaped by personality, circumstances, and culture. Many if not most returns are invisible to the persons experiencing them.

To briefly recap Ian’s life, the Call can be seen during his youth, when he first started exploring the woods outside of London on those warm Sundays. The Search really began when Ian entered into college and started looking into Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, and Anglicanism. Indeed, even his time as a Quaker may be considered part of this search, and for a long time Ian may have felt that he had the Struggle, the Breakthrough and the Return. But instead, he continued the Search, and eventually had decided to look into Catholicism, and after going through the RCIA and finally learning of and becoming a Secular Franciscan, he struggled to let go of his past hurts that religion brought him, struggled to readjust his life and his thinking on various matters, but his spiritual community greatly aided in this endeavor. He went on to have a Breakthrough, and decided to use his scientific research to continue to better the planet, and chose to do a ministry of service with his wife, Linda. Their ministry mainly consisted of taking care of gardens, forests, natural wildlife and bringing flowers and other plants to people who were sick or elderly. By this point, the Return had occurred. At the end of his life, Ian has been recalling these details and appropriating them to fit his spiritual understanding.

Also in chapter 2, we read of Ray and McFadden’s theory. In their view, spiritual development is seen as “involving a necessary element of human relationship. Their concept of development is not so much a linear or even cyclic process. They prefer the web and the quilt as metaphors for the mysterious interactive processes by which disparate spiritual experiences result in a meaningful spiritual whole” (45). I think this is very important concerning Ian, because if this is all a necessary element of human relationship, it speaks a lot to the bond, interconnectedness and love shared between Ian and Linda. In this way, his relationship with Linda as it grew out of their early college life as environmental studies majors into working together on researching acid rain and their continued spiritual journey together as Quakers, then as Catholics and their eventual movement into being Secular Franciscans. Both Ian and Linda have had a long journey together, much of which has been tied together by their love of nature, which has spiritually, emotionally, mentally and physically increased and joined together their love for one another.

Chapter 6 and 7 of Atchley’s text can also provide further insight. According to Chapter 6, “Continuity, Spiritual Growth and Coping in Later Adulthood,” most older people have good health, high self-acceptance and self-esteem, a high degree of life satisfaction, a satisfying and meaningful lifestyle, and a long-standing convoy of social support. It also follows that older people are resilient; they have been through enough surprises, contradictions and paradoxes in life to know how to cope – so that for most of these individuals, a focus on the inner life, service to others, and deepening connections with the sacred are part of growth and development. This seems to be true in Ian’s case. Despite knowing he has six months left to live, he has been able to accept “Sister Bodily Death,” as he and his wife have said, and as a result of various struggles throughout life (marital issues, the loss of his parents and friends, feeling rejected by the Vicar, and other such events) he has been refined like gold in a fire and has prepared for these ultimate moments.

As Atchley points out, ‘We are drawn to BE love and to serve,” and Ian feels that the Franciscan message is how he has lived this out. He has, like many elders, a small circle of friends who support him, and he shares love with these individuals and many others. He has formed relationships through the ministry that he and Linda have had, in their spiritual work toward others (acts of service and charity) and in their contributions to the scientific field (their research on acid rain has helped many). These relationships are important for Ian, and as Atchley points out, relationships are vital for most people in coping. However, disability and the thinning of one’s social network can make elders feel very vulnerable, but elders constantly make new friends and new acquaintances. Luckily, in Ian’s case, his Franciscan community is very near and dear and this continuity and interpersonal relations have helped Ian prepare for his last few months of life on this side of eternity.

According to chapter 7 of Atchley’s text, “Spiritual Beliefs and Practices and the Experience of Time and Aging,” spiritual beliefs and practices can influence one’s view of time. Albert Einstein once said, “When you sit with a nice girl for two hours, you think it’s only a minute. But when you sit on a hot stove for a minute, you think it’s two hours. That’s relativity.” This is rather true, when we think on it. We are constantly made aware of chronological time through technology. We have a schedule, an order to the day, a way to keep our house at the same temperature at every hour of the night, alarms to tell us to wake up or go somewhere, calendars, planners, wristwatches, phones, and so forth. Preliterate societies instead lived their lives around cycles of the moon and sun, the seasons and the cycles of animal and plant life. So although Ian has a lot more “free time” on his hands, so to speak, he still continues to focus and center himself through two means that are also mentioned by Atchley: prayer and meditation.

