When Nikos Kazantsakis was a young man he interviewed an old monk on Mount Athos. At one stage he asked him: “Do you still struggle with the devil?” “No,” the man replied, “I used to, but I’ve grown old and tired and the devil has grown old and tired with me. Now I leave him alone and he leaves me alone!” “So your life is easy then,” Kazantsakis asked, “no more struggles?” “Ah, no,” replied the monk, “it’s worse. Now I struggle with God!”
Someone once quipped that we spend the first half of our lives struggling with the devil (and the sixth commandment) and the second half of our lives struggling with God (and the fifth commandment). While that captures something, it’s too simple, unless we define “the devil” more widely to mean our struggles with the untamed energies of youth – eros, restlessness, sexuality, the ache for intimacy, the push for achievement, the search for a moral cause, the hunger for roots, and the longing for a companionship and a place that feel like home.
It’s not easy, especially when we’re young, to make peace with the fires inside us. We need to establish our own identity and find, for ourselves, intimacy, meaning, self-worth, quiet from restlessness, and a place that feels like home. We can spend fifty years, after we’ve first left home, finding our way back there again.
But the good news is that, generally, we do get there. In mid-life, perhaps only in late mid-life, we achieve something the mystics call “Proficiency”, a state wherein we have achieved an essential maturity – basic peace, a sexuality integrated enough to let us sleep at night and keep commitments during the day, a sense of self-worth, and an essential unselfishness. We’ve found our way home. And there, as once before the onset of puberty, we’re relatively comfortable again, content enough to recognize that our youthful journeyings, while exciting, were also full of restlessness. We’d like to be young again, but we don’t want all that disquiet a second time. Like Kazantsakis’ old monk, we’ve grown tired of wrestling with the devil and he with us. We now leave each other alone.
So where do we go from there, from home? T.S. Eliot once said, “Home is where we start from.” That’s true again in mid-life.
The second-half of life, just like the first, demands a journey. While the first-half of life, as we saw, is very much consumed with the search for identity, meaning, self-worth, intimacy, rootedness, and making peace with our sexuality, the second-half has another purpose, as expressed in the famous epigram of Job: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I go back.”
Where do we go from home? To an eternal home with God. But, to do that, we have first to shed many of the things that we legitimately acquired and attached ourselves to during the first-half of life. The spiritual task of the second-half of life, so different from the first, is to let go, to move to the nakedness that Job describes.
What does that entail? From what do we need to detach ourselves?
First, and most importantly, from our wounds and anger. The foremost spiritual task of the second half of life is to forgive – others, ourselves, life, God. We all arrive at mid-life wounded and not having had exactly the life of which we dreamed. There’s a disappointment and anger inside everyone of us and unless we find it in ourselves to forgive, we will die bitter, unready for the heavenly banquet.
Second, we need to detach ourselves from the need to possess, to achieve, and to be the centre of attention. The task of the second-half of life is to become the quiet, blessing grandparent who no longer needs to be the centre of attention but is happy simply watching the young grow and enjoy themselves.
Third, we need to learn how to say good-bye to the earth and our loved ones so that, just as in the strength of our youth we once gave our lives for those we love, we can now give our deaths to them too, as a final gift.
Fourth, we need to let go of sophistication so as to become simple “holy old fools” whose only message is that God loves us.
Finally, we need, more and more, to immerse ourselves in the language of silence, the language of heaven. Meister Eckhard once said: “Nothing so much resembles God as silence.” The task of mid-life is to begin to understand that and enter into that language.
And it’s a painful process. Purgatory is not some exotic, Catholic doctrine that believes that there is some place in the next life outside of heaven and hell. It’s a central piece within any mature spirituality which, like Job, tells us that God’s eternal embrace can only become fully ecstatic once we’ve learned to let go.