Blog di FORMAZIONE PERMANENTE MISSIONARIA – Uno sguardo missionario sulla Vita, il Mondo e la Chiesa MISSIONARY ONGOING FORMATION – A missionary look on the life of the world and the church
“Only one thing grieved him, and that was that he was beginning to get old, and he had to leave the earth there behind him. This was an injustice on God’s part, that after having slaved one’s life away getting property together, when you’ve got it, and you’d like some more, you have to leave it behind you. (…) So that when they told him it was time for him to be turning away from his property, and thinking of his soul, he rushed out into the courtyard like a madman, staggering, and went round killing his own ducks and turkeys, hitting them with his stick and screaming: “You’re my own property, you come along with me!” (Giovanni Verga, Property – English translation by: D. H. Lawrence).
Is not it true that progress is a set of vectors oriented in the same direction. For many dimensions of life, modernity has brought great improvements and developments; but not for the art of aging and dying, which is undergoing a rapid and strong recession. The final stage of the “Jacob Cycle” is streaked with pain and death, particularly as regards women.
After the sad story of Dinah, we witness the death of Deborah, ‘Rebekah’s nurse’ (35:8), who was buried under an “oak” of tears. She is followed by Rachel, the beloved wife of Jacob, who died in giving birth to her second child: ‘And when her labour was at its hardest, the midwife said to her, »Do not fear, for you have another son.« And as her soul was departing (for she was dying), she called his name Ben-oni [son of my sorrow]; but his father called him Benjamin [son of prosperity] (35:17-18). Jacob continues to move, a pilgrim and an exile, through the promised land. And so, still as a traveller, he buries Rachel in Bethlehem (the ‘house of bread’), along the road that was bringing him back to the land of his father Isaac (Hebron). On the grave, once again, he erected a pillar, to mark his wife’s life and that land forever.
Women still beget us through labour, and for all the progress medicine has made, childbirth remains a crucial moment in the lives of mothers, which gives them a unique value and dignity in the universe. But there are still too many women dying in giving birth (about a thousand every day), even in the most technologically advanced countries. Sometimes, in these encounters of life and death the alchemy of Rachel is repeated: the newborn who is a ‘child of sorrow’ and death takes a new name and becomes a ‘child of prosperity’ and life. And in these transformations and genuine resurrections, it is usually the father to give his son the new name, and then to always see in their son, like in every child of theirs (and more), the face of the mother, his spouse.
And finally, Isaac dies, too: ‘And Jacob came to his father Isaac at Mamre … where Abraham and Isaac had sojourned. Now the days of Isaac were 180 years. And Isaac breathed his last, and he died and was gathered to his people, old and full of days. And his sons Esau and Jacob buried him.’ (35:27-29) The death of Isaac repeats almost literally that of his father Abraham: ‘These are the days of the years of Abraham’s life, 175 years. Abraham breathed his last and died in a good old age, an old man and full of days, and was gathered to his people. Isaac and Ishmael his sons buried him in the cave of Machpelah’ (25:8-9). Both Abraham and Isaac die after a long life, ‘full of years’, ‘in a good old age’, and the father’s death is an opportunity for the meeting of the children who had been in conflict with each other – a wonderful scene that is revived every now and then even in our everyday stories. In both of these beautiful deaths, we find the expression ‘breathed his last’: when we die we return the ‘breath of life’ that Adam had received at the time of creation, and that every man coming into the world receives. Life is not our artefact, but it’s all the mystery that lies between the first breath given to us and the last breath we give back.
