Aging and the Meaning of Spiritual Experience

By Atchley, Robert C. | Aging Today, March/April 2009 | Go to article overview

Aging and the Meaning of Spiritual Experience


Atchley, Robert C., Aging Today


Aging Today is pleased to offer the following essay, which has been adapted from the book, Spirituality and Aging (Baltimore, Md:The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009) by Robert C. Atchley, distinguished professor of gerontology (emeritus) from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and a former ASA board president. We thank Professor Atchley for granting us permission to publish this essay.

Spirituality is a hot topic now. People ages 40 and older are the major con- sumers of books, periodicals, work- shops, retreats and study groups that concern spirituality. "The spiritual life" is a central life organizer, motivator and source of life satisfaction for a majority of older adults. Yet we have precious lit- tle information on what the word spiri- tuality means to the people for whom we gerontologists study and develop programs. To begin to grasp the diversi- ty of experiences that qualify as spiritu- al, I began about 10 years ago to ask people to describe an experience that they would label spiritual. I have asked this question of hundreds of people, mostly middle-aged and older. Here is a small sampling of responses, selected for their diversity.

Some people provided an overview.

As I tried to think about your question, I began to wonder if any experiences are not spiritual. If being spiritual is part of our nature, maybe even the central part, which I believe it is, then as long as we are being, there is a spiritual element. Whether we are aware of it is another thing.

- Man, age 92

I wouldn 't describe any experience as spiritual. That word has never had much personal meaning for me. I have had experiences that were very inspiring, even transcendent, and I don 't know what to call them as a category.

- Man, age 80

Life is more and more spiritual all the time. I have an ongoing experience of being part of a network. It is the backdrop to everything. Sometimes it is very faint, almost not there, when I deal with the logistics of everything that I am part of and that is part of me. This "tuning in" has become easier since I moved out of the city.

- Woman, age 52

Some found spiritual experiences in religious contexts.

I went with some friends to a revival meeting to hear a well-known preacher. He was a plain little man who didn't look well. After a few minutes he stepped up onto a small stage and began to speak about the Holy Spirit. His air of frailty was gone and he seemed strong and energetic. The cadence of his gravelly voice was hypnotic, like he was inviting the Holy Spirit. Suddenly, I felt myself expand inside and that expanse was filled with the warmth and love of the Holy Spirit.

- Woman, age 46

Others found spiritual experience in nature.

Last year my husband and I traveled to the Grand Canyon for the first time. As I stood on the South Rim and looked into the great expanse of the Canyon, I was overcome by the massive stillness of the giant rock formations bearing scars from thousands of years of wind and water. Just resting with the Canyon for a few minutes evoked that stillness in me. It was a tremendous sense of peace and release. Just thinking about it now brings back that feeling of stillness.

- Woman, age 67

Some found spiritual experience in relating with others.

When I'm with a group of friends, catching up on each other's lives, I often am aware that we are connected by something holy and that holy connection is what we are really celebrating through all our energetic talking.

- Woman, age 49

Still others found spiritual experience in doing service. …

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