Dark Devotional: When You Grow Old

by Michelle Arnold

When you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted (John 21:18).

I turned fifty years old in January, but hadn’t started feeling my age until I started a new job.

It took eighteen months to find a new job. There were a number of factors at play in the whys and wherefores, but I have little doubt that part of the reason is my age.

Interviewers aren’t allowed to ask candidates how old they are, but they have ways of ferreting out that information—even in Pandemic Times when interviews are done mostly by phone and Zoom. One way is to create online applications that force you to reveal the year you graduated high school (by not allowing you to submit the application without filling out that box). If the average eighteen year old graduated in 1990, it’s simple arithmetic to figure out how old she is now.

Small wonder then that I couldn’t get calls back from auto parts shops, furniture retailers, or even convenience stores.

I finally found a desk job and was thrilled. And from that day on I found out that the stores I’d applied to were right to suspect that a middle-aged woman might not be able to hack eight-hour shifts on her feet. I sit at a desk all day and for the first two weeks my ankles were fiery pink water balloons. Even now, several months later, they still swell up.

Peter probably wasn’t a young man by the time of Jesus’ Resurrection. He’d been married (the synoptic Gospels mention his mother-in-law, but don’t mention if Peter’s wife was still alive), and John noted with some glee that Peter wasn’t as fast a runner as John was. But Peter could still swim to shore when he spotted the Lord on the beach at the sea of Galilee.

He wasn’t an “old” man then. So, perhaps Peter wondered why Jesus talked to him of his old age.

Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go (John 21:18).

John notes that Jesus was “signifying by what kind of death [Peter] would glorify God” (v. 19). Christian tradition has it that Peter was martyred on a cross when Nero decided to blame the burning of Rome on the Christians.

Supposedly, Peter had first tried to run away. On the road heading out of Rome, he met Jesus traveling to Rome. When he asked Jesus why he was going to Rome, Jesus said he was going to be crucified again. That convinced Peter to turn around and head back to surrender himself.

But what did age have to do with it? Why did Jesus create such a graphic image of a feeble Peter being dressed and bundled off to his fate?

We tend to think sacrifices are for the young. When a young man or woman, in the prime of life, is cut down by illness or accident, or perhaps sacrifices their life for some noble cause, the grief tends to strike us harder.

“Oh, what a shame,” we think. “That person had so much life left ahead of him. What could he have done with his life if he’d lived?”

What happens when an old person dies? We don’t often comment on the tragedy of it. We think that person has lived their life, done whatever they were going to do, and are now “at peace” and taking their “rest.” We might even think, “She was ready to go.”

These aren’t necessarily bad thoughts. For some, they might even be true. Dying peacefully in your bed of old age isn’t a terrible fate. And those who have lived long, consequential lives before dying in their sleep are sincerely mourned by those who loved them. (Betty White, who died at the age of 99 on the last day of 2021 springs to mind as an example.)

What is a problem is thinking that those who are old have nothing left to give, even when their bodies start to fail them.

Perhaps that was what Jesus had in mind when emphasizing that Peter, the first leader of his Church, would die in old age. Peter might be an old man by the time he’d be called upon to lay down his life for Christ, but his martyrdom would be consequential. His loss to the Church and to the world would matter. All the leaders to follow him as head of the Church would be known as “successors of Peter.”

A couple of years ago, I had a job similar in some respects to the one I have now. Both are desk jobs, requiring similar amounts of energy and attention to detail. At my previous job, I’d spend part of my lunch hour taking walks around the building to get some exercise. I may have been in my late forties and overweight, but I was reasonably healthy and had no trouble walking. I never had any trouble staying up late to work on projects and get in to work the next morning.

Now, two years and a stretch of unemployment during a pandemic later, I hobble around on stiff ankles, joints aching whenever I have to stand to go to the printer to pick up my copies. If I stay up late to finish an essay, as I’m doing now, I pay for it the next day at work, struggling to stay awake at my desk.

Like Peter though, I hope I still have something to offer in my late middle age.

Michelle Arnold was a staff apologist for Catholic Answers, a Catholic apologetics apostolate in the Diocese of San Diego, California, from 2003–2020, answering questions from clients about the Catholic faith via phone, letter, email, and online platforms. She contributed essays to Catholic Answers’ online and print magazines, and wrote four booklets for the apostolate’s 20 Answers series. Her 20 Answers booklets were on Judaism, the New Age, witchcraft and the occult, and the Church’s liturgical year. Now a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, Michelle Arnold has a blog at the Patheos Catholic channel. A portfolio of her published essays is available at Authory.

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