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Landscapes of Aging and Spirituality

Landscapes of Aging and Spirituality
by Kathleen Montgomery, editor
Boston, MA: Skinner House Books, 2015
168 pages
Reviewed by Toni Stone

Not so long ago I celebrated a birthday that ended in zero. As with all such decade birthdays, marking my sixth one occasioned a great deal of reflection and more than its share of angst. As I looked back on the unfinished business, unfulfilled dreams, and regrets and losses of my life, I was finding it difficult to see the satisfactions and pleasures of the journey thus far, let alone look forward to the next phase of my life.  This was the context in which I encountered Landscapes of Aging and Spirituality, an edited collection of essays that spoke to the phase of life I find myself reluctantly embarking on.

In the midst of her seventies, Kathleen Montgomery recognized that, as “gerontologist Ken Dychtwald writes, ‘How we decide to behave as elders will, in all likelihood, become the most important challenge we will face in our lives’” (27–28). Desiring companionship rather than advice for this part of her life’s journey, she asked the nineteen authors included in this book to reflect on their own aging experiences. The resulting essays address the range of the joys and sorrows, trials and triumphs, and insights and lessons to be found in the final decades of life. Learning to be an elder, living with physical diminishment, preparing for retirement, facing death, and even contemplating assisted suicide are addressed with honesty, insight, and vulnerability.

While not all of these authors spoke to my particular situation, one in particular proved to be instrumental in helping me begin to look forward with hope. In her essay “Beginner’s Mind,” Maureen Killoran ponders the challenge of letting go of life as she has always lived it and opening to the new way of life called for as she approaches her eighties. She asks, “Who do I hope to be (and become)? And the related questions: What song does my spirit want to sing? How can I best open my heart to the untested energy of the new?” (29). I know that I will return again and again to these questions in the coming years with my spiritual director and with some of the people I accompany in spiritual guidance.

One drawback I found in this collection of essays is that the authors are not very diverse: all are Unitarian Universalists, all are middle class, all are between the ages of mid-sixties to late-eighties, and sixteen of the nineteen are ordained. However, the book does offer spiritual directors and spiritual directees a sampling of experiences and responses to the challenge of aging. I would especially recommend this book to spiritual directees who would benefit from the interfaith perspective that these Unitarian authors bring to their reflection on elder spirituality. Any one of these short essays could spark conversation and reflection on “the autumn of our lives, this elderhood, old age, retirement … this penultimate chapter, this final chance to learn!” (19).

Toni Stone is a chaplain, adjunct faculty member of the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado, USA, and a spiritual director. As a “pastor to pastors,” her focus and presence center on men and women who are called to ministry or helping professions or who are engaged in social justice work. She can be reached at toni@pilgrimcompanion.net.

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