I am convinced that if we surround ourselves with goodwill, and keep our hearts open and a ray of light shining deep within us, our old age, whatever it might be like, will have dignity and meaning.
Being with radiant, remarkable elderly people does me so much good that I think of them as my good-luck charms. Here is one of them. At almost one hundred years of age, Sister Emmanuelle is a nun known to all French people for her charisma and the twenty years she spent working in the shanty towns of Cairo, combating poverty and illiteracy.
When I invited Sister Emmanuelle to talk to me about her old age, she looked me straight in the eye.
‘Well, you see, Marie, old age is the most beautiful period of my life. I feel as though I am rich from all the encounters I have experienced. Thousands and thousands of people have enriched me, so I have an immense store of capital, and feel responsible for passing on what I have received.’
As I pointed out to her that people view her as a wise woman, she retorted: ‘But I am not wise, Marie! I am a bit of a crank! I launch myself into adventures, and I’m unreasonable; I’ve always been like that. I always did whatever I did, come hell or high water, though nobody approved. When I became a nun, everyone laughed at me, because I was a girl who enjoyed having fun, travelling, and dancing with good-looking boys. I was a flirt. Looking good was important to me. So people said to me: ‘What on earth are you going to do in a convent?’ The others didn’t see that, deep down in my heart, I had a desire for the absolute. I flirted, and I travelled, but where was that leading me? I felt that I was made for something that doesn’t pass away. I wasn’t then familiar with the words of Pascal: ‘Everything slips away from us and flees with an eternal flight.’ I sensed that everything was slipping out of my hands, and I wanted what doesn’t pass away: love, love that is free and true, for that is eternal.’
A greater freedom
‘So would you say that old age confers greater freedom?’ I asked.
‘Yes, I think so. Contacts are so much easier, and the affection that may seem ambiguous when one is younger, and which consequently one may not dare to experience fully, becomes a very clear human dimension. I have very affectionate friendships, which are real and which give me a great deal. And also, when I see my life unfolding, I feel at peace. I made the right choices.’
I then asked her how she spends all her days. She replied: ‘I have visits from friends, people from the association that I founded and whose activities I follow closely. I don’t know why, but I have an enormous number of young friends, and I rediscover myself in them. Young people refresh my soul; it’s delicious! One can be old and still have a young heart; it’s a marvel. As I’ve grown older, I have become extremely sensitive. Respect and affection do me good. Before, I did not feel the need to be surrounded by smiles and kindness. Now I enjoy it very much, and it helps me not to be an old grouch!’
Did she sometimes feel lonely?
‘Never! You see, Marie, I believe deeply in the presence of a spirit of love that dwells within us. It is my home. I enjoy it constantly.’
‘Do you call this presence God?’ I ventured.
Her face lit up; suddenly, it was the face of a young girl. ‘I have two infinite sources of joy: God and mankind. I believe in God, and I believe in mankind. When I am alone, I pray. I always have my rosary within reach. I take into my prayers all the people who are in my heart, and I make an immense bouquet that I offer up from morn till night. ‘Lord, please bless all those I love!’ I am sure that God is listening to me, that He helps them to bear their lives, to surmount obstacles, to love.’
When I asked her what she would like to say to all those who are entering the third age and who are afraid of growing old, she concluded in a voice that was strikingly firm and gentle: ‘Do not be afraid! Old age is like a coronation. I have reached the summit of my life, and I see the world and other people with infinite tenderness. I feel them in my heart. This affectionate contemplation gives me immense joy. For me, it is like champagne! Joy bursts forth in my heart!
‘You, too, can dispense this joy around you. One becomes old the day one no longer believes in mankind and in the worth of every individual, whoever he or she may be. Take these words of a Muslim poet, which I am very fond of, and make them yours: ‘Break open the heart of man and there you will find a sun!’ But in order to do that, you must forget yourself a little, and take an interest in others!
‘Elderly people should realise that it is their mission to love. Whatever the state in which one grows old, one can look, smile, stretch out one’s hand, and bless. And that transfigures life.’
Lighting up old age
It is faith and love that light up old age, and Sister Emmanuelle is an example of that. Her faith is rooted in her religious experience; other radiant elderly people, as we shall see, are not borne along by a religious faith, but quite simply by a faith in life and in mankind.
This last stage in our lives is an opportunity to continue enriching ourselves emotionally and spiritually, and to pass on our experience, our values, and our faith in mankind to younger generations. Through encounters with remarkable elderly people such as Sister Emanuelle, we know that it is possible to live to old age and retain our self esteem, experience moments of joy and happiness, and continue to learn from life. We can experience a fulfilling old age.
From The Warmth of the Heart Prevents Your Body from Rusting, © 2011 by Marie de Hennezel, published by Rodale.