Pilgrim, Ora et Labora; the Fountain of Youth?

Look at this 103 year-old Catholic Sister, Sr. Cecilia Adorni, as she dances a remarkably spry polka amid the senior citizens whom she still serves. Watch her dance — I know 60 year-olds who can’t move like that — and notice her skin, which is gorgeous and youthful!

We concern ourselves with holding on to our youthfulness and “defying age” with all sorts of medicines and foods and goops and ointments, while this sister appears to have found a “fountain of youth,” and it’s one St. Benedict of Norcia would have endorsed, Ora et labora; “pray and work.”

Prayer gives the downtime, the meditative time; it brings a stillpoint to the soul – and to the body, with the slowing of the breath and the heartbeat. Balance that with work and activity, to keep the mind oiled, the wits sharp, the body in motion — and you may well have tapped into “the secret” to youthfulness.

I knew a German couple who lived to be 99 and 100; they worked their garden and made their own food from scratch and prayed their rosaries every day, and when they died you would not have thought either of them were so old. Their faces were unlined, their postures still ramrod straight.

I don’t doubt that their garden, and their minimal acquaintance with processed food, helped play a part in their overall youthfulness, but I don’t believe it was all about diet. In defiance of everything we “know” about fat and cholesterol, this couple ate eggs and bacon and toast, every day; they snacked on deviled eggs. A ham sandwich wasn’t complete until it had some butter on it. And every night, for dessert, a cake, or a pudding. But always made from scratch.

You know who else looks really great for their ages? 83 year old Pope Benedict, and And the 76 year-old Dalai Lama, both of whom manage to move with vigor and have that ageless skin. And they both divide their day between prayer and work.

Like Sr. Cecilia, they also seem to have a quiet capacity for joy, and that matters, too. The attitude one brings to everything one does, that has to play a part in all of this. A lousy attitude sinks everything, so it can probably sink one’s health, too. The mind has a wondrous affect on the body.

Ora et labora; it sounds simple, but it’s not. A nun friend recently sent me a picture of herself, from perhaps 15 years ago; she looked almost exactly as she does now – a little heavier, but her face completely unlined, as though the years have left no imprint. Her whole day is prayer and work; she uses “every spare ten minutes,” and has no time for “vegging out” on a couch, before the television. That’s almost unthinkable to us, anymore. We almost feel entitled to take daily leisure to the extreme.

Our nun-friends at Moniales share a picture of a nun-run visit made by college-age women who are curious about the religious life in contemplation. They may unknowingly have dipped a toe into that fountain that so many of us seek, and then dismiss, believing that the secret to maintaining our youthfulness couldn’t possibly be as obvious as prayer and work.

Ora et labora is a big part of the culture of life. It keeps going; it doesn’t lie about or court inertia. It embraces what is before it, and takes it on, even when there are some challenges before it, as Pat Gohn’s column on her recent pilgrimage depicts:

I am three months into a physical sojourn from surgery repairing a tendon in my ankle, from which my surgeon announced: “It will be six months until you feel better.”

Still, last week, armed with my trusty cane, and the encouragement of my 21-year-old daughter, I flew to Paris for a reunion with her and a pilgrimage to a few sacred places I have loved. One of those places was Sacré-Coeur, the basilica dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, where continuous adoration of the Blessed Sacrament has taken place for 125 years.

Set on the region’s highest hill, Montmartre, where tradition holds that St. Denis (the first Bishop of Paris) and his 3rd-century companions were martyred, Sacré-Coeur commands sweeping views of Paris and its environs. And to reach it, it’s all up hill.

Read it all; a pilgrimage can sometimes be a great combination of ora et labora, the prayer feeding the labor, the labor feeding the prayer. It could be a way to get restarted, to renew and reinvigorate.

I think for Lent, I will look into ways people can make small, local pilgrimages, and write about that, further on.

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • dry valleys

    Doubtless, eating a cooked breakfast is healthier than eating breakfast serials whose health claims were largely concocted by the “food” industry, which at one stage convinced a lot of people that their products (margarine for example) were healthier if heavily provfessed.

    Yet the meat and milk that people in some Alpine village ate would differ greatly from what you’re likely to pick up at Wal-Mart. Animals which have “fed” on grain, had inadequate exercise, and what have you will not have anything like the health qualities of real pasture-fed animals that have had a rich diet. They can barely be considered the same kind of food at all in nutritional terms.

    A lot of my environmental friends eat foods that the “food” industry think are unhealthy, but they always take a lot of care over sourcing. You can doubtless find your own local producers. I am fortunate to have a lot of fine producers within 40 miles. Some even grow their own or hunt wild animals.

    Talking of work. You’ve got exercise (more cycling and walking than the gyms which, again, are more money spinners than anything else) which is really a form of both recreation and work, like a lot of things. Blogging, then, is an improvement on the passivity of TV.

    Accept that you can’t read every book published and re-read a few that can become a specialist subject, which I think is better than gadding around having a broad but shallow awareness of a lot of things.

    My granddad is 81 and fairly healthy but he doesn’t really have many interests and never has. Now that he isn’t physically strong he just sits around watching westerns, which are the only thing that inspires anything close to enthusiasm in him. I certainly think it’s best to develop some strong interests and give a lot of time to them when fairly young. Not only young people’s pursuits but things you can do when your body gives way :)

  • VoltoSantoPilgrim

    Wow, that sister is remarkable! That must be my mom’s secret. A newly minted 78, she looks more like 50. And can out run and out last me. Pat Gohn inspires me. I will keep her in mind as I do a self-directed pilgrimage to Rome, and to Manoppello, Italy to see the mysterious Volto Santo (face of God). I’ll be there Holy Week and Easter and will pray for you, Anchoress. You do so much good.

  • VoltoSantoPilgrim

    Sorry, should have shared this for the curious:

    I think its the only blog dedicated to the Holy Face.

    I read Paul Badde’s book The Face of God (Ignatius Press 2010) in January and was impressed enough to go to Italy to check it out for myself.

  • Anonymous

    I went on a retreat at Saint Meinrad’s Archabbey where Father Theodore Heck had died the year before. Father was 108 and the oldest Benedictine monk. The brother who gave the retreat said that up until a year before he died, Father had been active and learning. Learning was the key. Every year he set himself a goal: “this year, I want to learn Spanish” or, “this year I want to learn how to use the computer”. My long lived relatives have all been interested and engaged. Even today, my 89 year old father works 20 hours a week at a museum.

  • Michael McMonagle

    Its not ora et labora….its olive oil and laughter!
    MMcM, Florida.