Vesper Time (Frank J. Cunningham) -- A Review

VESPER TIME: The Spiritual Practice of Growing Older. By Frank J. Cunningham. Foreword by Joyce Rupp. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2017), xxviii + 146 pages.

I am growing older. My hair is getting thinner and grayer; my joints can get stiff; I don’t have as much energy as I once did. Then again, I've entered my seventh decade of life, so what should I expect. As I look back on my sixty-one plus years of life, I have a lot of memories, some are good and some are not. Although I’ve not yet retired, I spend time wondering about what is next. What will retirement hold for me? After all, if I’m like growing numbers of older Americans, I might live into my 90s. Being that I find myself in this place in life, a book on the “spiritual practice of growing older” seems appropriate. Indeed, I found Frank Cunningham's book Vesper Time to be insightful and encouraging. He might be writing as one fifteen years or so my senior, but the wisdom present in the book is worth attending to even for one who has just entered his sixties.

Vesper Time was originally published in 2017 but has been re-released in 2019 with a discussion guide provided. As I didn't read it in 2017, I’m grateful to have received a review copy of the book this time around. As for the author, Frank Cunningham is a Catholic layperson, a writer, editor, and former publisher of Ave Maria Press. He also writes as one who has some experience with the “senior years.”

Cunningham offers the reader a spiritual look at the process of aging, written by what I would deem a progressive Roman Catholic. Cunningham suggests that this is not simply a spirituality of aging, but it is, more importantly, an invitation to look at aging as a spiritual exercise. What he does here is, help those of us who are feeling the pinch of aging to "examine, perhaps expand, and surely make peace with our interior lives" (p. xvii). He writes from personal experience with the aging process, noting the blessings and the challenges. As he engages in this conversation about aging and spirituality, he notes concerning prayer that it is more than words spoken to God. "It means being open to God's presence in everything we do" (p. xx). Thus, this invitation is both to the contemplative and to the active side of spirituality.

The author invites us to engage in five experiences concerning the intersection of aging and spiritual practice. He begins with memory, moves to intimacy, then diminishment, gratitude, and finally to acceptance. With each experience, he dives deeply, engaging life experience in tandem with the spiritual life. Being that I'm at the early stages of this process, which means I’ve not retired from my occupational life, not all parts of it are fully applicable to my life at this point, but I see the connectors.

Being a historian I was attracted to the discussion of memory. We all have memories; the question is, what do we do with them? This is a reminder that our pasts form our present. He writes: "As a spiritual practice, aging is about living into our memories, about seeking their meaning, about accepting and being kind to them. We do this through story, determining how our story shapes us, and be understanding that we are more than the sum of our experiences" (p. 1). This isn't about getting lost in nostalgia but finding meaning in the journey. This might explain why older people tell stories of the past. They are exploring their life stories seeking meaning in them for the journey forward.

The experience of intimacy might not be first on my list of experiences, but relationships are central to life. There are different forms of intimacy, beginning with ordinary intimacy—like friendship and companionship. But there are other forms, spiritual forms, which include intimacy with God. I appreciated his word about the fact that "growing in intimacy involves risk, and we age badly when we stop taking risks." That is "when we do not engage new experiences and make new discoveries when we fail to draw down our own treasury of knowledge and skills." Taking risks involves vulnerability and that involves intimacy. (p. 55).

The chapter on diminishment is especially poignant. I see this in my church members, some of whom have entered their tenth decade. They wonder what they have to contribute. Their bodies don't work as well as in the past. I'm seeing some of this in my own life already, but as I watch others struggle with the facts of aging I see the possible challenges that may lie ahead. One anecdote from the chapter involves his use of the movie About Schmidt, which tells the story of a man who retires and then tries to make a new life, especially after his wife dies suddenly. That transition from vocation to retirement isn't easy. Thus, Cunningham gives us much to consider here, that can help us deal with the challenges and provide encouragement to continue with life.

Gratitude! It is key to this spiritual exercise. Cunningham shares a quote heard at a retreat: "Gratitude is the first movement of the spiritual life." Everything starts here. It is, he says, a "virtue to be practiced." It is a way of prayer nourished by wonder. The word that stands out to me here is this: "It takes work not to become a curmudgeon, to be like the one cured leper of the ten who returned to thank Jesus. Gratitude is an antidote to the increasing constrictions of old age" (p. 101). I believe he's correct. I see it in the elders in my own life. Hopefully, it will translate into my own life.

Finally, there is acceptance. It involves recognizing the truth of our experiences with aging. I am not the person I once was. That's not a bad thing. There are things we can't do as we age, while there are others we can do. He invites to reflect on three forms of acceptance—our story (looking back while recognizing the story is not yet complete), our brokenness (looking at our failures in life, using them as a measure of our lives), and finally, reconsidering cultural norms regarding death (dealing constructively with end of life issues). This doesn't mean we allow our life situation to paralyze us, but rather to find the right path. There is he suggests both the active and the passive component to this spiritual exercise. Accepting is the passive side of things. Both are needed.

In our current context, the actuarial tables suggest I have quite a few years left. That's good news. The question is, how will I experience what lies ahead? Frank Cunningham, in VesperTime, offers us a means to reflect on these questions spiritually. For that I am grateful.


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