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Lessons in aging from convent life

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"Embracing Age: How Catholic Nuns Became Models of Aging Well" by Anna I. Corwin. Rutgers University Press (New Brunswick, N.J., 2021). 202 pp.

If your intuition suggests that nuns tend to live to a ripe old age, you are not mistaken. There is something about religious commitment that fosters physical, mental and spiritual well-being.

In this fascinating, beautifully written book, Anna I. Corwin illuminates the linguistic, cultural and religious practices that help a Midwestern convent of the Franciscan Sisters of the Sacred Heart age gracefully.

One key is that the nuns don't think of aging as a problem. Not for them euphemisms such as "senior citizen" or "older adult"; they are happy to be called "elderly" and "old." It would never occur to the sisters to praise someone for looking young "despite their age."

Rather than follow society's prescription of "successful aging" (i.e., independence and "active" living), they embrace aging as a normal part of life. As Corwin, an anthropologist, explains, the nuns create a community in which "they learn to support each other as they age and as they teach each other how to age well."

This social support takes place in myriad ways — during Mass, prayer, shared meals and hallway chats, and even informal card games. The nuns are also enriched by their frequent pastoral visits to their elderly, infirm sisters. This loving connection goes both ways.

Early in her research, Corwin observed that "Catholic sisters seem to experience fewer chronic conditions as they age." And those "who live in constant chronic pain and can no longer walk, work or even leave their room in the infirmary, seem to experience each day with remarkable peace and joy."

Another key to the sisters' ability to age with grace comes from their view of what well-being is. The modern world teaches us to fight aging, pain and death at all costs.

But to the sisters, well-being means "not only physical and mental health but — most important to them — a deep and enduring connection with the divine."

In her many interviews, Corwin learned that the nuns prioritized "time and space to pray, the ability to serve those in need and a deep connection to God."

Perhaps not surprisingly, Corwin found that the older sisters in poor physical health prayed not for recovery but instead for "endurance and spiritual comfort." They also prayed for others, an activity which helped them remain connected to their community.

And the infirm nuns often visited those who were even more infirm than themselves, providing social and spiritual support. This grew directly from the value the sisters placed on human beings in every stage of life, not just the phase when they were active and productive.

This meant that older, physically declining nuns were embraced with love by the other sisters and kept engaged with community life. And this also showed younger nuns that they would be respected and valued even in their later years when they might develop chronic conditions such as dementia.

Corwin, who earned her doctorate at the University of California, Los Angeles, is an associate professor at St. Mary's College of California. Her deeply researched book is a model of scholarship while also engaging nonacademic readers as well with its insightful and eloquent portrayal of convent life.

Perhaps most intriguing is the revelation in "Embracing Age" that we too could live happier and healthier lives in old age by following some of the sound pathways that these sisters have demonstrated.

In particular, the nuns' lives show that our bodies themselves are social entities. Indeed, Corwin notes "how profoundly the social world shapes the body. ... How we age is connected to how we interact in the world. The social practices in which the nuns engaged shaped their health, their well-being and their understanding of aging."

Roberts is a journalism professor at the State University of New York at Albany and the author/co-editor of two books about Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021