Memento Mori is an ancient monastic expression that has had a bit of a gothy rebranding and promotion in the Catholic underground. Of course, the nomenclature is timeless and sound–we are all going to die, and we should live as if we understand that; to paraphrase St. Robert Bellarmine, those who live well, die well. I’ve had a life-sized skull on my prayer kneeler for a number of years now to “keep my death ever before me” as an aid to meditation. In an age that seeks to avoid death at all costs, we would all do well to meditate upon our mortality from time to time.
But I also turned forty-one last week. It was uneventful, in all ways but one–for the first time, my mortality and the sobering realization that I am actually now officially ‘middle-aged’ hit me. The fact that it happened at forty-one and not forty didn’t seem to make sense at first, until I reflected on it a bit. Forty is kind of monumental in the sense that you’re not in your thirties anymore. Forty one is just tacking on another year to a challenging time of life for men that you realize you are going to have to live through for the next decade.
I should have died a few times over. In my twenties, I took a lot of risks, stemming from the common lack of awareness of one’s mortality during those years without thinking of consequences.
I also was at my peak in terms of fitness. Now, everything is about the middle. I’m in mid life and mid career–halfway through the tunnel, seemingly too far to retreat but also with a long way to go ’til the end. I’ve been Catholic for twenty years or so, and (happily) married for ten. I don’t take nearly as many risks anymore, and my mid-section has gotten soft. Exercise doesn’t come naturally, and my back and knees ache more than they used to.
I don’t miss my twenties. My thirties, as a newly married man, was a memorable time. But now that I’m in my forties and pre-occupied in many ways with the aforementioned “things of this world,” daily life can start to feel like a grind without an end. My health, too–which I have until now taken for granted–is something that is on my mind more. Suddenly, “remember your death” is not a pious meditation, but an unsettling reality.
Waking up to this little existential midlife ennui at forty one caught me off-guard. I have a lot to be grateful for–a wonderful supportive wife and three great kids, a comfortable and relatively-secure job which allows me to provide, good health, and my faith. But I have this unsettling feeling–if this middle-aged malaise is affecting me in my view of my career, my role as a husband and father, and my physical body…how is it affecting my faith life?
I wondered if I was alone in this feeling, and it turns out it’s pretty commonplace, and is sometimes referred to as the “U Curve.” It appears from many sociological studies that “happiness” (however you define that) tends to bottom out across the spectrum in one’s forties, but trends upwards in one’s fifties. The key seems to remember that it is temporary, and the solution to muscle through knowing that better days are ahead.
But this analysis applies to the worldly realm. Have you ever tried to google “Middle Age Catholicism?” You’ll get articles on history and architecture, but nothing on living as a Catholic man in middle age. It’s a hard thing to search for, which compounds the feeling of wondering if I’m the only one just eking by in my faith and how to actually live it out more fruitfully against the perceived malaise in other parts of my everyday life. Is middle age a kind of spiritual plateau, where you’re constantly short on time and without sufficient wisdom that comes with old age, just trying to survive in the world without being of it?
I asked some Catholic men I know in my general age bracket if the feeling of middle age had caught up with them, and what their biggest struggles were during this period in their lives. For most, the big issue was time.
For one forty-year-old father of five who works in education, his life felt like a constant choice between one thing and another, and that everything is “by the minute.” “I wish I had five more hours a day,” he told me, “My son wants to play basketball with me, and I want to too, but I also have to mow the lawn and do ten other things. It’s a constant balancing act. I just want to live in the moment, but I don’t.”
One man, a lawyer in his mid-forties with four children said, “the things I do for myself, it’s always on the edges. I have a demanding job, not one I particularly like, and I’m at the point where I really can’t do anything else.” He noted that though he felt like he had things pretty good, “I have these kids, and I know I should be spending time with them, but the way I was brought up, my dad (who was in the Navy) didn’t really participate in raising us.”
In the life of faith, our end-goal should be to become a saint. But as a non-monastic and, let’s be honest, a common sinner, this can seem so elusive and far off. How does one in middle age live in the world but not of it? It seems we are checking the boxes–ensuring we get to Mass every Sunday as a family, providing for and instructing our children, loving our wives in little ways, trying to make time for our kids, mental prayer, physical exercise, fellowship, and service. Life can get so busy, it seems we are not in the age of zeal (which comes on in the early years of faith) or wisdom (which comes later in life), but simply survival. The burden of manhood halfway through this tunnel of middle age becomes apparent. And, like all men, we have to just sometimes do what we have to do, and go it alone with it on our shoulders. Some days, it just hits you, and it can be…heavy.
With regards to this theme of children and time, the most insightful conversation I had was with a fifty-year-old transportation logistics manager and father of eight. “When I wake up on a Saturday morning, I can think of three things right off the bat that I need to do within the first few seconds of waking up, and realize I don’t have enough time to do everything.”
“In my thirties, I could operate [while] a little more disoriented and not have it affect me much. As I get older, my tools for dealing with stress are not as sharp, and so I find I need to establish and stick to certain ‘rubrics’; otherwise, I fall into that disorientation. For one thing, I need to exercise every day, and keep my diet in check. If I can’t spend thirty minutes in prayer, and all I have is three minutes to say, ‘Lord, please organize my day,’ I find at least that those first three minutes will orient the next thirty minutes.”
But even though time was a challenge, he has grown to realize that “the things I want to get done really aren’t that important.” He also noted the importance of slowing down to give his wife more attention, and that his love for his children has grown. “I’m at the point with my twenty-year-old son that rather than telling him what he needs to do, I’m nurturing him as much as I can.” But, he also noted, it is important to remain steadfast as we can in everything we do, including our faith. “When I’m gone, the only thing my kids will have left of me is the example I set for them.”
Women seem to have an enviable disposition towards seeking out and supporting one another. A “theology of home” is a common theme in traditional Catholic women’s circles. For men, providing and protecting seems to be our calling. But that providing can often feel at odds with our faith, since it is “of the world.” In reality there should be no conflict, since there is a nobility (and even a kind of theology) in work, but I’m sure I’m not the only Catholic man that thought he’d be made a saint more swiftly if he had more time to simply pray, read, and live a quiet life.
Of course it’s a lie, as we need to work out our salvation in fear and trembling within the context of our vocation, not where we think we should be. And the reality is that the vast majority of the saints did just that, by constant moments of dying to self, and exercising the will during periods of desolation–a kind of ‘middle’ in its own right–by grinding it out at times. They also had their ‘rubrics’ in order–either by a religious rule, or their own self-discipline–of putting God before all else lest they fall into the kind of “disorientation” my friend spoke of.
In a cognitive sense, middle age and the “U curve” for many men can be akin to a kind of depression that can benefit from a simple shift in perspective. It’s not a permanent state, and it serves a purpose, albeit in an often mysterious way. We can’t take shortcuts from age thirty to fifty without going through the muddy middle, but we can seek to be intentionally grateful for the very things that might be chafing at us–our jobs, our kids, even our lack of time.
Like the memento mori meditation, it can also be a wake-up call in that it’s not too late to change our spiritual practices and discipline when we know our time is limited, but that we still (God willing) have years ahead of us as well. Even if we find ourselves sitting on a kind of “spiritual plateau,” it’s not a forever resting place. Instead, we should perhaps think of it as a time to re-evaluate our priorities and our mortality in a way where we “rest, but don’t quit.”
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