Jana Riess: The spiritual gift of growing older (yes, really)

Author Alice Fryling says aging is an opportunity to jettison the false self and finally discover spiritual freedom.

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jana Riess speaks while recording the 100th episode of the "Mormon Land" in 2019. She recently interviewed Alice Fryling, author of “Aging Faithfully: The Holy Invitation of Growing Older.”

I became a grandmother this year, and I turned 52 this week. Needless to say, aging well is on my mind as I look toward the future.

It’s the physical differences you notice first. I’m in Spain as I write this, and this week I fulfilled the lifelong dream of visiting the Alhambra, a fortress/castle from the 14th century. It was magical. But as often happens with travel, the magic was interspersed with reality, and for me, that reality was that we missed the bus and had to climb up to the Alhambra on foot to catch our tour. The ascent was considerably more of an effort than it would have been when we were younger.

That’s humbling, especially because we know this is only the beginning of physical decline and that aging will bring many other challenges as well.

I’m going to need wise guides to show me how to do this with grace, so I’m grateful for Alice Fryling’s new book “Aging Faithfully: The Holy Invitation of Growing Older.”

The 77-year-old Fryling is a spiritual director and experienced author. This may be her last book, but, on the other hand, she says it is the third “last” book she has written, so we should never say never. I for one hope it’s not the last. And the fact that she’s not completely certain suggests one of the things I loved about the book, which is her openness to these next years as a “holy invitation” in which we’re no longer trying so darn hard to be in control. Aging, she concedes, is a series of losses (physical and cognitive abilities, independence, relationships, etc.), but that also creates space for the new stories God is writing.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You say it’s important to catalog the losses that come with aging, rather than denying that loss is happening. What is a spiritual practice that can help people be honest about how hard this can be?

There’s no question in our culture that growing older is not popular. People say to me, “you don’t look that old, you don’t have gray hair. Just count your blessings.” That approach doesn’t work for me. Being in denial about aging takes a lot of energy, and I just don’t have the emotional energy to put into resistance.

I would say the place to start is to be intentionally self-aware. I hate to say it, but a lot of Christians feel like being self-aware is navel-gazing; that it’s selfish. But those of us getting older have never been here before, so we need to look at what the territory looks like.

And the grief, the losses of age, are huge. For some people, the loss of opportunity is very painful. Maybe they have to retire at a certain age, or other people in the office are coming in to take over the job they’ve been doing for 25 years. There’s also a loss of energy, and I am so sad about that. I used to think of my day as morning, afternoon and evening, and so my calendar was often divided into those three categories. But now I have just a few hours of the day that I have enough energy, and that keeps getting shaved down.

So I just sit in the morning. That’s probably the most important time of day for me spiritually. I just sit, and I don’t make a lot of suggestions to God. Years ago, I would have prayed, “Oh God, help me to have enough energy to go through this day and help me to do things well.” I think the flip side of that prayer was “help me to look good.”

You talk about aging as an opportunity to let go of the false self. What do you mean by the false self and how might aging give us a way to extricate ourselves from it?

The false self is the person we wish we were or we think we should be or other people expect us to be. And the true self is essentially the person God made us to be.

One advantage of getting older is I can more easily tell the difference between my false self and my true self. With the true self there’s a freedom — like I don’t really need to do this thing, but I want to do it, and I do it well, and I’m happy about doing it. That freedom happened to me when I was writing the book. I loved writing the book. Somehow, it’s a gift God has given me, and I didn’t even think to ask for it. There’s a mystery about it. And to me, that’s an indication that I’m living out of my true self instead of my false self.

The false self is always very defensive, and it masquerades as an angel of light. That’s an expression Paul used in 2 Corinthians. So it’s sometimes hard to notice, but there’s always that defensiveness and pride, that sense that “nobody else can do this quite like I can do it.” As we get older, we just can’t do the things our ego used to take pleasure in, or at least not all of them. The demands of the false self can’t be fulfilled the same way. But there’s something even better on the other side of that.

You discerned some years ago that you were no longer enjoying your work of leading retreats, and that opened up the possibility that you were being called to something else, which in your case was spiritual direction. Do you have any wisdom to offer older people who may be sensing they’re no longer taking joy in whatever they felt called to do before?

There’s a spiritual discipline called the Daily Examen that is helpful, and not just for people getting older. It’s from Ignatius of Loyola, and the essence is that at the end of the day, you take five or 10 minutes and look back on your day and say, “When today did I feel closest to God? And when did I feel the most distant from God? When was I the most loving, and when was I the least loving?”

That’s watering down the classic discipline, but that’s what I need; I need to keep it simple. You see patterns, and you start to see how you fill your day with things that crowd out what actually makes you feel closer to God. That little discipline, I think, is helpful to us as we get older because we are changing all the time. If you don’t think you’re changing, then you’re not hearing the truth of aging, because we can’t age well without changing.

Is there anything we haven’t covered that you want to add?

People are often drawn to looking at the aging experience as liminal space, the space in between. Liminal space for most people is very scary. We don’t know what’s going to happen. I compare the aging experience to the Israelites leaving Egypt. They were slaves there, but they still couldn’t stop complaining (after they left)! And there are days when I think every honest, older person will say, “Oh, I just wish I had died young.”

So we’re in liminal space. But the second verse in the Bible says when there was still just darkness and light and chaos in creation, the Holy Spirit was hovering. That’s where I would go with liminal space. It’s scary, but the Holy Spirit is hovering. Over our lives and over every day.