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Midlife spirituality

How middle age invites women into the life of the spirit.
By Marilyn Sewell
March/April 2005 3.1.05

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Around the age of fifty, many women begin to loosen from cultural constraints, to become their own persons in ways they perhaps have not dared to do previously. They begin to become less defined by others and more by their own choices. Midlife is a time rich with possibility for personal and spiritual growth.

When children leave home, women often ask themselves, “What now?” Whether or not we have raised children, we begin to count the years and ask, “How much time is left? What is pulling at me? What can I yet become?” Those of us who are at all reflective begin to wonder what we have learned in the first half of life that will sustain and direct us in the second half. In the process, women often come to a deeper sense of self.

In this youth-oriented society, no one likes to think of themselves as “aging.” Growing older is particularly problematic for women: We begin to experience how difficult it is to maintain our equilibrium in a culture that idolizes youth and beauty, and in fact seems unable to conceptualize beauty without youth. But at midlife, inevitably, our bodies will begin to slow and then all too soon to creak and groan like the rigging of a ship that has seen better days. Our intellect loses its keen edge. We are forced into an encounter with the hardest of human realities: We come to understand, not just intellectually but existentially, that we are going to die.

It is this acknowledgment of our absolute lack of power over existence that invites us into the life of the spirit. It is a necessary and exacting gift. It offers the opportunity to ground ourselves in meaning that goes deeper than the skin. It awakens us and allows us to give deference to the Mystery, to that which we can never grasp and yet which ultimately defines us.

As I collected readings for my new anthology, Breaking Free: Women of Spirit at Midlife and Beyond (Beacon Press, 2004), I discovered that finding pieces of writing that deal with spirituality in the mature woman was difficult. I suspect that writing about one’s spiritual life at any age is difficult—but at least in my own experience, the older I get, the less I know and the more I have to rest in faith. Mystery is elusive, to say the least, and as I am continually humbled in the face of it, it seems almost arrogant to try to put into words the vastness of which I am beginning to feel a part. To speak, to write, to use words at all is always to narrow and define something as this and not that, at least in our dualistic culture. To tie words to Spirit is to diminish its power, to deny its Oneness. We search for metaphor or, more often, we simply fall into silence.

Then there is the question of intimacy and revelation. What could be more intimate than one’s relationship to the Sacred? It may be too close, too unique to reveal to others. We instinctively pull back from such expression, as if to touch it would make it disappear. It’s the same reason that writers do not like to speak of their work in progress. As something works its way into our consciousness, it needs space, not definition.

So women writers at midlife often do not hit the subject straight on. But they have arrived at a place of accepting more deeply who they are, and they are living out of a kind of radical authenticity. That is how I define the often used and misused word spirituality—a flowering into the person you were meant to be, as you move closer to the Source of Life.

Women can be beautiful at any stage of life. As we age, our aliveness shines forth from the depths of spirit, if we dare to go there. Maturity can bring a sweet kind of joy, as we come to know how deeply connected we are with all that is, as we understand and accept how much we have to give.

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