Directing an ecumenical centre for spirituality in Montreal at the time, Ryan wanted something more. He wanted to look seriously at the second half of his life and its potential.
So instead of a birthday party he called for a birthday retreat, inviting family and friends, and named it something like “Savouring life, by facing our mortality,” he recalls.
In this age of obsession with youth, his birthday retreat was refreshingly countercultural, covering topics such as retirement, health limitations and even some “wonderful sharings” about the kind of funeral you would like.
It was a hit. Nearly 20 years later, Ryan continues to lead retreats across North America. At a recent retreat at Providence Renewal Centre in Edmonton, 33 lay and religious participants took part in a week of presentations, reflection, discussion, journaling and guided meditations.
Ryan, the Washington-based director of the Paulist Centre for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations, said never before have so many North Americans reached retirement age with such advanced education, social consciousness and good health.
“So what will we do with it?” he asks. “We have an unprecedented opportunity to keep growing, to learn and to offer our many gifts to our neighbourhood, our city or school.”
Passive aging sees the last season of life as “a slow slide toward death and the natural changes of the body are accompanied by a creeping paralysis of the soul,” said Ryan.
“But I’m talking about active aging, and active aging works with the effects of aging by adjusting the rhythm and the pace.”
For Ryan, healthy aging means living life as a celebration. The person who ages actively “moves to simply a gentler form of exercise but stays active.” Aging is not a burden or problem to be solved, he said.
Today, aging can extend for 30 or more years and several delicate passages need to be negotiated. For example, there may be loss of professional identity. Or there might be the departure of your children; the new rhythm of life when all of a sudden your spouse is with you at home, or the confrontation of solitude for those who have already lost a spouse; the arrival of grandchildren; or the decline of strength and energy.
“Those are difficult issues for us to face squarely,” said Ryan.
He pointed to a study which found that nearly 70 per cent of adult children haven’t even talked to their parents about issues related to aging.
Attending a retreat that shows how to face these realities squarely and accept their inevitability has a big reward, he said.
“When we truly accept that life as we know it on this lovely blue and green planet is not given in limitless supply, we begin to think more clearly about what is important to us.”
When you open your eyes to life and to its richness in each day’s living, you realize that every day, every minute, every breath truly is a gift from God, Ryan said.
“In short, you remember to live. Each day’s living just becomes so much richer — cultivating gratitude in your heart for the sweetness of life, for the glories of creation, for the gift of the love received from family and friends,” he said.
“And when we live out of that gratitude, life becomes very sweet.”
(Western Catholic Reporter)