Aging has brought a renewed interest in the spiritual questions I grappled with during my late night college bull sessions. Is there a God? Can prayer make a difference in one’s life? What is my spiritual path?
In my middle years I was too busy raising children and building a career to grapple with meaning of life questions with the intensity of my younger self. Life was too full of distractions to allow for deep spiritual reflection while the end of life was a distant horizon. But now that I’m in my 70’s, Mother Time reminds me that my clock is ticking rapidly. Additionally the greater frequency of deaths among loved ones reminds me to think about preparing for my own death.
My active brain is bombarded with messages from my stirring soul: “Pat, what is your spiritual grounding? What needs tending to in your soul garden?”
I’m discovering that I’m not alone. A recent study by Loyola University on spirituality and religion among older women found that a natural consequence of aging for many women is to engage in soul-searching, clarifying their spiritual and/or religious beliefs. To quote the Loyola study:
Aging invites women to come alive in new ways as they honor the journey home to their authentic self, a self that is always larger than what they can dream.
Like many older women I found myself returning to organized religion. While I’ve found meaning in non-traditional spiritual communities, something in my bones craved ritual, organ music and fellowship. As someone who has always questioned the established order, I surprised not only family and friends, but also myself, when I joined a church. It’s a welcoming progressive church whose female minister makes room for my greater ease with the Goddess than with God.
While church attendance is helping to clarify my belief system, it’s not enough. I still have to make peace with some recent deaths in my life, notably the death by drowning of my ex-husband a little over two years ago; with my guilt over my far from perfect single parenting, and with the possibility I will remain a single woman for the rest of my life.
Jung reminds us that spiritual suffering and struggle are part of life, and our job late in life is to integrate them, to emerge from the suffering with new insights, or something resembling a new self. I interpret this as working the soil in my soul garden, clearing away the muck so new growth, new blossoms can emerge.
I’m not a big fan of this difficult soul work, but I keep at it because I have been rewarded with new understandings and more peaceful moments than I’ve experienced at any other time in my life. Writing a mother-daughter memoir where I came face-to-face with my role in my struggle with my mother was incredibly liberating. It shifted all my primary relationships. Processing the death of my ex-husband and forgiving him for the hurts he inflicted cleared away more muck in my soul garden.
I still have ample soul work to do. I’ll never be finished, but I feel like I’m on the right path. I know I’ll stumble and regress but having seen the light reassures me that I’m on to something. To quote Florida Scott-Maxwell, an early 20th century psychoanalyst:
When you truly possess all you have been and done, you are fierce with reality.