Tag Archives: second half

St. Anne and the forgotten grandmothers we need

Saint Anne ca.750 Faras Cathedral (Nubia) in present-day Sudan

The wall painting of St. Anne, above, from the now-submerged Faras Cathedral, was saved from the waters of Lake Nasser (Lake Nubia in Sundan) in the early 1960’s as Aswan Dam came into service. Polish archaeologists discovered her under the plaster of more recent redecorators. Now Anne is secured in Warsaw in the Polish National Museum. She looks like she might still be pondering what happened to her.

No one knows why she is holding a finger to her lips. She could be encouraging silence for prayer. Or she could be modeling a common pose for praying, guarding one’s lips against the entrance of evil.  I think it is fine if you invent whatever meaning suits you, since Anne is an invention herself. The purported mother of Mary, entered history in the late 100’s or early 200’s when the author of the Gospel (or Protoevangelium) of James added her to the story of the birth of Jesus.

Legendary or not, St. Anne became a very popular saint by the late Middle Ages in Europe and is still widely venerated. Where I come from in Southern California, the friars among the Portolá Expedition were naming mountains on her feast day in 1769.  So we have the Santa Ana Mountains and the Santa Ana River flowing from them (or so they thought), which leads to the present day city of Santa Ana, near Disneyland. In the early 1800’s the Moraga expedition named the river that flows through the southern half of the Central Valley of California after Anne’s husband San Joaquin. Anne and Joachim are the grandparents of Jesus in popular imagination. As a grandparent myself, it is nice to vicariously feel necessary.

The Holy Kinship — Matthäus Gutrecht the Younger (c. 1500-1510). Philadelphia Museum of Art

I became interested in Anne as I read Margaret Guenther’s nice book about becoming old  called Toward Holy Ground: Spiritual Directions for the Second Half of Life. She uses Anne as a centering image for what she writes.

“Image” is an important word when it comes to Anne. She is not written about in the Bible, but she is depicted all over the Bible-for-illiterates: the medieval church building. When Guenther interpreted  the many images of Anne and the family that grew along with her legend in Medieval and Renaissance art,  she revealed scenes I wish were influencing the Jesus followers of today:

Typically, God the Father is in the sky, watching over the scene in the garden, while the Holy Spirit descends as a dove directly over the Christ child. The matriarchal, earthly trinity is, of coure, comprised of Anne and Mary, with the child between them. It is an immensely satisfying picture of the union of divine and human.

At the heart of it sits the grandmother in the garden. If she is a typical grandmother, she is convinced that the child she holds is perfect, gifted, and beautiful. She has no trouble loving him unconditionally and his divinity is easily apparent to her, for grandmothers can see the divinity in every child even when the parents cannot.

Can you think of many Annes in the hagiography of popular culture today? The world did stop for Queen Elizabeth last month. Was she an outlier, or are there more? Oprah? Jill Biden?

I’m not sure our old people even want to be old people or display a lot of wisdom to call on. It seems like a lot of young people rarely even relate to their grandparents, who tend to pop in on their way to their latest destination, or who must be visted in Florida, or who just get in touch when they can’t master a new bit of virtuality.

Our own secret St. Anne

As soon as I saw St. Anne peering out of the Faras icon, I thought, “I think we have a picture of St. Anne I have been ignoring for over 40 years.” I had to ask if we still had it. It used to be over our fireplace in the old house; as it turns out, it is now in the bathroom off our guestroom. Here it is.

The Virgin and Child with St. Anne — DaVinci

Whenever I looked at that painting, I thought of the dear freind who gave it to Gwen, and did not give much thought to St. Anne. Maybe I was not ready for her.

Anne is a commanding figure in DaVinci’s painting, but she is still, like many grandmothers, comfortably in the background. The action is all about what Mary is going to do about the baby Good Shepherd already going after sheep. I think Anne looks on with a serene confidence which speaks of knowing a lot about how things work, how to live, and how to die.

Anne is not only associated with the Holy Family of Jesus, which calls us to kinship and connection, people light a candle in front of her statue (or pay attention to spiritual directors like Margaret Guenther, writing in her old age) for many reasons.  Women consult her when they would like to conceive or can’t, since she, like Hannah, conceived miraculously in her old age. She’s all about healing and about the arts and crafts of homemaking. She is help for the troubles of birth and present for the blessings of a “good death.”

I have been known to light a few candles myself. I love being part of the communion of saints, historical and legendary, saints living (like you) and dead, saints closeted away in my DVD collection (where I found Francis on the 4th) or tucked away in European museums. I especially love Anne, right now, because she was, in her time, a much-needed antidote to too much patriarchy, as men made her daughter, Mary, a goddess instead of a human, like the rest of us (similar example). I also love her because Anne is a much needed encouragement in our time to pay attention to people who are wise, who can offer some direction in an overwhelming time. I wish all our ancient political leaders qualified as wise people, but they mainly serve the invisible hand. So it makes sense for us to search out the forgotten wise women in Christ hanging on the walls of our lives.

