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Posted November 7, 2013

Book: Echoes of the Word: A New Kind of Monk on the Meaning of Life
Author: Enzo Bianchi
Paraclete Press. Brewster. MA. 2013. Pp. 185

An Excerpt from the Jacket:

"Abba, give me a word!" So young monks and visitors to desert monasteries would address an elder at the beginning of the fourth century. These seekers believed that a word originating outside themselves would descend into their hearts and give direction to their lives. Enzo Bianchi has tried to let himself be guided by this tradition. These "words" are not listed alphabetically or by theme. They are arranged to take you on a journey. Through the use of allusions and cross-references, one term evokes another, explains it in part, and sets aside some elements of its definition to be further explored.

An Excerpt from the Book:

Old Age

I can identify four reasons why old age seems bleak: first, it makes activity difficult, second, it weakens the body, third, it denies us almost every form of pleasure, fourth, it is not far from death. To this opinion of Cicero (De senetute) we can add another reason why old age is difficult today. The technological age has rendered obsolete the adage that linked old age with wisdom, and that saw the older adult as the guardian of a memory and an experience that made him or her a fundamental member of the social group. The "wisdom of old age" appears to have become a relic belonging to the distant past, or else to a past that, in cultures not yet touched by computer technology, is still present, but these cultures often seem more remote to us than our own distant past. In the context of a society that exalts productivity, efficiency, and utility, older adults find themselves marginalized and made superfluous and useless, and they themselves often feel that they are a burden to their family and society. In such a social context, old age becomes a difficult transition from a condition in which one is defined by one's work or social role to a sort of dead zone of pure negativity, "retirement," a limbo in which one is defined by who one no longer is and what one no longer does.

Any discussion on the subject of old age is in reality a plural discussion that needs to take into account each person's experience and his or her condition of physical and mental health, still old age is always a time when life can be lived fully. It is a distinctive phase of an existential journey, and not merely death's waiting game. "Old age offers itself to men and women as an extraordinary possibility to see life not as a duty, but as a grace." (Barth) Not everyone is given the chance to experience this stage of life --- Jesus himself did not experience old age. One's later years are therefore a gift that can be accepted in freedom and with gratitude. As we grow older we become more attentive to others, we see relationships as increasingly important, and we appreciate each gesture of attention and friendship. Old age is also our great opportunity to look back over our life and find in it a meaning that unifies all that we have experienced. If we find ourselves able to say "thank you" for the past and "yes" to the future, we have performed a spiritual operation that is an essential step in preparing ourselves for our meeting with death: the integration of our life, reconciliation with our past.

Old age is a time for anamnesis, remembering, and also for storytelling. We feel the need to tell others about our life, so that, when our stories are welcomed and respected by those who listen to us, we can reaffirm our life's worth. By telling our own story, we can also communicate to others an experience of faith. Psalm 71, the "prayer of an old person," is a moving example of such a personal account of faith in old age. Despite the physical and mental deterioration that are part of the process of aging, the loss of strength, and the fact that we have fewer possibilities, we also find that we have the possibility to face in a more direct way the questions life places before us, without the evasions and illusions our many activities may have allowed us to entertain when we were younger. What is my worth? What meaning does life have? Why should I die? What is the meaning of the suffering and losses life is filled with? We can also address the religious question, the question of faith, with greater awareness and in greater depth. "When he was younger, the individual could still imagine that he was the one who went to meet his Lord. Old age should become his opportunity to discover that it is the Lord who comes to meet him and take in hand his destiny: (Barth, quoted in Obt Viellir 1992, 37.

Every phase of life has its proprium, its own specific character. Accepting old age fully will allow us to experience these years not as a time of regret or nostalgia but as an opportunity to interiorize what we have lived and to return to what is essential. This is part of the process of making peace with what we have lost that makes old age resemble a movement of kenosis or self-emptying. "What youth finds outside of itself, those who have reached the midpoint of life must find in their interiority" (Jung, quoted in Zumkeller 1994 –166. "In old age they still produce fruit, they are always green and full of sap"), a fruitfulness that manifests itself in affection and gentleness, graciousness and serenity.

Table of Contents:

1. Spiritual life

2. Asceticism

3. Holiness and beauty

4. Senses and spirit

5. Vigilance

6. Spiritual struggle

7. Acedia

8. Desert

9. Waiting for the Lord

10. Patience

11. Faithfulness and time

12. Conversion

13. Attention

14. Listening

15. Meditation

16. Memoria Dei

17. Prayer, a journey

18. Lectio divina

19. Contemplation

20. The word of the cross

21. Prayer, a relationship

22. First listen

23. Prayer and the image of God

24. Prayer of intercession

25. Praying within history

26. Prayer of request

27. Prayer of praise

28. Prayer of thanksgiving

29. Silence

30. Chastity

31. Obedience

32. Poverty

33. Fasting

34. Hope

35. Forgiveness

36. Loving our enemies

37. Humility

38. Knowing ourselves

39. Solitude

40. Communication

41. Communion

42. Illness

43. Old age

44. Death and faith

45. Epilogue: joy