2017 February Issue
Simeon And A Way Of Getting Old
A young man was describing his ninety-one year old grandfather who lived in a nursing home. Christmas day the grandfather had a stroke and lost most of his right side. He also has cancer of the bladder. When the young man and his mother visited the old man, they were astonished. "When I first heard about the stroke, I was stunned and sad because I figured it meant the end of my grandfather. I mean, how can you flirt with only half your body? Then when I got there and saw him winking with one eye, and giving me the same big hello he always gives me, I—well—I was just astonished. I couldn't find any place to be sad."
There is nothing sadder than a sad old man and nothing happier than a happy old man. Compare King Lear to Tevye if you don't believe me. Or listen to people's stories about their own past. If there is a happy old man or woman in a person's past, they speak about that person so often that it will make you dizzy. When happiness has blessed a generation, there is frequently the fear that people aren't really telling the truth, that they are romanticizing their past, so often do they stop you in your tracks with a story from long ago. The reverse is also true: when people are not blessed with happy grandparents, they sound like they are making up stories also with the size of their despair. College admissions people look frequently at this matter and unfortunately try to measure it. Many say they can predict happiness and productivity in a student if that student has positive stories about their grandparents. Interestingly they don't care too much about the students' parents and whether or not they have a good relationship with them. People aren't expected to do that!
Simeon was already a happy old man when he met Jesus. He was just and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Jerusalem and the Holy Ghost was upon him. Quite a biography if you ask me in four short lines.
Just and devout means that he went to synagogue every day. Jewish men didn't have to go every single day but the most devout did. The figure reminds me of the way many Catholic people talk about their grandparents. I, of course, only hear them when they come here to be married, having been rejected by the Catholic Church because of divorce or some other similar thing. Like college admissions people, I am likely to ask questions about grandparents as a way of finding out capacity for happiness in marriage. Frequently this line of questioning results in some embarrassment. People will say, "my grandmother made mass every day, now look at me." Without getting in to all the issues involved with latter day Catholics, at least see this one through their eyes. Their grandparents frequently had a way of being devout. They no longer do. The absence of a way of being devout is a serious problem for them. Simeon did not have that problem. He had a way of being devout, and he used it.
The second thing we know about Simeon is that he was waiting for the consolation of Jerusalem—another great line. Scratch a happy old man, and you'll find hope. Scratch a sad one, and you'll find despair. Despair is expressed most often like this, "Things aren't as good as they used to be." The bread is bad. The coffee is bad. The cars are bad, etc. Simeon may have agreed with this general line of reasoning. When we are told that he was waiting for the consolation of his hometown, we are given another angle on the general problem of things worsening. Simeon knows things are worsening but instead of despairing he is waiting for their improvement. He is waiting for the consolation that he really believes is coming: his stake is in the future not in the past.
The third thing we find out about Simeon is that the holy ghost is upon him. It's really the same thing my friend was trying to tell me about his grandfather. He still had some spirit left. He could flirt with one eye. The fact that Simeon had some Holy Spirit meant that when Mary and Joseph entered with the baby Jesus, he could see it. It too is a wonderful image. Every thing we know about Simeon is that he was ready to see this baby. Ready. First of all he was there, in the right place at the right time. Woody Allen says that 95% of the secret to life is showing up. For Simeon that was true. Had he not have been devout, he would not have been there for Jesus. Had he not been waiting for the consolation of Jerusalem, he would not have seen it when it arrived.
People always concentrate on what this whole situation must have meant for Simeon, how deeply satisfied he must have been to have been visited by God, so satisfied that he tells God he is now ready to die. There is not doubt about the satisfaction being complete for this one old man. But I am more touched by what Simeon gave to others as he gave himself the Nunc Dimittis. Nunc dimittis means now depart. "Now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word. For mine eyes have seen thy salvation which thou hast prepared before all people, a light to lighten the gentiles and the glory of thy people Israel."
Imagine the size of the gift this man gave to the rest of the people there, even to Mary and Joseph. He recognized in the baby Jesus the Messiah. They were only just beginning to see the signs as they gathered. But the old man took his job seriously of being an old man, a wise one, one who saw more deeply than the others could yet. He confirmed that this was the Messiah!
The job of old people is to show us what is true. Not to go live in their own past and to put down the present. But rather to keep their fingers constantly poised so as to tap the glass and see if it is crystal or not. To tell us what is true and what is not true. The only way younger people will listen to older people is if the older people are happy. Not giggly or even buoyant but still happy enough to be hopeful, to be waiting, not to be always looking back.
One of the central problems for the United States of America is this absence of a wisdom bearing generation. Read our literature and see that our heroes all die young. Very few are allowed to grow old enough to struggle long enough with the demons to come out on the side of consolation. Huck Finn, Johnny Appleseed, the Davey Crocketts dominate. Look at our history, Abraham Lincoln or John Kennedy or Martin Luther King. Again our heroes die too young to have to deal with stroke or heart disease or boredom.
Simeon bore wisdom for his generation. He pointed them to the light, to the important thing, his waiting paid off in wisdom. When the baby Jesus entered the temple, his fingers were already poised, ready to tap. He had kept himself ready to shout the words: It is crystal, this is the real thing. A better model for aging, I cannot imagine.