Books reviewed by James Woodward

A more integrated spiritual life

Spirituality and Aging by Robert C AtchleyRobert C Atchley, Spirituality and Aging,
John Hopkins University Press 2009
£23.50 (978-0-8018-9119-9).

This book is a reminder that sometimes wisdom is reserved for those who have had a lifetime of listening, study and reflection. This mature book is a compendium of wide-ranging research   that processes two decades of interviews, observations and study to explore thinking about spirituality. Atchley, a noted American gerontologist, establishes why spirituality is important and how it influences the experience of aging.

The book is divided into three sections, with the first providing basic frames of reference for examining spirituality and aging, such as the nature of spirituality, spiritual development, and the spiritual self. Atchley next focuses on two dimensions of spirituality that are likely to manifest later in life: becoming a sage (developing the capacity to bring spiritual light to everyday issues) and serving from spirit (creating opportunities for service that are rooted in spirituality). The last section illustrates how spirituality informs other aspects of late life, such as psychological coping and the experience of dying and death. It is carefully written and the narrative is both nuanced and stimulating.   There is a helpful, though not comprehensive reference list for those who want to do further reading on the topic. The book especially introduces a European reader to American thinking in this area.

In my youth, I never used the word “spirituality.” It would have seemed a poor substitute for “religion,” the familiar word that gave meaning to my life. Twenty years ago we probably would not have understood anyone saying, “I’m not religious, I’m spiritual.” But nowadays, the expression has become something of a mantra. Atchley acknowledges throughout the book the many affinities between "religion" and "spirituality," but he observes that most research on spirituality and aging has been carried out from the perspective of what Martin Marty has termed "moored spirituality" (i.e., that arising within a formal religious tradition). It is clear that this book intends to focus on "unmoored spirituality" (i.e., that experienced outside such faith traditions).

I wonder how this use of language relates to practice. How much does pastoral care preoccupy itself with any close exploration of the nature of the spiritual in our lives? When we were last asked for a ‘spiritual health checkup’?! This book poses many questions about how we engage with the spiritual dimension of people’s lives at whatever stage they may feel themselves to be at. This will take an investment of time and some skill. I suspect that we are just not that interested enough in ordinary lived life to offer time to dig very deep.

There is some particularly interesting material here on the nature of time. Does time go faster as we get older? Atchley sees time as passing more quickly in late life and he gives four reasons why that may be so: 1) Nothing new seems to be happening; 2) People may have escaped from “the tyranny of the clock;” 3) Activities seem to flow, causing one to lose a sense of time passing; 4) Routine tasks take longer, thus making time seem more pressured.

And yet, Atchley finds, “aging makes possible a greater capacity to be in the present.” For him, elders have much more facility in bringing to the present time a sense of “present-moment awareness,” than do younger people. From this perspective perhaps the hope for the decline of the Church of England lies with older people! Why? Because millions of older people in America, perhaps a billion or more throughout the world, are aiming to live a more integrated spiritual life, one in which spirituality . . . can flourish as a centerpiece of values and behavior. We have much to learn from then if we spend time to listen and act with dignity, understanding, and compassion.

James Woodward

Published in the Church Times 20 November 2009