Some years ago, I witnessed the death of a lovely lady who was slowly taken away by cancer. It was a terrifying experience for all involved, but it mostly affected her daughter, who was the old lady’s only child. When we learnt about the cancer, it was a disaster. Her daughter was in such despair that she became medically depressed and suicidal. When I think back to that time, I remember being more worried about the daughter than the old lady who was actually dying. Days came and went, then weeks, then months. It all lasted close to two years until the old lady passed away and finally found her rest. By the time it happened, we were all expecting it and it came as no surprise. What did come as a surprise was the daughter’s transformation during these long months. The despondent young woman I knew had simply disappeared. There was pain in her still, but not the self-destructive kind of pain that had controlled her mind before.
Years later, we met again in England. We had coffee together and we remembered her mum. As we were talking, out of the blue, she said: ‘My mum gave me the two greatest gifts one can receive in this life. She gave me life and she taught me how to die.’ The dying old lady had shown her despairing daughter how to peacefully let go of her past, and how to lovingly embrace her present, for only the present – good or bad – is real, and only in what is real God can reveal Himself. She had taught her daughter patience in suffering. She had taught her that there is dignity in pain, and that one can accept the help of others in the most intimate moments without losing one’s human dignity. One can totally reveal oneself in one’s naked weakness with simplicity, as a gesture of love, of inviting the other to fully participate in your life, with its cruelty and its indescribable moments of beauty.
We lose so much as a society by ignoring our elderly. We waste so much love by not paying attention. So much wisdom, so much experience, so much opportunity to learn how to deal with life’s greatest challenges pass us by because we do not have the heart to simply pay attention to them. We do no have the heart to enter when these people invite us into their most intimate, their most fragile and awe-inspiring experience – the moment of their death. Because we are so consumed with our own pain, so focused on our personal tragedy, we do not have the heart to love people as they die. We run. We hide. We look away. And so, they die alone, and we age in fear of our own death, because we have refused to see and learn and get prepared. And all this happens under Christ’s all-seeing eyes.
St Oran was the oldest among St Columba’s companions. He was the first to die – by some accounts willingly, as a sacrificial gesture that made the Christian history of Iona possible. He was the first to be buried on the island, and his relics are the first to sanctify the earth here. He was also the first to stand before Christ and pray for his brethen face to Face, in the Kingdom. St Oran was their Elder, the one who taught them how to live and how to die.’
‘Who does not have an old person in his life, should buy one’ – the translation of this old Romanian saying loses its literary savour, but it does keep the basic idea. Old people are one of the most valuable ‘commodity’ one can have, for nothing and no one else can offer us the gifts that they have to offer.
Through the prayers of St Oran, may we all see the loving Face of Christ one day. Happy Feast everyone!
Commission going to Canada. Photos and more information on the Monastery Bookstore: https://www.shop.mullmonastery.com/product/st-oran-of-iona-icon-of-holy-old-age/