Biblical Advice on Growing Old With Grace — and Wisdom
BOOK PICK: ‘What Does the Bible Say About Old Age?’
What Does the Bible Say About Old Age?
By Father Ronald D. Witherup
New City Press, 2019
132 pages, paperback, $16.95
An old joke asks: Why do old people read the Bible so much? Answer: They are cramming for the final exam.
Reading the Bible is a good place to find answers, and it is a good place to go to understand how to live everyday life — especially for the seniors among us.
The more days we have behind us, the less we have remaining, so the book What Does the Bible Say About Old Age? is like a study guide of sorts for seniors who want to know what the Bible says about their state in life.
The author, Father Ronald D. Witherup, is superior general of the Society of the Priests of St. Sulpice (Sulpicians) and a former professor of sacred Scripture. He has authored numerous books and articles on Scripture and theology, often combining themes of the Old and New Testaments with contemporary issues. As a baby boomer, Father Witherup is among those looking to a future where there are likely more days behind than ahead. But quality of days is more important than their length, according to Father Witherup. In his book, he considers all aspects of old age — from the blessings that come with wisdom (and those given freely through grace) to the missteps that interfere with wisdom.
Father Witherup begins by considering many of the Old Testament heroes who lived to a ripe old age — such as Noah and Methuselah. But, he notes, those impressive years are about something more than longevity and age. “Old age was equated with God’s blessing and living an upright life,” Father Witherup writes.
While Genesis is the literature of myth, the author states, that does not mean the story is a falsehood. “On the contrary, it means wrestling with deep truths,” he writes; this interpretation of biblical analysis and study has also been discussed in a papal encyclical. “Old age is one of those distinguishing characteristics of Israel’s heroes.” Anthropology and archeology records indicate, Father Witherup says, that the average lifespan was actually less than what we have today. “St. Paul, centuries later, calls himself ‘an old man,’ by which he means someone about age sixty,” Father Witherup writes. “In fact, in New Testament times, sixty would be an advanced old age.”
He pointed to the Psalmist to put our accumulation of years in perspective: “For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past.” The point, he says, is that, as we age, time seems to go ever faster, and we come to realize how fleeting it really is.
Father Witherup acknowledges lingering illness, however, can make time drag and have people wondering why God is delaying taking them home, so he acknowledges as well that the swiftness of time can feel differently depending on our situation.
That brings Father Witherup to the Bible’s lessons on aging that treat growing old and gray as the normal course of life and generally equate age with the gray hairs of wisdom. “Aging is part of a seamless path that human beings usually follow, a continuum that extends from birth to death,” he notes.
Most important is the goal of living a righteous life, Father Witherup says, and not simply a long life, for wisdom is something everyone should seek, each of us beginning when we are young. That is the specific focus of one of the chapters, “It’s Not That You Grow Old, But How.”
Even in old age, though, we can look to a productive life. Father Witherup points to examples, such as Moses, of people flourishing at that stage of their lives. He also mentions the Book of Proverbs, which proclaims: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom but fools despise wisdom and instruction.” This adage is repeated multiple times throughout the wisdom literature of the Old Testament.
“While the Bible does not address every modern problem associated with the increase of an aging population,” Father Witherup writes, “we nevertheless find that the Bible does indeed offer some significant food for thought on the topic.” He addresses a full range on the issue and emphasizes the importance of accepting God’s will in our old age since we are not our own masters, and, as he notes elsewhere, growing old is the normal course of human events.
Throughout his pontificate, Pope Francis has emphasized the need to support the elderly as treasures of the Church and of family life.
“Their voice is precious because it sings the praises of God and guards the roots of peoples. They remind us that old age is a gift,” the Pope said earlier this year when he announced the World Day for Grandparents and the Elderly in July, close to the feast of the grandparents of Jesus, Sts. Joachim and Anne.
Father Witherup presents the idea that growing old should not be feared. He encourages readers to keep things in perspective, since, in reality, we will live forever in eternity; but, in the meantime, with a positive perspective, we can take comfort in the years of our “golden sunset.”
As he quotes, “The Book of Proverbs proclaims: ‘The glory of youths is their strength, but the beauty of the aged is their gray hair.’”