Most meditation-based traditions encourage meditation as a habit, and usually use concepts of time in order to create pauses in all the business of the day. For example, Muslims practice five opportunities for prayer, and Catholic monastic traditions have prayer and contemplation seven times a day. Prayer is also used in most faith traditions, and can be subheaded with ritual prayer, petitionary prayer, and meditative prayer. I may add that we can add a personal prayer, which is more of someone speaking with God and telling him fears, desires, and so forth. Ritual prayer may perhaps be the Our Father; Meditative prayer can be seen through the Rosary; the Hail Mary can be Petitionary – “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.” So one may say that prayers and meditation are two major things which have allowed Ian to become much more at peace with himself, preparing him for the end of his long life. If people believe that they will live in eternity, there is perhaps less of a fear. If someone believes that time is finite and death is final, as they age they made see time as a scarcity. Ian believes in eternity in which he will live with God, the saints, his family, deceased members of his community, the angelic host and one day, his wife. Though Atchley is approaching spirituality from a more social type of standpoint, admittedly his considerations of spirituality greatly illuminate and make sense of Ian’s experience. At this point, it may be pertinent to examine a definition of spirituality as discussed earlier.

When examining the five-fold typology found in Harold Koenig’s “Definitions” (on pg.19), Ian seems to fit into Type 4: Moored spirituality – Western type I (about 25% of the population). The list provided lists the different factors:
Includes evangelical, conservative Protestants, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, 
            Jews, Muslims.
Feel responsible to someone (Theocratic)
Offer prayers that are very specific and directed
Believe in faith healing, anointing with oil
Focus on a God who intervenes

Early in his life, Ian would not have fit this particular type, but now, at the end of his life, he is a Catholic (Franciscan), he feels responsible both to his wife Linda and his Franciscan community, he offers prayers daily, believes in the anointing with oil (hence why he specifically asked for the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick), and he believes that God intervenes in his life and that his spiritual development has been a series of interventions. Evidently, Ian would fit nicely into this definition.

Through Ian, we see someone who did not necessarily have any particular opinion on God’s existence, nor did he really take religion into account. As he grew up, he searched for various forms of religiousness and spirituality, but when he felt rejected institutional religion he remained spiritual with his wife in the Quaker faith. After various life events, Ian sensed that there was something missing in his spirituality and decided to look again into religion, where he eventually found his “happy medium,” as he describes, in the Franciscan tradition, combining his spirituality and his life-long appreciation of nature. Spiritual development can occur at different stages in life and at different points – there is not necessarily any set ages or choices made which will lead someone to have one type of spirituality or another. Instead, it has grown out of Ian’s childhood experiences that he carried into adulthood and later used to connect him to the Franciscan tradition. Through Ian’s example, Atchley’s research, Koenig’s definitions and the Franciscan tradition which Ian follows, we were able to explore how one man’s spirituality can further our own.

When I was requesting Ian’s permission to write about his life story, he graciously conveyed the details of his journey, but he made but one request. He requested that I end the work by quoting the Canticle of Brother Sun and Sister Moon, also known as the Canticle of the Creatures, which was mentioned at the beginning of our journey. Having grown up in a nature-based setting with his family, dedicating his college career, his life, his spirituality and his religion to God’s creation, he felt that the canticle from St. Francis of Assisi best expresses his life, his reflections on the interconnectedness between himself and the rest of creation – seeing himself as part of Creation and not separate – and felt that the final stanzas best sum up his current acceptance and close of his long journey, which I have had the privilege of being a part of and experiencing firsthand as he reflects on his spiritual journey:

Most high, all powerful, all good Lord!
All praise is Yours, all glory, all honor, and all blessing.

To You, alone, Most High, do they belong.
No mortal lips are worthy to pronounce Your name.

Be praised, my Lord, through all Your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and You give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!
Of You, Most High, he bears the likeness.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars;
in the heavens You have made them bright, precious and beautiful.

Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air,
and clouds and storms, and all the weather,
through which You give Your creatures sustenance.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Water;
she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.

Be praised, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom You brighten the night.
He is beautiful and cheerful, and powerful and strong.

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth,
who feeds us and rules us,
and produces various fruits with colored flowers and herbs.

Be praised, my Lord, through those who forgive for love of You;
through those who endure sickness and trial.

Happy those who endure in peace,
for by You, Most High, they will be crowned.

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Bodily Death,
from whose embrace no living person can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin!
Happy those she finds doing Your most holy will.
The second death can do no harm to them.

Praise and bless my Lord, and give thanks,
and serve Him with great humility.

Atchley, Robert C. Spirituality and Aging. 1st ed. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2009. Print.

"Canticle of Brother Sun." Prayer Foundation. Prayer Foundation, n.d. Web. April 2014.

Coughlin, Fr. John. Personal Interview. 07 Apr 2014.

Di Spigno, Fr. Francis. Personal Interview. 08 Apr 2014.

Haden, Fr. Kyle. Personal Interview. 03 Apr 2014.

Moroney, Monsignor James P. Pastoral Care of the Sick: Rites of Anointing and Viaticum. 2nd      ed. Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 2004. Print.

Riley, Fr. Dan. Personal Interview. 03 Apr 2014.

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