In the Catholic devotional universe, people pray for St. Anne’s favor and ask to be adopted as her grandchild. That may be effective sometimes and is undoubtedly well-intended. But diminishing Anne to an intercession tool might undermine the teaching of all those paintings. Grandmothers in the Spirit are grounded in the earth at the center of our extended birth and rebirth families. They are meaningful and they know it, and they make meaning. They are deeply rooted in the present age and the age to come. Their appreciation for eternity rubs off on us. They are finally content with the love they have and so enfold us in love. Their lively but enigmatic faces (a DaVinci speciality) lead us to look beyond what we normally see toward broader wisdom and beyond the present moment toward deeper lives and good deaths.

I hope your own grandmother was or is an Anne-like presence of faith, hope, love and communion. During the course of writing this I thought of grandmother Gwen and the dear friend in California who gave her the painting a long time ago. I hope people are seeking them out right now. Grandmother Margaret Guenther died in 2016, but she is still someone I listen to through her books. I have so much need for spiritual grandmother energy I may pull my kneeling bench into the bathroom and pray with St. Anne for a while!  She may not be a fact, but she embodies what we really need, and what people needed when they invented her. Who is waiting comfortably for you in the background of your life?

The second half of life: Encouragement for creative suffering

The other day I was watching International House Hunters, where I learn a lot about life these days. In the episode, an apparently divorced mom was ready to send her one son off to college. She appeared to be nearing fifty years old. Although she did not have a lot of money to spend, she decided to quit the job she hated and move to Merida, Mexico. She bought a fixer-upper outside of town and started her life over as the only Anglo in her whole village. She said life was too short to wait until one was ready to live it. Hers is a second half of life story.

Also last week, my fiftysomething friend said on Facebook:  “I was reunited with some old friends this weekend to celebrate a birthday. I am also thinking about a sweet brave friend in Philly who we lost last week. Life is short. Don’t sweat the small stuff. LIVE.” That represents some second half of life philosophizing.

The second half of life

What is the second half, maybe we could call it our second act? It is a discernible transition in life that people all over the world note. Mid-life has significant characteristics. We sometimes call the entry into that part of life a “mid-life crisis.” Richard Rohr, who wrote a book about it, calls it the time to “fall upward.” The transition into the second half is the time when we face the limits of our capacity, now that we have tested it and probably failed to achieve our idealization of ourselves, and must face the limits of our lifespan, now that our bodies start to tell us we’re definitely not twentysomethings anymore.

The term “second half” implies some kind of dualism: a before and after, this or that, obsolete and improved, foolish and wise. But that’s more of a “first half” way to see things. The second half is more about embracing our inevitable development and not avoiding the suffering that will lead to our wholeness. We had to build the house, so to speak, before we could consider leaving it. We had to learn to drive the car, so to speak, in order to ask Jesus to take the wheel.  We could miss the beauty of our second half altogether if we avoid the necessary suffering of entering it. But we will be pushed hard to give in to maturity, regardless.

Image result for Dolly Parton

Signs of the “mid-life crisis”

As a result of this inevitable transition, we either solidify into a withered caricature of the unique self we have been building, or we become more spiritual, more self-giving, more of a leader, and more comfortable with the ambiguities and joys of being our true selves. Dolly Parton is an interesting mix of both possibilities. I saw an interview with her in which she boldly said she was committed to the caricature that is her trademark, be it ever so withered, as you can see, above. She even had surgery to maintain what she could of the persona she created. But she has also developed her spirituality. She’s not just being a country music legend; she is also a champion of early childhood literacy, through her Imagination Library. Every month, that nonprofit program mails a free book to more than a million children — from infants to preschoolers. In 2018 they reached 100 million books donated.

however we navigate it, we are going to grow into a new season of life. The pressures we face at the beginning of that season are so well known, we can make a list of typical feelings or reactions, such as:

  1. Desiring to quit a good job.
  2. Unexplained bouts of depression when doing tasks that used to make one happy.
  3. Changing or investigating religions, churches or philosophy.
  4. Change of habits. Activities which used to bring pleasure now are boring. Unable to complete or concentrate on tasks which used to be easy.
  5. Excessively buying new clothes and taking more time to look good.
  6. Wanting to run away to somewhere new.
  7. A desire or obsession to get into physical shape.
  8. Irritability or unexpected anger.
  9. Leaving family (mentally or physically) or feeling trapped in current family relationships.
  10. Looking into the mirror and no longer recognizing oneself.

