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The Gift of Years, by Joan Chittister.

April 23, 2020

The Gift of Years
The Gift of Years, by Joan Chittister.  Blue Bridge, 2006.

5 stars


A valuable and moving book of guidance about recognizing the burdens and gifts of aging written by a much revered spiritual leader who reaches beyond denominational boundaries.

Joan Chittister ( 1936-  ) is a Benedictine nun who is widely known for her books and activism about spirituality, peace, and women’s issues.  She is among the Roman Catholic nuns who have challenged the basic actions and positions of her Church, especially around gender and abortion.  Her writing and thinking transcends usual denominational boundaries.  She has written over fifty books and numerous articles and appeared in the media on programs ranging from those of Oprah Winfrey, Kristen Tippet, and Bill Moyers.  She was born in Ireland now lives in Erie, Pennsylvania.  Her M.A. is from the University of Notre Dame and her Ph.D. in speech communication theory from Penn State University.

The Gift of Years was written when Chittister was approaching 80.  In it she explores the ways in which aging is another stage of life, like adolescence or middle age.  We must learn new skills if we are to live it wisely.  Critically we need to put down the “doing” that has dominated most of our busy lives and move instead into “being”.  In the process we must learn how being an elder brings both burdens and gifts. She views these qualities as intertwined or reverse images; both/and rather than either/or.

Today many books on aging are being published.  They are as varied as the ways in which we deal with this stage of life.  For me, it is Chittister who speaks to my needs.  She asks the questions that bedevil me. Why should I get out of bed this morning?  Who am I now that I have given up the profession I worked to so hard to achieve?  What meaning is left for my life?   Chittister gives no easy answers, but she does nudge us toward finding our own.  She urges us to put down anger at ourselves and others which we believe have indelibly shaped us, and to look instead with gratitude at what we have achieved.  She tells us to honor the hard-won wisdom we have discovered and to share it.  And she suggests that we direct our attention to the needs of others rather than focusing exclusively on our own.  I found help in her insistence that burdens of aging are often the other side of blessings that we can honor and cherish as we age.

Chittisher is a fine writer, able to help us sort through the contradictions and confusion that trouble us as we age.  She frames her thoughts in language that transcends religious affiliations, at least for those of us rooted in the theism and individualism of western civilization.  She structures her thoughts in brief chapters, each of which focuses on a particular concern.  Her book could be used as daily devotionals, or read randomly as different subjects attract us.

All in all, I am grateful that a friend recognized I needed to read this book and loaned it to me. I want to share it with all those I love and more.  I recommend it wholeheartedly, especially to others who are struggling to age well.

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