I was turning 40. There was no avoiding it, but for the weeks leading up to my birthday I tried not to indulge a creeping sense of dread. Although I could laugh over the prospect of having to check the “40 and over” survey box, I also felt anxious about crossing a threshold into middle age.
There is something about milestones that force reflection, self-assessment, and in my case—mild depression. What had I accomplished with my life? I would be turning 40 at a monastery, with nothing to my name. All the accomplishments of a legal career built during my 20s and 30s, seemingly abandoned. No property, no husband and children, no bank account to claim. Everything I owned had been dutifully (and symbolically) signed away on the altar at my first monastic profession. Saint Benedict even required a recognition from every prospective monk that, from the moment of profession on, their very body was no longer only their own to command but belonged to the community (Rule of Benedict 58)!
After another round of final exams at Saint John’s University and an enervating election season, I was depleted, eager to come home to my community, return to our prayers and recharge. I did not want to think about the future. I knew that I needed an Advent in my life—in more ways than one. Thankfully, the liturgical seasons of Advent and Christmas, the beginning of a New Year, and the experience of returning once more to the rituals of celebration in this community of faith, have helped to restore my sense of balance, hope and gratitude.
It is easy for me to feel overwhelmed, but one of the many benefits of living at a monastery is that I am surrounded by others who have successfully made the transition into what Richard Rohr (in Falling Upward) has called “the second half” of their life. Whether they are retreatants, Oblates, Sunday Assembly members or the community of sisters that I live and pray with every day, they model an integrated spirituality that serves to revive my own imagination about the gifts of aging well. I need this kind of renewal, because so often I find myself taken in by the cult of youthfulness and a paralyzing nostalgia for the past. Although, on a basic level, I know that self-worth cannot be founded on the illusory ground of any career, wealth, property or particular relationship, it’s easy for me to forget.
The seasons of Advent and Christmas speak honestly of a profound and mysterious darkness surrounding the dawning of God among us. I don’t always recognize Christ in the immediate circumstances of my life. But this year, I found myself looking around me at the community of wise and graceful people that make their spiritual home at Holy Wisdom Monastery. Instead of running away from the task of aging well, I decided to mine the riches of my environment by seeking guidance on how to approach my forties with wisdom, grace, and a sense of adventure. Here’s just a sampling of answers to the question I started asking of folks around here: what advice would you give someone approaching their forties?
- Develop a good relationship with your body. Take good care of it, invest in its care. Go to the doctor. Your body will thank you for it in the years to come.
- Appreciate your skin!
- Celebrate being healthy and all the things your body can do now. Don’t waste time thinking about getting old.
- Your forties are about integration. After having accomplished those outward things in your 20s and 30s, your 40s are an invitation to go inward and deepen, if you allow it.
- Your forties are about self-acceptance. You aren’t as concerned about what people think.
- Enjoy it all: my forties were my best years!
And one woman simply offered me this quote by e.e. cummings:
“It takes courage to grow up and to be who you really are.”
Is there anything else you would add to this list? Please share your wisdom as a comment to this blog post.
Read other blog posts from Sister Rosy in her series, Letters home.