Our lives are guaranteed to include bumps and surprises. At some point we will face loss; we will encounter a “stumbling stone” — that we cannot power, finesse, or manage our way through, that we cannot fix, control, explain, change, or even understand. It is best to meet this time of life with creative suffering. There is going to be some kind of suffering, regardless.

At midlife, our suffering, inside or out, helps us leave “home” — that stationary place where we are most comfortable — and drives us toward the necessary encounter with the self and with God, who loves to walk through our suffering with us. That suffering helps us deconstruct the persona (or the person we wish we were and want others to see), and to acknowledge and welcome our shadow side into the dialogue. As a result, we have the hope of emerging into later adulthood and blossoming into our full, true selves in Christ. In the second half, suffering becomes more of a friend than an enemy, if we are going to plumb the depths of our new capacity. Richard Rohr says, “I have prayed for years for one good humiliation a day.” That kind of prayer is taking the example of Jesus seriously:

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross! – Philippians 2:5-8


There are good examples who show us how to suffer creatively

A great example of moving into the second half, albeit not entirely successfully, is King David. The painting by James Tissot, above, captures the moment of his midlife transition, just before his dissatisfied boredom is distracted by the sight of Bathsheba from his upstairs portico. Tissot, himself, is another interesting example, since, at age 49, he was caught up in the revival of the Catholic church in France, changed the focus of his art, and spent the rest of his life creating the paintings of  Biblical events I love so much.

After David unified the land of Israel under his rule, he grew discontent. He had done most of what he set out to do. He’s king. He’s got power and accomplishment, influence and comfort. He feels sure of his identity as God’s chosen king. He sits back. Is that all there is? Here we go.

In the spring he sends off his army under the command of others to complete military campaigns. This tests his faith, since in the past he had lived on the edge as a general and learned to trust God for every breath. He came far trusting God. Now how does he trust God? His “shadow” is lurking in the recesses of his success.

Usually in our forties, we are ready to face a similar struggle, but we may not get to it until we are older (or the children we bore in our late thirties are older), or we have retired, or we get divorced, or we lose our job. Laura Ingalls Wilder quit teaching when she got married and helped her husband on the farm. Their first half was very difficult, including the death of a son, the partial paralysis of her husband, loss of the farm buildings through fire and the great depression. She was well into her second half when her daughter, Rose, encouraged her to write a memoir about her childhood. She spent many years improving it. It wasn’t until she was 65 years old that “Little House in the Big Woods” was published. She wrote other “Little House” series, including the last one that came out when she was 76.

Often the mid-life struggle percolates up because we are bored or burned out – maybe even too accomplished or too settled. We can, like David, lose touch with the very essence of what made our lives fulfilling. We might still be perfecting the outside, like Dolly Parton, unable to give up the rush and power of performing. We might meet the dark side of what made us a brilliant young person, like Columba. We can drift from a present-tense relationship with God and lose touch with what is sacred in our day-to-day routine. It’s time to move into the second half with some consciousness, or maybe fall upward.

When David comes to the shocking revelation of what his reactions mean, he reconnects with God. He reconnects with holiness in the everyday routine of his world. Psalm 51 reveals the restoration of David’s relationship with God. It shows his tenacious hold on his belief that God is present; God is good; God redeems.

Open my lips, Lord,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart
you, God, will not despise. – Psalm 51:15-17

The psalm shows a crucial acceptance of paradox:  “I am king and I am powerless to save the baby. I have committed an unforgivable sin yet I can be forgiven. My former life-sustaining pursuits and way of faith were a prelude to this deeper, contradictory, way of life.” Mature adulthood includes anxiety, doubt, and paradox. In the face of all this newness, sometimes shocking and often unwelcome, the second half of life is the time when our creative suffering comes up with our deepest contributions to the Lord’s cause.

Image result for king i have a dream

Some of us may be “early bloomers” like Martin Luther King, who summed up the challenge of maturity well in his famous “I have a dream” speech. Right before he gave the ringing conclusion about his dream, he said,

“I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulation…You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive….Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.”

King was only 34 when he wrote that and he only had a few more years to brilliantly live out his creative suffering. But in those years, he showed Jesus-followers, especially, what it means to pay attention to the promises of wholeness in Christ. Our lives are guaranteed to include bumps and surprises – most likely, we will be on an interesting journey during our “mid-life.” It is best to meet this time of life with creative suffering, so when we leave the home we had to build for ourselves in this world, we will be welcomed into the home Jesus has prepared for us in the next. In Christ, suffering is redemptive. As we can see all around us, immaturity is common and cheap. The costly wholeness of life in Christ, becoming our true selves, is a gift worth whatever creative suffering we endure to receive it.