The contemplation of the beautiful death of the Patriarchs should not make us forget that not all deaths of past times and the present are good. In case of children and young people, death comes like a thief, an enemy that is to take what is not his due. But there are so many other deaths – in fact, most of them – that could be good if only we had the spiritual and moral resources to live them well. Religions, popular piety, family ethics and spirituality, many traditional non-western civilizations, and even the great ideologies of the twentieth century, had created a good management of pain and death, because they developed a culture of aging and end-of-life that was much more sustainable than the one emerging in our consumer society. There have been many (though not all) old people of past times who died ‘full of years’ and ‘in a good old age’ – my grandfather Domenico is one of them. But today, understanding less and less of it all and therefore not accepting the age of the decline of the body and life, we create “markets of youth” as its surrogates that are more and more flourishing; and we forget that however much we can delay it by expensive beauty treatments, gyms and extreme metropolitan clothing, the age of the sunset is sure to come. Without the preparation of physical decay the final meeting is devastating, because we perceive of death as the death of everything: ourselves, our loves, our ‘property’, the past and the world. And not honouring and not loving our old age and that of others, we do not value and do not like the elderly, who have become a big “periphery” of our era – and so a highly valuable asset is being squandered by society and the economy.
We have a vital need of new charismas to teach us again the art of fulfilled years and good old age, and ones that have the eyes to see this great poverty of our time in a different way, and love it. Without a docile reconciliation with it old age ends up, paradoxically, to dominate the years of youth, too, that are spent quickly and in the fear of them ending soon. If, however, we are able to love it and accept it, old age reveals its delicate, hidden beauties that are not little at all. Beauty has always been a spiritual issue that is a lot more ethical than aesthetic. I met Rita Levi Montalcini, Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela when they were already late in life, and I always found them beautiful, not less beautiful than my grandchildren and the young people at my university.
Therefore it is a great injustice that today too many elderly people spend their last years of life without children and grandchildren around, who are essential to make old age joyful and our gray hair beautiful. The culture that is increasingly causing its elderly to die alone or in the “company” of other elderly people is shameful and deeply ungrateful. Today in Italy, 62.5% of elderly women live alone (compared with 30% of men); it is a very serious fact, especially considering that these women have spent the best years of their lives taking care of their old, giving up (more or less freely) entertainment and often professional fulfilment. There is a whole generation of women who are dying with a huge “credit of care”: what they get in their old age is infinitely less than what they donated when they were young. Tomorrow we will find a new balance between generations and between the sexes (hopefully it will be better), and the credits will be reduced, but this does not change the unjust pain of a whole generation that suffered a real “exodus of care”.
The happiness and wisdom of a civilization is measured primarily by how it handles aging and dying. When a young man sees a parent or a grandmother die badly, it is his own life that is saddened, even if he does not realize it. An old man who is able to grow old and die in ‘good old age’ makes for a great act of hope and love for young people, for his children, and so for everyone. Then it may also happen that a righteous man grows old and dies badly and desperately, and he remains righteous nevertheless, but it is part of the job of living fighting ‘all night’ and finally tearing even the blessing from the angel of death.
The ‘good old age’ and ‘fullness of days’ of Abraham and Isaac (and then of Jacob: 49:33) touch us and move us more when we consider that in that phase of history for the people of Israel, life after death was a very vague concept, it was vague and dark (the so-called Sheol). The God of the Alliance and the Promise was the ‘God of the living’, not the god of the dead. They believed that YHWH acted and spoke to them on earth. For many biblical characters grief for the approaching death is above all that which arises from the thought of no longer being able to see the Lord, known as the Lord of life, who is met, heard, and followed while living in the world. Biblical faith is about encounter, covenant, discipleship, history. Religious experience is historical fact, it happens in time and space, it is a fundamental dimension of life. This, and no other, is the faith that gave us Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It is located in the deep roots of their true laity: the place of faith is history, the promised land is our land. And as long as there is history and land, that same voice that they met may meet us, too, taking us by surprise: ‘Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.’ (28:16). This is their greatest legacy.
After Jacob and his brother Esau buried their father Isaac, ‘Jacob lived in the land of his father’s sojournings, in the land of Canaan’ (37:1).
by Luigino Bruni
published inAvvenire on 08/06/2014