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Excerpt from "The Spirituality of Age: A Seeker’s Guide to Growing Older"

Chapter 4

by Robert L. Weber, Ph.D., and Carol Orsborn, Ph.D

What Is Spiritual Maturity? 

We begin the body of our book with a series of questions that will guide you to take a deeper look not only at where you are coming from but also the progress you’ve made over time in the direction of what we call “spiritual maturity.” What do we define as spiritual maturity? Spiritual maturity is a stage in our development that allows us to look life in the eye, without denial, intensely appreciative and deeply trusting, even as we embrace the shadows and uncertainties. 

Spiritual maturity is not something we attain once-and for-all. Rather, it is a process of lifelong evolution and development. Along the way we discover that even the spiritual path can be full of bumps and potholes. The good news is that as long as we keep putting one foot ahead of the other, we are making progress. 

Question 1 

What is a psychologically and spiritually healthy vision of aging? 

Carol Orsborn 

In chapter 1 of our book, Bob and I identify what is most problematic about the dominant notions of aging. In a nutshell, it is the failure to recognize the growth opportunity in growing older, which takes into consideration both the shadow and the light. In skewing the picture toward extremes of positives and negatives, what is left out is a psychologically and spiritually healthy vision of aging that is grounded in reality and hope. 

Here is a simple assessment you can administer to yourself to ascertain what theories of aging have been operative in your life. To begin, I ask you to imagine an elderly woman on a park bench staring vacantly into space. What do you assume about her? If your knee-jerk reaction is that she is depressed and marginalized, and that this is a problem, you have been influenced by activity theory. If you believe she is fading away from life, a kind of graceful receding into death, but that this is okay, you have been influenced by disengagement theory. But if you are even willing to entertain the notion that she is having a transcendent experience, not disengaged or marginalized by life but, rather, embracing the whole of it in a state of ecstatic, unspoken awe, you are a gerontological pioneer. 

This new approach actually perceives aging as a spiritual path. For me, personally, this represents a tectonic shift in understanding. Just three years ago, when I turned sixty-three, I plummeted headfirst from romanticized notions of aging into dread and fear. Over the course of that year, dealing with the unwanted physical, social, and emotional ramifications of growing older, I was forced to confront the limitations of my ability to make things turn out the way I wanted. As it turns out, when viewed through the lens of spiritual maturity, this was a good thing. When we strip away the impositions, the fantasies, and the denial, we begin to view aging as holding the potential for activation of new, unprecedented levels of self-affirmation, meaning, and spiritual growth. 

Paradoxically, the more I surrender the illusion of control, the less I worry about what others think of me and the greater level of inner freedom I experience. 

What is a psychologically and spiritually healthy vision of aging? 

Bob Weber 

For a number of years I had been noticing a gradual loss of clear-sightedness. Despite the fact that my ophthalmologist had diagnosed the presence of cataracts, I seemed to be only semiconscious of what was actually happening. Now, as I look back on this period, I believe that this was due to a “denial” of my getting older. Only older folks need such a surgical procedure! 

Finally, in the fall of 2011, surgery was warranted since the cataracts had “ripened” sufficiently. After we set the dates for the surgery, the reality, both of the cataracts and of my aging, could no longer be denied. 

While I felt some misgiving about this, I actually found myself appreciating and even enjoying this evolution, just as I enjoyed the outcome of my surgery. Vividly, I recall the new experience of my own eyesight. I could not remember ever seeing so clearly, appreciating colors so powerfully, and I was no longer subject to the glare of lights at night that made driving dangerous. I could see more clearly in the “day light” and drive more confidently through the “dark night.” 

As time goes on I am realizing how alike psychological and spiritual maturity are. One of the first goals of psychotherapy is to move from a sleepy state of unconsciousness to a state of greater consciousness about what we think, how we feel, and what we do so we can live life more fully and freely. A second goal of therapy is to correct the many distortions that are fostered by the unconscious state of life. The third goal is to move to a greater freedom, to be the active agent of our lives. Fourth, we slowly but surely develop a deeper sense of our own worth and value as a human being. 

In their book The Psychology of Mature Spirituality, authors Polly Young-Eisendrath and Melvin E. Miller characterize mature spirituality as having three dimensions: integrity, wisdom, and transcendence. Ego integrity and wisdom are the terms Erik Erikson used to discuss the final developmental stage of life, old age. Living into this stage gives us the opportunity to integrate all the pieces of our lives, the good, the bad, and the ugly. If this goes undone, or is incompletely done, despair occurs. The fruit of this integration is wisdom, seeing the truth of life more clearly because we have lived and are living it freely and fully. This results in a transcendent perspective, not because we have bypassed the finite reality of our lives, but because we have entered it and experienced it more deeply. 

Recipient of the American Society on Aging’s 2014 Religion, Spirituality, and Aging Award, Robert L. Weber, Ph.D., is assistant professor of Psychology, part time at Harvard Medical School and a former Jesuit. He also serves as a faculty member of Massachusetts General Hospital’s Department of Psychiatry. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Carol Orsborn, Ph.D., is founder and editor-in-chief of Fierce with Age: The Digest of Boomer Wisdom, Inspiration, and Spirituality. The author of more than 20 books for and about the Boomer generation as well as popular blogs on Huffington Post, PBS’s NextAvenue.net, and BeliefNet.com, she has served on the faculties of Georgetown University, Loyola Marymount University. She lives in Madison, Tennessee.

The Spirituality of Age by Robert L. Weber, Ph.D. and Carol Orsborn, Ph.D. © 2015 Park Street Press. Printed with permission from the publisher Inner Traditions International. www.InnerTraditions.com

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