Spirituality is concerned with how persons experience meaning and purpose in life, as well as how they understand and experience their connectedness—with the moment, with themselves, with others, with nature, and with the significant or the sacred. In a society that defines us by what we do and how productive we are, defining meaning and purpose in older age becomes more challenging. And the experience of many older adult is that it becomes more difficult to maintain well-established relationships and even more difficult to establish new ones in our later years.
Since these are key spiritual issues, it follows that older adulthood is a spiritual journey. We will all take this journey as we age, but some will be more intentional in seeing and recognizing this aging process as essentially spiritual. The theme of the 6th International Conference on Ageing and Spirituality, “Paradox and Promise in the Pilgrimage of Aging,” reflects that intentionality in the use of the word “pilgrimage.” A pilgrimage is a journey undertaken with a specific intent; in practice pilgrims discover that the process of the journey and the learnings of the journey are as important, if not more important, than the arrival at the destination.
To think of aging as a pilgrimage invites us to be present with our aging in an intentional and listening way. It invites us to be present to the joys and opportunities of the process as well as to the pains and difficulties of it. Pilgrims experience moments of joy and inspiration and holiness; they also experience fatigue, getting lost, and difficulty navigating the terrain of the journey. The journey can be paradoxical, the difficulties of it can lead us into the greatest joys of it. The journey holds promise, not just for ourselves, but for those whose lives are connected to ours.
One of the gifts of the journey is to become our most true and authentic selves. We can let go of all the expectations of others and even expectations we’ve held for ourselves to be and to perform in certain ways. We can begin to live into the fact that we are uniquely created to be who we are and to understand that that in and of itself is enough. When we are free to be ourselves, we are also free to be fully present to ourselves and to the others who are part of our lives.
And pilgrimages often include companions—companions who commenced that particular journey with you, or companions met along the way. We can encourage our fellow-travelers. They may be years behind us, but we can cheer them on, provide encouraging words, supportive actions, and loving kindness. And we can exercise our own creativity and resilience in meeting the challenges that still are before us, knowing that we are surrounded by a “cloud of witnesses” who are encouraging and supporting us in this pilgrimage.
This 6th International Conference is itself a kind of pilgrimage in that the participants are invited to journey together for four days, learning from theorists and practitioners from a wide variety of disciplines who all see the spiritual as the most central component of the aging journey. Many who see the importance of spirituality in the aging journey work in places of serving and learning where their view is not the predominant one. Thus, the opportunity to come together to learn from and be inspired by others who are serving elders with a focus on spirituality is a rare and wonderful occasion.