As a young man, Nikos Kazantzakis once sought spiritual guidance from a renowned master, an old monk named Father Makarios. In his autobiography, he describes a conversation he had with the old monk:
“Do you still wrestle with the devil, Father Makarios?” I asked him. “Not any longer, my child. I have grown old now, and he has grown old with me. He doesn’t have the strength. … I wrestle with God.” “With God!” I exclaimed in astonishment. “And you hope to win?” “I hope to lose, my child. My bones remain with me still, and they continue to resist.” (Report to Greco, p.222)
As we grow older, what, in our bones, continues to resist God? How is it that we switch from wrestling with the devil to struggling with God?
I remember a confession I heard as a young priest. It was just before a Eucharist and everyone was hurrying through the line, hoping for a two-minute confession, when a woman, somewhere in her fifties, knelt before me. Hers was not a regular confession, a quick listing of sins, but words to this effect:
This is hard for me to talk about, and even just to admit, but lately I’m finding myself filling constantly with anger. It is hard to describe exactly because it is not so much that certain things trigger it, but that I find myself growing bitter. I’m resentful at my husband and family because they take me so much for granted and I am angry at the world, I guess, for the same reason. Also, and I don’t understand this at all, I have resentments towards God. I can’t word this exactly, but I’m angry at God – angry about some things in my life, angry because life is so unfair at times, and angry that everything is so hopelessly the way it is. I don’t understand this, I never was an angry person when I was younger and now I’m filling with anger. How is it that now, that I am older, I am getting more immature?”
I told her the Kazantzakis story about the old monk who ceased fighting with the devil to begin a more important struggle with God. I assured her that hers was not the struggle of the immature, as she so humbly thought, but rather the struggle of the mature, the struggle of those who have conquered enough of the weaknesses of youth to come face to face with a bigger hurdle, the barrier of resentment.
We wrestle with the devil when we struggle with the weaknesses of youth, but we wrestle with God when we struggle with the angers and resentments of aging. The latter is the struggle to move beyond the death of our dreams, beyond how we have been wounded and cheated and all the resentments that come with that, so as to feel instead inside of us the compassion of God. That is the final task of the spiritual life, the movement from resentment to gratitude, from cursing to blessing, from bitterness to graciousness. And it is a monumental task.
There is a lot of anger in us as we get older. This is not a case of growing angry as we grow older, but of angry people growing older. Psychology tells us that we get our wounds early on in life, but our angers emerge later. When we are young our energy and our dreams are still strong enough to shield us from the full brunt of our wounds, our hurts, and life’s unfairness. I remember, as a young man of twenty, living in a seminary with nearly 50 young men my own age. We were all pretty immature, but strangely we lived together pretty well. Today, if you would put those 50 persons together again in the same living situation we would, soon enough, I suspect, kill each other. We are more mature now… but also full of the angers, disappointments, and resentments of mid-life. Like the older brother of the prodigal son, we are now acutely aware that someone less deserving than ourselves gets to dance and eat the fatted calf.
But this must be understood for what it is, not a sign of regression, but a critical new moment in the spiritual life. As we age and become ever more aware of our wounds, our wasted potential, and the unfairness of life, we come face to face with the final spiritual hurdle, the challenge to become mellow and gracious in spirit. The spiritual task of midlife and old age is that of wrestling with God, namely, of standing inside all of the ways in which life has disappointed and betrayed us and, in spite of that, there, understand what God means with the words: “My child, everything I have is yours, but we must be happy!”