Summary of the 7th International Conference on Aging and Spirituality
The 7th International Conference for Ageing and Spirituality took place from June 4 through June 7 on the campus of Concordia University - Chicago with the theme Transition and Transcendence: Transforming Aging through Spirituality. The following is taken from Susan McFadden's remarks at the conclusion of the conference.
Each of us will take particular memories home from this conference: Memories of ideas we've never encountered before, memories of old ideas we've reformulated because of what we've heard, and memories about the people we've met for the first time and those dear friends with whom we've reconnected. I hope we'll also return to our homes and our work not only with new insights about aging and spirituality, but also with bold new questions to ponder ourselves and to pose to our friends and colleagues.
We have been blessed by the stimulating plenary sessions, workshops, paper presentations and informal conversations at meals, coffee breaks, and just walking around the lovely Concordia campus for these few blue-sky beautiful days in early June.
I will attempt to summarize a few themes that for me reverberated during our time together at the 7th International Conference for Ageing and Spirituality. Everyone attending would probably put this summary together differently, and mine is but one of many possible perspectives.
I want to start by talking about how music has been such an important focus of our gathering. The conference ended with beautiful singing during the Taizé service. At the beginning of the conference, we not only heard June Boyce-Tillman talk about music - we also heard her sing. One of the important points she made that connects with the work all of us do with older persons is that music making builds community. It breaks down hierarchical relationships and through music, we can sometimes experience ourselves in a liminal space (sometimes described as a "thin place").
Those of us fortunate enough to watch the videos presented by Jim Vanden Bosch witnessed some examples of entering liminal spaces where the veil between this material world and the world of the transcendent melts away. We saw people with very advanced dementia connect to other persons through music. In one of the films, a woman slowly opened her eyes and began to tap her chair as Naomi Feil sang "Jesus Loves Me" to her. Then, most remarkably, Naomi entered the thin place with her as together they sang "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands." I think that was a holy moment.
As June Boyce-Tillman said, we all need a sense of connection and belongingness: it is a core component of spirituality. Too often elders, especially those with dementia, don't experience those connections. In that moment, when Naomi Feil and the woman sang "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands," two human beings met in a liminal space, and those of us watching this holy moment could not help but feel wonder.
Wonder is another theme that emerged in several of our plenary sessions. June said that in our time, we risk losing the sense of wonder and the feeling of awe, perhaps because we're so busy seeking analytic understandings of the world, or as we heard in John Robinson's talk, because we are so beholden to left hemisphere dominance. Wonder and awe exist at the edge of certainty and uncertainty, or as psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Dacher Keltner say, a place "in the upper reaches of pleasure and on the boundary of fear" (Keltner & Haidt, 2003, p. 297). June said that in that place, we yield ourselves into the great mystery of God.
How often are the elders you work with able to experience wonder and awe? How do the structures we have created for care deprive them of awe? Are they able to experience this in the religious rituals of our faith communities? Do they ever have the chance to have an experience of "radical awe" like John Robinson described as he stood outside near his home and felt boundaries melt away? Are today's elders nature-deprived because we are so risk-averse? Is this a spiritual issue? Is it a justice issue?
John Buchanan quoted the great writer Wendell Berry, who wrote about learning to appreciate the loveliness of the world. John talked about the joys of being with children and indeed, some organizations are doing a better job of finding creative ways for elders and children to experience meaningful interactions. But, John Buchanan also talked about old age as a time of savoring experiences and I'm wondering how often we slow down long enough to savor aspects of our own lives and how often we recognize the need for the older persons with whom we interact to have things to savor.
Following John Buchanan's talk, Eileen Linder shared a number of pithy comments about Baby Boomers. She described them as wanting to understand the world better, contribute to making the world better, and to interact meaningfully with people of different ages, from the very young to the very old.
How can our faith communities teach us to be friends to young and old alike? Can we befriend 8th graders as well as elders in the 8th decade of life? After all, theologian and ethicist Stanley Hauerwas has called congregations "schools for subversive friendship." By that he meant that no other social organization has the resources at hand to enable people to become friends with people unlike themselves. Eileen Linder spoke about generativity and the virtue of care. Generativity, as first formulated by Erikson, was all about caring for the next generation, but we need a word to describe what happens when the young learn to care deeply for the old.
I think American Indians understand this well. After all, they talk about extending care of the earth so far into the future that seven generations can live well and respectfully. Tragically, as Margaret Moss's compelling talk demonstrated, care and respect has not been extended to Indian peoples, whose suffering is nearly unimaginable. Yet, despite all that suffering, through their resilience and retention of traditional knowledge, they are still among us and have much to teach us about integration of the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual aspects of ourselves. As she said, spirituality informs everyday life for Indian elders. They have lessons to teach that are badly needed in the highly technological, medicalized, non-spiritual worlds we create for many older people.
In her talk about American Indians, Margaret Moss referred to an important idea raised by Bruce Stevens. He spoke about the "hidden learning" that we acquire when we are very young and that stays with us for a lifetime. Sometimes that learning is colored by tragedy in many forms, and becomes a terrible burden carried throughout life. Here is a place for the theologians to help us think about the spiritual significance of this "hidden learning". What religious beliefs do we hold about these early life experiences and the ways they reverberate through life, and how can pastors and chaplains and laypeople who care about elders help to alleviate some of the burden of this "hidden learning?" How can counselors and psychotherapists employ some of the new techniques being developed for spiritually integrated psychotherapy to help elders experiencing spiritual struggles and spiritual pain?
Rabbi Richie Address's discussion of ritual represents a kind of bridge between the way we usually think about mental health issues and the resources of religious tradition to help us address those issues. In addition to his thoughtful descriptions of eight rituals specifically created for the lived experiences of older people, what struck me about his presentation was the way we collectively responded. After every prayer, I heard "ahhhh" reverberate through the room.
I send you off with many questions, but I also want to send you off with songs in your souls. How wonderful it was to hear the Encore Chorale on Monday night, and to witness their joy in singing together and in performing for us. How blessed we were by Bob Atchley and his role as bard for our conference. He sang one of my favorite songs of his, and beautifully, and soulfully, we joined him in recalling what his mama taught him: "Relax, take a deep deep breath and smile smile smile."